Richard III: latest DNA study ‘doesn’t prove bones belong to former king’

A leading historian has called into question the validity of new data that is said to prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that the remains discovered underneath a Leicester car park in 2012 are those of Richard III

Richard-III-skeleton-08e3947

Michael Hicks, the recently retired head of history at the University of Winchester, told History Extra the new genealogical research “does not carry us any further forward”.

Advertisement

The University of Leicester today announced that its latest analysis of all available evidence “confirms identity of King Richard III to the point of 99.999 per cent at its most conservative”.

The researchers collected DNA from living relatives of Richard III and analysed several genetic markers, including the complete mitochondrial genomes, inherited through the maternal line, and Y-chromosomal markers, inherited through the paternal line, from both the skeletal remains and the living relatives. The mitochondrial genome shows a genetic match between the skeleton and the maternal line relatives.

However, Hicks said in response to the findings: “My line has always been that the bones may be Richard III’s, but they cannot yet be proven to be. That is still the case, and is not altered [by this research]. 

“The latest announcement is positive in that the bones are now linked to these two descendants of Richard III’s sister Anne. We did not know that, but we had rather presumed this was so.

“However, I don’t think this research carries us any further forward. It tells us that the two modern relatives share the same mitochondrial DNA as the bones, not that the bones belong to Richard III.

“Mitochondrial DNA is traced through the maternal line, and does not change over time. Richard III shared mitochondrial DNA with anyone in the direct female line from his sisters, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, great-great-grandmother etc. His mother had at least four sisters, leaving female descendants, Richard’s great-grandmother, and others before her, currently unidentifiable.”

Hicks told BBC History Magazine earlier this year that because mitochondrial DNA is traced through the maternal line, and does not change over time, “the DNA match from the Leicester skeleton could equally be the result of the bones being those of someone descended in the female line from Richard’s mother, Cecily Neville, including her two daughters.

“It could also be those traceable from the other daughters of Cecily’s mother, Joan Beaufort, any daughters of her grandmother Katherine Swynford, and so on.”

Today, the historian added: “I’m never convinced by DNA statistics: 99.999 per cent still leaves the possibility that two consecutive examples are the same.

“There are two further problems with this data that cast doubt on its validity: the first is that the Y chromosome of the male line of the Plantagenets, represented by the Duke of Beaufort, should match with Richard III. There seems to be an assumption here that a break in the direct line male line must be in the Duke of Beaufort’s family rather than in Richard’s. Why not vice-versa? 

“If it doesn’t match, it suggests the identification of Richard is wrong (and actually this has massive implications for the legitimacy of all English monarchs since Henry VII).

“To clarify: one of the matches the researchers were seeking was between the Y chromosome from the bones and the Y chromosome of the male line of the Plantagenets, which today is represented by the Somerset family, including the Duke of Beaufort, who is descended via the bastard Charles Somerset from the Beaufort issue of John of Gaunt and thus Edward III. They did the test with various Somersets, which did not match the bones.

“Leicester seems to say that the DNA from the bones are right, and that the Somerset line must have been broken by an illegitimacy – I thought the reverse as likely.

“The article itself [published in the journal Nature Communications] allows for the possibility that the paternity break might be in either the descent of the bones or the Beauforts, but clearly prefers the former. It is perfectly possible to match in the female line – there must be dozens of Richard’s contemporaries who do that – but not in the male line. Such persons, of course, are not Richard III.

“The second problem is that we know what Richard looked like from the numerous portraits – black hair and brown eyes. I have previously criticised the reconstruction bust because, although the facial features may be scientific reconstructions from the skull, the colouring cannot be, and must have come from the portraits.

“The suggestion that Richard was fair haired and blue eyed in his youth suggests the DNA of the modern descendants does not match the evidence of the best known portraits. Again, the assumption seems to be that the bones are Richard’s, therefore the portrait that best fits the DNA results should be selected.”

Leicester’s latest findings were today published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications.

Dr Turi King from the University of Leicester Department of Genetics, who led the research team, said: “Even with our highly conservative analysis, the evidence is overwhelming that these are indeed the remains of King Richard III, thereby closing an over 500 year old missing person’s case.”

In the video below, Professor Kevin Schürer says: “The fact that we have a break means just that – we have a break – it doesn’t mean that the skeleton isn’t Richard, because what we have is the very strong evidence triangulated with two living day relatives, with the mitochondrial DNA, so that in itself is very strong, compelling evidence that the skeleton is Richard III.

Advertisement

“The break, however, does raise other questions – more of a historical nature than ‘is this skeleton Richard?’… this asks questions about the Plantagenets, and indeed the claims to the throne of both the houses of York and Lancaster.”