DNA Evidence Casts Doubt on Richard III's Claim to the Throne

National Portrait Gallery, London
National Portrait Gallery, London / National Portrait Gallery, London

Scientists have ruled with 99.999 percent probability that a skeleton found under a parking lot in Leicester, England, in 2012 is that of King Richard III. Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet line (the House of York), was killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field by Henry Tudor in 1485. His remains were then buried without ceremony at Greyfriars Abbey, which, sometime between when the friary was dissolved in 1538 and 2012, was turned into a parking lot (or “car park,” as they say in Britain). 

According to the BBC, the skeleton discovered in 2012 was believed to belong to Richard III in large part due to the extreme curvature of its spine—as historians and Shakespeare readers know, Richard III was believed to have had a hunchback. But a team of scientists, led by Leicester University’s Dr. Turi King, were able to finally confirm the skeleton's identity with DNA tests this fall and published their findings in the journal Nature Communications on Tuesday.

While the real Richard III, we know now, did have a curved spine, beyond that he didn’t much resemble the man depicted in 16th century portraits (no contemporary portraits of Richard III exist—according to CNN, the earliest known works post-date his death by 25 to 30 years). DNA evidence suggests that, far from being the dark and brooding figure painted by Shakespeare and 16th century artists, Richard III was blond-haired and blue-eyed (although researchers concede that Richard III may have been blond in childhood but had his hair darken with age). 

The skull of King Richard III, found in Leicester, England, in 2012. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images) 

Even more surprising than Richard III’s physical appearance is that the DNA reveals a break in the royal lineage. According to the BBC, this could cast doubt on the Tudor line or Richard III’s claim to the throne.

The BBC and Nature Communications delve deep into all the nitty-gritty biological reasons for this, but to summarize quickly: Scientists were able to match the maternal side of Richard III’s DNA (the X chromosome) to two living relatives of Richard’s eldest sister, Anne of York. Both Michael Ibsen and Wendy Dulig, 14th cousins and descendants of the House of York, have the same extremely rare genetic lineage as the skeleton found in the parking lot. 

The male side (the Y chromosome) is where things get tricky. The skeleton’s DNA does not match the Y chromosomes of living heirs of the fifth Duke of Beaufort, a descendent of John of Gaunt (all the aforementioned men are descendants of Edward III—you can find a helpful family tree here). The Tudors also descend from John of Gaunt. The lack of Y chromosome consistency between the DNA in the skeleton and of the Duke of Beaufort’s heirs means that, somewhere down the line between Edward III and Richard III, there was a “false paternity event”—aka, an act infidelity. If this event happened along either the Richard III or Henry Tudor (later known as Henry VII) branches of Edward III’s family tree, their lineage’s claims to the throne could be false. 

If that’s confusing, genealogy expert Kevin Shürer may be able to clear things up. “There are some well-known and important people on that chain [from Edward III to his descendants]," he told CNN. "You have two monarchs, Richard and Edward III; if the break occurred on the Yorkist line … then that might raise questions about the legitimacy of the Yorkists' claim to the throne.” As for the Tudors, “The Lancastrian line comes through John of Gaunt's side of the family … so if the break were on that side, it raises questions about the legitimacy of the Lancastrian monarchs, and because there was a Tudor link to that line as well, also the Tudors,” he says.

So, what does this mean for the current Queen of England, Elizabeth II, and her family? Apparently nothing. “We're certainly not saying the House of Windsor has no legitimate claim to the throne, far from it," Shürer told CNN. "Royal succession doesn't work like that. There is no linear succession line between Edward III and Elizabeth II. Yes, they are related, but the whole point of monarchy is that over several centuries it takes various twists and turns … Monarchy is about opportunity and chance as much as it is about bloodline.”