In 2012, the skeletal remains of Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England, were found under what is now regarded Leicester’s most famous car park and former site of the Greyfriars Priory. Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, just two years after being crowned king. Following Richard’s death, his body was brought back to Leicester, where it was quietly buried under the choir of the Greyfriars church. Henry Tudor was later crowned King Henry VII after his victory at Bosworth battlefield, marking the end of the Plantagenet reign.
Finding living relatives of Richard III
Despite the strength of non-genealogical evidence, DNA analysis was crucial for confirming whether the remains found under the car park were those of Richard III. DNA was extracted from the remains and compared to the DNA of living relatives. Although Richard did not have any direct descendants, two living relatives (Michael Ibsen and Wendy Duldig) were identified from two all-female lines. These lines were traced from Cecily Neville, Richard III’s mother. Additionally, an all-male line from Edward III was also traced to multiple living descendants.
Mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA
DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, stores our genetic information in a code of four bases: A, T, G and C. The majority of our DNA is inherited from both parents. However, the mixing of maternal and paternal DNA can make it difficult to trace distant ancestors. Mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA follow much simpler patterns of inheritance and remain unchanged as they are passed from generation to generation (with the exception of mutations). For this reason, mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA is used for genealogical studies.
Mitochondria are specialized structures in human cells involved in energy production. Mitochondria contain their own DNA which is passed from a mother to her children. Although both male and females inherit their mitochondrial DNA from their mother, only females are able to pass this on to the next generation. For this reason, mitochondrial DNA can be used to trace matrilineal lines of descent.
Our DNA is organised in structures called chromosomes. Humans have 46 chromosomes which are arranged in 23 pairs. The 23rd pair of chromosomes are known as sex chromosomes, X and Y. Females carry two X chromosomes whereas males carry an X and a Y chromosome. The Y-chromosome is male-specific, carrying a gene required for male development. As the Y-chromosome is passed from father to son, it can be used to trace patrilineal ancestry.
The mitochondrial DNA of both Michael and Wendy matched the mitochondrial DNA extracted from the skeletal remains. As mitochondrial DNA is inherited from the mother, Richard III and his siblings would have shared the same mitochondrial DNA as Cecily Neville. Since Michael and Wendy are descendants of Cecily, traced through two separate all-female lines, their mitochondrial DNA also matches that of Cecily. As both Richard III, Michael and Wendy inherited their mitochondrial DNA from the same common ancestor, they have the same mitochondrial DNA haplotype. Although the identification of the Y-chromosome sequence from the skeletal remains confirmed that they belonged to a male, it did not match the Y-chromosome sequence of the living relatives. This is likely the result of false paternity events which occurred through previous generations.
The exciting results of the DNA analysis were announced in February 2013, marking a celebratory end to the ‘Looking for Richard‘ project.
Why not visit the King Richard III Visitor Centre this February half term to find out more about DNA with our family friendly ‘Discover DNA’ activities