Forensic Case Files: Richard III’s Unexpected Surprise

We’ve been following the fascinating story of Richard III for over two years. From the discovery of remains in a parking lot suspected to be the long lost king, to the confirmation of the identity of the remains, to the legend of the Princes in the Tower, and to how Shakespeare coloured the way society regarded him, Richard has been a regular visitor to this blog. We thought the story was pretty much complete, but last week a new and surprising detail was announced by the scientists studying Richard III’s DNA: somewhere in his lineage there was an unrecognized illegitimate birth of a ‘royal’ son. Although we’ll likely never know where the break in legitimacy occurs, the implications could impact Britain’s history, right up to the present day.

When the remains were first discovered in Leicester, archeologists were cautiously optimistic that they’d discovered Richard III simply from the physical properties of the remains—the spine of the skeleton showed significant scoliosis and curvature. Shakespeare introduced the image of Richard as a hunchback (‘that foule hunch-backt toade’; Richard III, Act 4, scene iv), but back in Richard’s time, contemporary writings only make note that one of the Richard’s shoulders was higher than the other—a clinical symptom of scoliosis.

The group of scientists from the University of Leicester studying the remains wanted to confirm Richard’s identify in several ways:

  • Archeological: Richard’s remains were suggested to have been buried beneath the quire of Greyfriars Abbey. The abbey was destroyed in the 16th century, but its location was loosely known. The remains were found below where the quire would have been in the 15th century.
  • Osteological: The remains belonged to a man in his late 20s to early 30s, who suffered from scoliosis, showed signed of healed battle wounds, and had died from terrible fresh wounds presumably acquired in battle.
  • Radiological: the remains were dated to have come from 1456 – 1530, bracketing Richard’s death date of August 22, 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

The only method left at this point was to identify the remains by DNA, definitively connecting the long-dead monarch to modern living relatives. There were numerous challenges in this process however. First of all, it would be the oldest individual identification ever attempted on remains 527 years old. Also, Richard died with no living offspring, so all connections would have to be made through his sister Anne’s line.

The two types of DNA they wanted to examine were mitochondrial DNA—DNA passed down in near-exact copies through the female line— and the Y chromosome—the male sex chromosome. Two modern relatives, one a 16th cousin twice-removed, and one an 18th cousin twice-removed, were used for comparison. Scientists also analysed the sequences for both hair and eye colour to determine what the individual looked like.

They determined the DNA from the remains would have shown the characteristics of a man with blue eyes and blond hair. Although Richard was always portrayed with blue eyes and brown hair, they proposed that he was blond as a child. As a result of this analysis, they feel the painting that best portrays the monarch is the oldest surviving portrait, displayed at the Society of Antiquaries (see above).

The mitochondrial DNA proved to be an exact match between Richard and the female relative, confirming the same mitochondrial DNA passed to Richard from his mother was also passed to his sister and then down through the intervening generations.

But when they looked at the Y chromosome, an interesting disconnect arose. Due to issues around partial Y chromosome recombination, scientists only considered the retained/non-recombining sections of the chromosome. But even within those segments, a match could not be made between Richard and the male relative. A ‘false paternity’ event had occurred, interrupting the true family line. Three additional modern male relatives were subsequently tested and none of them matched Richard.

Overall, a complete Bayesian analysis of the skeletal DNA sequences report a 99.999% chance that this is indeed Richard III. So scientists are confident without a doubt now that their identification is complete.

But the big question remaining concerns the false paternity event and, more importantly, when it happened. If it happened in the line following Richard III, the royal lines remain unaffected. However, if the line happened before Richard, the royal line as we know it might have been affected. If the illegitimacy goes back to Edward the III and his son John of Gaunt three generations before, then it actually disqualifies Henry IV, V, VI, VII and VIII, and from there the entire Tudor and subsequent lines from the throne. The final supposition of which is that Queen Elizabeth II should not be on the throne and the royal line should instead have gone through Lady Jane Grey.

It is almost a certainty that we’ll never know the truth of where this break in the royal line occurred, and English history will remain as we know it, but it certainly makes for some interesting speculation when you wonder what England would have been like without the powerhouse of the Tudor dynasty. The Tudors were responsible for dynamic changes in world exploration and colonization, they brought about cultural change during the Renaissance, and had a huge impact on world religion when Henry VIII separated the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church. It makes one wonder how world history might have changed if they had never come to power.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons 

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