Reconstructing Richard III

 

Testing all the evidence

In August 2012 archaeologists exhumed a five-hundred-year old skeleton at Grey Friars in Leicester UK. It was a very exciting find as the site is believed to be King Richard III’s burial place and the remains featured his curved spine, distinctive battle injuries. A detailed scientific investigation ensued, which included radiocarbon dating, genealogical and forensic pathology studies, bone and DNA analysis. Findings so far all support the conclusion that the skeleton is indeed Richard III.

University of Leicester geneticist, Dr Turi King was part of the team who pieced together all the evidence. Having originally studied archaeology before focusing on genetics, King was able to find a match between the DNA from the skeleton and that of two direct descendents of Richard III on the female line.

Ancient and modern DNA

They were able to trace the female descendants of Richard’s elder sister, Anne of York, to UK resident, Michael Ibsen. King explains that the female line is interesting because a piece of our mitochondrial DNA is in the egg, so that piece can only be passed down the generations by the daughters of her daughters. King says, ‘Richard would have had the same mitochondrial DNA as his sister, as they both would have got it from their mother. So with the female line DNA, I look at Michael’s mitochondrial DNA and see if it matches that from the skeleton and it did!’  

After death, DNA decomposes quickly, but there is so much mitochondrial DNA in our cells, the team were fortunate to recover some of this ancient DNA. The broken strands were sequenced in a dedicated DNA laboratory and then checked with mitochondrial DNA from the two female-line descendents - Ibsen and a second anonymous person. Professor Kevin Schürer led the genealogical study and verified their link with Richard III.

Part of a big picture

King is thrilled to establish the DNA link with Richard III. While many think it must be the final proof, King points out that it’s part of a number of strategies to reconstruct the history and true origin of the skeleton. She is currently working on the trickier challenge of tracing the Y chromosome through the genealogical line of the Dukes of Beaufort. Great caution is needed, as King points out, we could all be related to Richard III.

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