In 2012, a skeleton was excavated by archaeologists from the University of Leicester at the presumed site of the Greyfriars friary in Leicester, the last-known resting place of King Richard III. Now, an international research team has completed a genetic, genealogical and statistical analysis, revealing truths about the skeleton, its appearance and lineage.
Led by Dr Turi King from the University of Leicester Department of Genetics, and supported by a Research Resources grant from the Wellcome Trust, the research, published in Nature Communications, provides overwhelming evidence that the skeleton discovered under a car park in Leicester is that of King Richard III. This work, conducted 529 years after his death, concludes what is the oldest ever DNA identification case of a known individual.
To confirm that this skeleton, called Skeleton 1, was that of Richard III, the researchers collected DNA from his living descendants and analysed several genetic markers. This includes the complete mitochondrial genomes, inherited through the maternal line, and Y-chromosomal markers, inherited through the paternal line from King Edward III (1312–1377) down to Henry Somerset, 5th Duke of Beaufort, from both the skeletal remains and the living relatives.
While the Y-chromosomal markers differ, the mitochondrial genome shows a genetic match between the skeleton and two modern female-line relatives. The former result is not unsurprising as the chances for a false-paternity event is fairly high after so many generations. This paper is also the first to carry out a statistical analysis of all the evidence together, taking into account the age of the skeleton, its scoliosis and battle injuries, for example, to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Skeleton 1 from the Greyfriars site in Leicester is the remains of King Richard III.
The researchers also used genetic markers to determine the hair and eye colour of Richard III, and found that he almost certainly had blue eyes, and fair hair during his childhood. Although there are no portraits of him from his lifetime, the research concludes that he looked most similar to his depiction in one of the earliest portraits of him that survived, the ‘arched-topped portrait’ held in the Society of Antiquaries in London.
The research team now plans to sequence the complete genome of Richard III to learn more about the last English king to die in battle.
The University of Leicester was the principal funder of the research. Dr King’s post is part-funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Leverhulme Trust.
Dr King said: “Our paper covers all the genetic and genealogical analysis involved in the identification of the remains of Skeleton 1 from the Greyfriars site in Leicester and is the first to draw together all the strands of evidence to come to a conclusion about the identity of those remains. Even with our highly conservative analysis, the evidence is overwhelming that these are indeed the remains of King Richard III, thereby closing an over 500-year-old missing person’s case.”
Professor Kevin Schürer, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at the University of Leicester, who led the genealogical research for the project, added: “The combination of evidence confirms the remains as those of Richard III. Especially important is the triangulation of the maternal line descendants. The break in the Y-chromosome line is not overly surprising given the incidence of non-paternity, but does pose interesting speculative questions over succession as a result.”
Simon Chaplin, Director of Culture & Society at the Wellcome Trust, added: “It is exciting to have access to genetic data from any known historical individual, let alone a king of England lost for more than 500 years, so we are thrilled to be able to support this fascinating project through our Research Resources grant scheme. Adding this information to a wealth of existing material about Richard III further highlights the ways in which studying human remains can inform our understanding of the past, and we look forward to learning more about Richard for many years to come.”
The Dig for Richard III was led by the University of Leicester, working with Leicester City Council and in association with the Richard III Society. The originator of the Search project was Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society.