Identification of the remains of King Richard III

7143_1In 2012, a skeleton was excavated at the presumed site of the Grey Friars friary in Leicester, the last-known resting place of King Richard III. Archaeological, osteological and radiocarbon dating data were consistent with these being his remains. Here we report DNA analyses of both the skeletal remains and living relatives of Richard III. We find a perfect mitochondrial DNA match between the sequence obtained from the remains and one living relative, and a single-base substitution when compared with a second relative. Y-chromosome haplotypes from male-line relatives and the remains do not match, which could be attributed to a false-paternity event occurring in any of the intervening generations. DNA-predicted hair and eye colour are consistent with Richard’s appearance in an early portrait. We calculate likelihood ratios for the non-genetic and genetic data separately, and combined, and conclude that the evidence for the remains being those of Richard III is overwhelming.

Richard III is one of the most famous and controversial English kings. His ascension to the throne in 1483, following the death of his brother, Edward IV, has been seen as contentious, involving, as it did, discrediting the legitimacy of Edward’s marriage and therefore the claim of both of Edward’s sons to the throne. Later, as yet unproven accusations arose that Richard had his two nephews murdered to solidify his own claim. Richard’s death two years later on August 22nd 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth marked the end of the Plantagenet dynasty, which had ruled for over 300 years, and the beginning of the Tudor period. Richard III was the last English king to be killed in battle, he became one of Shakespeare’s most notorious villains, and is one of the few English monarchs whose precise resting place was lost: the mystery surrounding the fate of his remains persisting to the present day.

Historical records report that after Richard III was killed on the battlefield, age 32, his remains were brought back to Leicester and buried in the medieval church of the Grey Friars1. The friary was dissolved in 1538 under the orders of King Henry VIII, with most of the buildings being torn down in the following years. Approximately 125 years later, a rumour arose that Richard III’s remains had been disinterred during the dissolution of the monasteries and thrown into the river Soar in Leicester2. However, it had long been thought that this rumour was unsubstantiated and it was therefore expected that the grave of Richard III should still lie within any remains of the Grey Friars church345. While historical records and the subsequent analysis thereof have long indicated the approximate location of the Grey Friars friary, and its likely situation in relation to the modern urban landscape of Leicester, the exact site of Richard III’s grave had been lost in the 527 years since his death345.

Although Richard III reigned for only a little over two years, substantial historical information about various features of his life and death exists. These include aspects of his physical appearance such as having a slim build, one shoulder higher than the other and that he suffered battle injuries, which resulted in his death6 (see Supplementary Note 1). In September 2012, a skeleton (Skeleton 1) was excavated at the presumed site of the Grey Friars friary in Leicester, the last-known resting place of Richard III (ref. 6). The archaeological, osteological and radiocarbon dating evidence were all consistent with the remains being those of Richard III (ref. 6). The skeleton was that of a male aged 30 to 34 years7, with severe scoliosis rendering one shoulder higher than the other8, with numerous perimortem battle injuries7. Modelled radiocarbon dating was also consistent (1456–1530AD at 95.4% probability) with these being the remains of an individual who died in 1485 (refs 69). What has been missing to date is the genetic and genealogical data, and an integrative analysis of both the genetic and non-genetic lines of evidence. We therefore conducted ancient and modern DNA analysis, and, for the first time, a synthesis of all the evidence together, to come to an overall conclusion about the identity of Skeleton 1. […]

(Nature Communications 5, Article number: 5631, 02.12.2014)

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