DNA Analysis of Richard III Confirms Identity and Reveals Adultery

A completed DNA analysis of the presumed remains of Richard III confirms the identity of the once-contentious king and reveals adultery by a member of his matrilineage. Despite the question of paternity somewhere along his genetic line, a study published in Nature Communications indicates that DNA confirms the previous conclusions arising from other data sources.

Richard III was a controversial and famous king whose ascension to the throne in 1483 was often questioned. Depending on interpretation, he was either a blood-thirsty tyrant who murdered his nephews to ensure his line to the throne or the last of the brave warrior kings. With only vague historical references regarding the disposal of remains after his death in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, legends regarding his nature, appearance, and fighting prowess held tighter than fact.

Model of Battle of Bosworth in the Bosworth Museum.

All that changed when construction at the alleged site of Grey Friars friary in Leicester revealed a skeleton stricken with scoliosis. Officials at the Leicester University studied the remains thoroughly and using bone studies, historical documents, and radiocarbon dating, concluded that the skeleton likely belonged to Richard III.

However, recently completed DNA analysis confirmed the identity of Richard III at a higher certainty. The results also threw in an expected element: the possibility of adultery by a member of his mother’s line.

Dr. Turi King of Leicester University led the DNA study. By locating Richard III’s descendants on both his father’s and mother’s family trees, researchers compiled a likely genetic profile from their DNA for the deceased king.

This extraordinary undertaking on the 527 year old remains is the oldest attempted DNA identification as of this time but proved successful. Through these comparison studies on current descendants, researchers confirmed that the remains belong to Richard III with a 99.9994 percent probability.

Besides his identity, researchers also confirmed his appearance. Genetic markers show 96 percent likelihood that he had blue eyes and a 77 percent chance that he had blond hair. Since the hair color genome reveals hair color from childhood, it is possible his hair darkened as he aged. This scenario is consistent with all known portraits of the king from his youth to his reign.

However, the existence of the blue eyes-blond hair combination is inconsistent with his paternal profile. Comparing his Y-chromosome components with those of his descendants uncovered a break in paternity that was most likely as the result of a pregnancy conceived in an extra-marital affair. Richard III and his modern relatives do not share the same Y-chromosome elements.

When a presumed royal father is actually not the father, it is known as a false-paternity event. The lack of common Y-chromosome elements divulges the presence of likely non-royal paternal DNA. The instance of infidelity could have occurred anywhere in the generations separating Richard III from his distant relative, the fifth Duke of Beaufort (1744-1803)—the line of his current living paternal relatives.
Dr. King found the break unsurprising as she estimated from previous research that there was a one to two percent rate of false paternity per generation. Both Richard III and his successor, Henry VII, shared a common relative with Edward III, who lived from 1312 to 1377. Edward III’s presumed son, John of Gaunt, was rumored to be the son of a Flemish butcher and not the king—meaning the break in paternity could have happened before Richard III was born.

If those allegations are true, the historical implications could be profound. The legitimacy of all heirs following Edward III could be questionable. As Professor Kevin Schurer, genealogy expert on the project, stated, one puzzle was solved and another opened.

While the adultery was revealed, it is unlikely that it will ever be pinpointed to a specific coupling. The only certainty now is that Richard III was found and his remains will soon enjoy an internment appropriate for a former British monarch. Once it receives the appropriate funds, the diocese of Leicester expects to start the reburial ceremony of Richard III on March 22, 2015.

By Jocelyn Mackie

Nature Communications
BBC (Richard III’s DNA)
National Geographic
BBC (Richard III Reburial)

Featured Photo by Derek Lee – Flickr License

Inside Article Photo by JayT47 – Flickr License

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.