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Richard III – case closed after 529 years

Posted on 2 December 2014

An international research team provides overwhelming evidence that the skeleton discovered under a car park in Leicester represents the remains of King Richard III, closing what is probably the UK’s oldest forensic case.

Dr Turi King (left) and Dr Gloria Gonzalez Fortes working on the analysis of the bones in a laboratory at the University of York. Credit: Carl Vivian, University of Leicester

Scientists carried out key parts of the analysis at the University of York and the research team included members of the Department of Biology at York.

Led by Dr Turi King, from the University of Leicester, the research which is published in Nature Communications, traced seven living relatives of Richard III – two by the female line and five by the male line. 

The researchers collected DNA from Richard III’s living relatives 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.

While the Y-chromosomal markers differ, the mitochondrial genome shows a genetic match between the skeleton and the maternal line relatives. The former result is not unsurprising as the chances for a false-paternity event are fairly high after so many generations. This paper is also the first to carry out a statistical analysis of all the evidence together to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Skeleton 1 from the Greyfriars site in Leicester is indeed the remains of King Richard III.

The researchers also used genetic markers to determine hair and eye colour of Richard III and found that with probably blond hair and almost certainly blue eyes Richard III looked most similar to his depiction in one of the earliest portraits of him that survived, that in the Society of Antiquaries in London.

Dr King, who carried out part of her research in a laboratory at the University of York, said: “Our paper covers all the genetic and genealogical analysis involved in the identification of the remains of Skeleton 1 from the Greyfriars site in Leicester and is the first to draw together all the strands of evidence to come to a conclusion about the identity of those remains. 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.“

Ancient DNA expert, Professor Michi Hofreiter, an Honorary Professor of Biology at York, added:  “It’s amazing how much we can deduce from ancient DNA today. Making inferences about hair or eye color of a person just from some DNA snippets obtained from a skeleton would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.”

Professor Hofreiter and Dr Gloria Gonzalez Fortes worked on the analysis at York and, subsequently, at the University of Potsdam.

Professor Mark Ormrod, of the Department of History at York, said: “The University of York is immensely proud of its contribution to the Richard III project. These exciting results are testimony to the positive collaboration between two great historical cities associated with Richard - Leicester and York – and the crucial part they have played in identifying and commemorating England’s last Yorkist king.“

The research team now plans to sequence the complete genome of Richard III to learn more about the last English king to die in battle.

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