Richard III's skeleton throws up DNA surprise
The bones found under a Leicester car park two years ago are definitely those of the last Plantagenet king, Richard III. But his DNA has cast doubt over the royal bloodline. Does that matter?
When a team of archaeologists discovered old bones in a car park in Leicester in 2012, they had good reason to be excited. They believed the ancient skeleton, with its distinctive crooked spine, was that of the medieval king, Richard III, long believed to be buried at the site of the vanished Greyfriars Abbey. Cynics doubted that it could really be the much maligned king, but this week, the archaeologists are triumphant.
In order to prove that the skeleton was Richard III’s, scientists had to take a DNA sample from his remains and match it with his descendants. The results came back with a 99.99% probability that the body belonged to the Plantagenet king, marking the first genetic identification of an individual so long after death — 527 years.
The scientists first examined DNA inherited along maternal lines, known as mitochondrial DNA, from two modern-day descendants of Richard III’s sister. That DNA is a near perfect match with Richard III’s skeleton.
They then examined DNA on his paternal side. Because Richard III died without any male heirs, scientists looked at the descendants of Edward III, Richard III’s great great grandfather. Genetically, fathers pass on a copy of their Y chromosome to their sons, so Richard and Edward should carry the same DNA, as should any other descendants of Edward.
However, the DNA did not match. Scientists found five men living today who are paternally descended from Richard III's great uncle, John of Gaunt, Edward III's son. All five of those men should have the same Y chromosome as Richard III, but they didn’t. Scientists think that this was caused by a break in the royal bloodline, caused by an extramarital affair.
This DNA surprise still means that the skeleton is Richard’s, but the find could be of wider historical significance. Depending on where in the family tree the affair occurred, it could cast doubt on Richard III’s claim, as well as the Tudor claim, to the English throne.
Bones of contention
Some say this DNA discovery could one day show that many kings and queens did not have the royal descent they claimed. If this is proved — and had it been known at the time — the entire course of British history could have been different! The findings could even affect the claim to the throne of the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.
But others argue that royalty is forged by power and military might, not genetics. There have been plenty of breaks in the royal succession, particularly when monarchs didn’t produce heirs. We should be more focused on the incredible science that enabled this discovery, rather than worrying over the DNA of ancient kings.
- What do you think makes a king or queen?
- Is it time to get rid of the royal family?
- Do some research and create your own family tree.
- Make a family tree showing the monarchs of the House of Plantagenet and House of Tudor. Can you complete it all the way through to the present monarch?
Some People Say...
“In the past, people were born royal. Nowadays, royalty comes from what you do.’Gianni Versace”
What do you think?
Q & A
- This all happened a long time ago.
- But it is thanks to modern science that we can confirm with almost pinpoint accuracy that a skeleton found in a car park was once an important king. We can even tell what colour eyes and hair he had. That’s impressive. Secondly, whether you love, loathe or are ambivalent towards the present British royal family, people remain fascinated by the monarchy and those kings and queens who make up much of our history.
- Why is Richard III important?
- His death brought an end to both the Wars of the Roses and the Plantagenet dynasty. It was a turning point in English history, making way for the Tudor monarchs. Richard III is also one of the most reviled kings in British history, although Shakespeare’s portrayal of him as a ‘poisonous hunchbacked toad’ has a lot to answer for.
- The skeleton’s spine matches contemporary accounts of the king as ‘hunchback’.
- Richard III
- Richard III (1452 – 1485) became King of England in 1483. He was defeated by Henry Tudor in the Battle of Bosworth Field and was the last English monarch to die in combat.
- Shakespeare depicts the king in his play ‘Richard III’ as a murderous villain. The legend of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ — the disappearance of his young nephews and rivals to his throne — has long stained his reputation.
- Richard III’s death marked the end of the Plantagenet dynasty and the beginning of Tudor rule, which lasted until Queen Elizabeth I died childless in 1603.
- Family tree
- There are 19 links where the chain could have been broken so it is statistically more probable that it happened at a later point in time which would not have affected these claims to the throne.
- Tudor claim
- The Tudor dynasty also claimed descent from John of Gaunt. Without his claim to royalty, Henry Tudor is unlikely to have been able to raise an army for the Battle of Bosworth Field in which Richard III was killed.