Richard III – how they identified the skeleton

Very few people can be unaware that the skeleton of Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England, was discovered in a council carpark in Leicester in September 2012.

richard iii in carpark

The race was then on to examine the skeleton for circumstantial evidence and compare it to the historical record, and to also do DNA tests on descendants of the Plantagenets to see if they could find a match.

The University of Leicester gave a press conference explaining exactly how they went about identifying Richard – for those of a scientific bent, here it is:

It looks like the skeleton was just dumped in the grave, naked and with the hands tied, with no coffin or shroud, and there wasn’t enough room, hence the head is higher than the rest of the body. The skeleton was found with no feet – they think the feet were lost some time later when construction work was going on on the site. The skeleton was just 2 feet below the surface and it’s amazing it didn’t get damaged by previous construction in the 527 years since Richard III’s death – the excavation showed that a piece of Victorian construction came very close to slicing through the skeleton entirely.

Apart from the circumstantial evidence on the skeleton (the scoliosis of the spine, the nature of the injuries including many of what look to be “humiliation” injuries inflicted after the death, the University of Leicester did DNA testing, successfully extracting DNA from the skeleton’s tooth.

They then isolated the mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondrial DNA is passed unchanged from a mother to all her children, but only daughters can pass it on to their children. Richard III would have had the same mitochondrial DNA as his sister Anne of York (they would have got it from their mother Cecily Neville). The University then looked for an un unbroken mother daughter line from Anne of York to the present day. The University of Leicester page on Richard III confirms that they found two unbroken mother-daughter lines from Anne of York. One of the present day descendants, Michael Ibsen and his siblings all agreed to have their DNA sampled. The other present day descendant also agreed to have their DNA sampled, but they wanted to remain anonymous to the public. The DNA of the anonymous sampler matched both that of Michael Ibsen, and that of the skeleton of Richard III, which proves that they are all descended from Cecily Neville.

The University of Leicester has produced the following video about exactly how they did the DNA testing:

We also know that the haplotype of Michael Ibsen and thus the skeleton of Richard III is haplotype J.

Haplotype J is rare in Europe – it’s mainly present in Anatolia (present day Turkey) and these were the people who had the agricultural revolution and changed mankind from hunter gatherers to farmers. According to genebase.com, haplotype J is mainly found in Turkey, southern Europe and North Africa.

As you can see from the graph, there is only a smidgen of this haplotype in northern England.

They have now confirmed that the subclade of the Haplotype is J1C2C. As you can see from the map above, the subclade J1 exists in northern Britain, and in North Africa. We also know that the mutation to J1C2C is only 4500 years old and occurred several millenia after the original women with Haplotype J1 entered Europe, and is only found in Europe. Only 1% of Europeans have this specific C2C subclade of J1 and they belong to Northern England.

It’s possible that this Haplotype arrived in Britain from Iberia in Neolithic times (people with type J1 brought domesticated animals into europe). The other possibility is that it arrived here during the Roman empire? On the map it is suspiciously close to Hadrian’s wall, which was manned by Centurions from all over the Empire.

We also know that the Neville family (from which Richard III’s mother Cecily Neville came from) were not part of the Norman invasion – they were pre-Norman aristocrats, who changed their name to fit in with the new order and maintain their position as aristocrats.

The findings will now be peer-reviewed, and the next stage will be the official burial of King Richard III, this time properly. The cities of Leicester and York and both battling for this honor!

You may also be interested in the following book review of The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, which investigates whether Richard III was really as black as he was painted by history.