Britain’s most celebrated forensic case has been closed. A thorough scientific and historical investigation has concluded that a skeleton excavated from a car park in Leicester is “more than 99.999 per cent certain” to be King Richard III, who died at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.
Since the discovery of the skeleton two years ago on the site of what used to be Grey Friars church, an international team led by Leicester university has analysed genetic, genealogical and medical evidence to confirm the initial presumption that the bones are those of Richard. His death without children at the age of 32 ended the Plantagenet dynasty and inaugurated the Tudor monarchy under Henry VII.
“Even with our highly conservative analysis, the evidence is overwhelming that these are indeed the remains of Richard III, thereby closing an over 500-year-old missing person’s case,” said Dr Turi King, the project leader.
Analysis of DNA from the skeleton, published in the journal Nature Communications, shows that its mitochondrial genes – inherited only by maternal descent – are also present in two of Richard’s relatives living today, Wendy Duldig and Michael Ibsen.
A similar analysis of Y chromosomes – inherited only by paternal descent – failed to show a match with living relatives but the Leicester researchers said this did not invalidate their conclusion, because a chain of male succession with 19 links was quite likely to be broken as a result of unsuspected adultery.
Because Richard was childless, the genealogical research had to work backwards in time – in the male case going back four generations to Edward III (1312-77) – before moving forward to living descendants.
“The break in the Y chromosome line is not overly surprising given the [general] incidence of non-paternity but does pose interesting speculative questions over succession,” said Professor Kevin Schürer of Leicester university.
There is no way of knowing where the break is in the 19 links of the chain but the link between Edward III and his son John of Gaunt, the father of Henry IV, would be most significant. “If John of Gaunt was not actually the child of Edward III, arguably Henry IV had no legitimate right to the throne and therefore neither did Henry V, Henry VI and indirectly the Tudors,” Professor Schürer said.
“So if that one critical link is broken, the consequences of that for legitimate inheritance could be called into question. But . . . statistically speaking it is actually likely to be far lower down in the chain than there,” he added.
The other evidence used in the analysis includes the skeleton’s estimated age at death (early 30s), its battle injuries and scoliosis of the spine; contemporary accounts say Richard had one shoulder higher than the other.
The Leicester researchers have not yet completed a full investigation of Richard’s DNA but preliminary analysis shows that he had genetic markers for blue eyes and fair hair.
“There are no contemporary portraits of Richard,” said Dr King. “We suggest the portrait it most closely matches is the one in the Society of Antiquaries in London.” This so-called Arched frame portrait, pictured, was painted 20 to 30 years after his death, probably based on a lost portrait completed during his lifetime.
Richard’s bones will be reinterred at Leicester Cathedral in March.
Get alerts on Richard III when a new story is published