DNA Confirms: Here Lieth Richard III, Under Yon Parking Lot
The king’s genes also raise some royally embarrassing questions about the legitimacy of the Tudors who ended his reign.
On the left a photo of the skull. On the right a photo of a wood engraving of Richard III.
Researchers conservatively estimate that the chances of the skull at left not being that of Richard III (right) are 6.7 million to 1.
Photographs by University of Leicester and Universal History Archive, Getty Images
Published December 2, 2014
Ancient bones discovered under a parking lot have been confirmed as those of the medieval king Richard III, through a DNA test that also raises questions about the legitimacy of Henry VIII and other famous English royals.
The team of genetics detectives reported Tuesday that DNA from the skeleton shows that the bones were Richard III’s, with a probability of 99.9994 percent. This is the first genetic identification of a particular individual so long after death—527 years.
Archaeologists had peeled back a parking lot in 2012 to excavate the skeleton, which was among buried relics of the Greyfriars Friary in Leicester, England, long the reputed burial site of Richard III. (See "The Real Richard III.")
Most people know the hunched-shouldered king through Shakespeare’s play Richard III, in which the maligned ruler utters such memorable lines as "Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York," and "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"
Earlier this year, a forensic study of the remains revealed that the doomed king—the last English monarch to die in combat—suffered 11 wounds at the time of his death, in a 1485 battle with the Tudors that ended England’s War of the Roses
But there had been lingering questions about whether the skeleton was really that of Richard III.
"The evidence directly indicates that these are the remains of Richard III," says geneticist Turi King of the University of Leicester in the U.K., who led the team reporting the results in the journal Nature Communications. (Related: "Richard III Mania: Understanding a Kingly Obsession.")
The scientists examined DNA inherited along maternal lines, known as mitochondrial DNA, from two distantly related modern-day relatives of Richard III’s sister. That DNA is a near perfect match for the maternal genes of the hunchbacked skeleton buried at the friary. What’s more, the DNA was "unusual," King adds, containing stretches that don’t quite match anything in registries of European genes.
A statistical analysis led by David Balding and Mark Thomas of University College London took those genetic results and calculated the chances that a man of Richard III’s age with battle wounds and a curved spine could turn up at Greyfriars and not be the slain king. They conservatively estimated that chance at 6.7 million to 1.
"It is surprising how many people initially argued that these skeletal remains weren’t those of Richard III," says bioanthropologist Piers Mitchell of the U.K.’s University of Cambridge, who was not part of the study team. "Well, here it is."
In 2012 archaeologists peeled back a parking lot to excavate this skeleton, buried among relics of the Greyfriars Friary in Leicester, England. Photograph by University of Leicester
Photo of the skeleton at the burial site.
In 2012 archaeologists peeled back a parking lot to excavate this skeleton, buried among relics of the Greyfriars Friary in Leicester, England.