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Did you know that the notorious King Richard III may not have been of royal blood?

Genetic analyses identify a potential infidelity in the royal line

King Richard III is often accused of being a usurper for seizing the throne from its rightful owner, the young Edward V. But is it possible that Richard III never even had a rightful claim to the throne and was “illegitimate”? DNA testing of his remains raises the possibility that King Richard III wasn’t the great-great-grandson of King Edward III.

King Richard III became king under controversial circumstances. In 1483, when his health began to fail, King Edward IV made his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the Lord Protector of his twelve-year-old son Edward V, the heir to the throne. Young Edward V reigned as King for the two brief months following his father’s death, but he was never crowned. Instead, the statute of Titulus Regius declared Richard as the new king. The reason? Apparently, the marriage of King Edward IV to Elizabeth Woodville was bigamy, hence making their children (including Edward V) illegitimate as a consequence.

Portrait of King Richard III
King Richard III

It is said that Richard received information that Edward IV was already married to Lady Eleanor Butler prior to his marriage to Elizabeth. However, some historians claim that Richard himself originated these rumours. To add to the controversy, shortly after Richard’s coronation, Edward V and his younger brother made their last public appearance and were never seen again. Rumours swirled that the young boys had been murdered upon Richard’s instructions. This controversial rise to power caused much conflict and rebellion, ultimately leading to Richard’s death in the Battle of Bosworth Field.

Following his death, Richard’s body was hastily buried without much fanfare in a tomb in Greyfriars Church in Leicester. This church and Richard’s tombstone were destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the late 1530s. Tradition even suggests that his body might have been thrown into the River Soar. Numerous developments in the area over the next 400 years hid the site of the old church, the tombs and church garden, and Richard’s remains were thought to be lost forever.

In 2012, a search began for the remains of King Richard III. The search was led by Philippa Langley a member of the Richard III Society (Looking for Richard Project) in association with archaeologists on the University of Leicester and the Leicester City Council. An excavation on a city council car park in the approximate location of the Greyfriars Church led to the discovery of a skeleton that was believed to belong to Richard for several reasons. The body was of an adult male and radiocarbon dating placed the skeleton in the correct time period. The description of the skeleton also closely matched with the appearance of Richard from contemporary reports. There was evidence of severe scoliosis (a condition that curves the spine), and Richard was known to have one shoulder higher than the other. Forensic pathologists also identified a number of injuries such as the “mortal battlefield wound to the back of the skull” that Richard was reported to have suffered.

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To confirm that the remains belonged to King Richard III, DNA testing was performed using both mitochondrial DNA (matching to maternal relatives) and Y-DNA (matching to paternal relatives). Male line relatives are generally easier to trace than female line relatives. But at the same time, male lines are also easily confused because of false paternity events (adultery), which are much more common and easier to hide than false maternity events.

Identifying King Richard III based on his mitochondrial DNA

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is an excellent option to confirm the identity of the skeletal remains, especially for the analysis of ancient samples, as there are many copies of mtDNA in a single cell and they evolve at a rapid rate. Both males and females inherit mtDNA from their mother, but only females will pass the mtDNA down to the next generation, providing a way of tracing maternal ancestry. Although King Richard III did not pass his mtDNA to any future generations, his mtDNA profile was identical to that of his mother and siblings, including Anne of York. Researchers identified two living maternal descendants of Anne of York – Michael Ibsen and Wendy Duldig. Each descendant agreed to provide DNA samples for the study.

Family tree illustrating relations of King Richard III
Family tree showing the relationships between King Richard III and the supposedly paternally related Somersets (left side a), and between King Richard III and the maternally related Michael Ibsen and Wendy Duldig (right side b). (Figure from King TE et al. (2014) Nat Commun)

There are three regions of the mtDNA that can be analyzed – HVR1, HVR2 and the coding region. All three regions were analyzed from the skeletal remains discovered in Leicester and from Michael Ibsen and Wendy Duldig. The skeletal mtDNA profile was a perfect match to the mtDNA profile of Ibsen and there was only a single base pair difference when compared to Duldig. Since this mtDNA profile is extremely rare, the positive match provides strong genetic evidence that the remains indeed belong to King Richard III.

Attempts to confirm the identification using Y-DNA

Portrait of King Edward III
King Edward III, the great-great-grandfather of King Richard III

The researchers also analyzed the paternally inherited Y-DNA from King Richard III’s skeletal remains, hoping to provide further genetic evidence that the remains had been correctly identified. Based on published sources for ennobled and titled lineages, five living paternal line descendants of Henry Somerset (5th Duke of Beaufort) were identified. According to historical family trees, Henry Somerset and King Richard III share a common paternal ancestor – King Edward III. This means that any paternal descendants of Henry Somerset, including the five analyzed in this study, should share the same Y-DNA profile as King Richard III.

However, this was not the case. Four of the individuals have the same Y-DNA profile, but it was different from the profile of King Richard III. The fifth individual (referred to as Somerset 3) had a Y-DNA profile that was entirely different from the other four. So this means that at least two non-paternity events (infidelity) have occurred somewhere creating false paternal lineages.

Where did the non-paternity events occur?

Let’s start with the Y-DNA profile of Somerset 3. This can be explained by an infidelity that occurred within the last four generations. But exactly where the other infidelity occurred can’t be confirmed based on the current genetic data. It may have been in the Beaufort line between King Edward III and the 19-21 generations to the five living descendants analyzed in this study. Or was there infidelity in the royal line between King Edward III and his great-great-grandson King Richard III? And if so, which historical English kings and queens actually had legitimate claims to the throne?

King Richard III’s successor, King Henry VII, claimed the throne by right of conquest rather than inheritance; hence any potential non-paternity events do not affect his, and his descendants’ claim to the throne. The legitimacy of the current queen is also not in question, as that was set through the 1701 Act of Settlement. However, if the infidelity occurred between King Richard III and his great-great-grandfather King Edward III, then the controversial King Richard III never actually had a legitimate claim to the throne!

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These DNA tests have defined the mtDNA profile and Y-DNA profile of King Richard III, and if you have taken either the DNA Maternal Ancestry Test, and/or the DNA Paternal Ancestry Test, you can see if you may have descended from the same lineage. A similar mtDNA profile indicates that you share a maternal lineage with the likes of Lady Joan Beaufort, Lady Cecily Neville, Anne of York, and Anne St Leger. While a similar Y-DNA profile indicates that you share a paternal lineage with the controversial King Richard III and his notable paternal ancestors, including King Henry III and the three English King Edwards (I, II and III). Of course, this only holds true if there are no non-paternity events in this royal line! Richard himself and his brother Edward IV had no known surviving paternal descendants, as Richard’s son died at age 10, and Edward IV’s young sons mysteriously disappeared under Richard’s reign.

Reference:

King TE et al. (2014) Identification of the remains of King Richard III. Nat Commun. 5:5631.

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