Genetic analysis has confirmed that remains found in Leicester, England belong to King Richard III, the last monarch from the House of York. Additionally, the analysis revealed information about his appearance and possible breaks in his paternal line. The analysis was led by Turi King of the University of Leicester, and the results have been published in Nature Communications.
“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,” King said in a press release. “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.”
After only two years on the throne, England’s King Richard III was killed in 1485 at the age of 32 during the Battle of Bosworth Field, beginning the reign of the Tudors. The location of his remains was unknown for hundreds of years until a concerted effort by experts found a skeleton under a parking lot in 2012. Up until 1538, the site was the Grey Friars monastery. King Richard’s remains had been buried there, but were forgotten after the friary was torn down by command of Henry VIII. Physical analysis of the skeleton that was released in September revealed that his majesty went down swinging; sustaining nine traumatic blows to the head during the battle.
The latest announcement confirming the king’s identity comes after comparing the remains to the mitochondrial DNA samples from living descendants of Richard III’s older sister, Anne of York. The researchers conservatively state that they are 99.999% sure they found the lost monarch’s remains, and the odds of them being wrong are roughly 6.7 million to one.
Comparing DNA on the Y chromosome didn’t have such clear results. While this could mean that there was one or more breaks in the royal bloodline throughout the years, this doesn’t necessarily have to be true. The Y chromosome has a relatively high mutation rate, so it’s not surprising that there wouldn’t be a clear match 20+ generations on. Even without the direct link to male descendants, everything else appears to be in order to verify the king’s identity.
“The combination of evidence confirms the remains as those of Richard III,” added senior author Kevin Schürer. “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.”
The researchers also looked at genes responsible for determining hair and eye color. There is a 96% chance that the king had blue eyes, and a 77% chance that he had blonde hair, at least during childhood. It is possible for hair to darken over time, and the earliest known portrait of the king (pictured at top) shows him with darker locks, though it was made over 20 years after his death.
The team plans to analyze the genome further in hopes of learning more about the king’s appearance and health. His genome could also be used to solve a 531 year old murder mystery: Did King Richard III really kill his two young nephews in the Tower of London, or did they just disappear from the public? Two small skeletons were discovered on the grounds in 1674, fueling the murderous controversy. The bones were buried at Westminster Abbey, so they are fairly easily accessible. As the nephews belonged to Richard’s brother Edward, information on the Y chromosome should be able to either support the claim or exonerate the king from that longstanding rumor.