The Secrets of the Bones: DNA Analysis and the Search for Richard III

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Female line of descent from Richard III. Image by Dr John Ashdown-Hill (used with permission)

Female line of descent from Richard III. Image by Dr. John Ashdown-Hill (used with permission)

The Role of Genealogy

All of Richard III’s male relatives were killed after his defeat, but his sisters survived. Dr. John Ashdown-Hill traced a modern descendant of Richard’s eldest sister Anne as part of another project. “In 2003 I attended a conference at Mechelen in Belgium marking the 500th anniversary of the death of Richard’s sister, Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy. Margaret was buried at the Greyfriars church in Mechelen but her gravesite had been lost in the religious wars of the 16th century,” explained Dr. Ashdown-Hill in an interview with Decoded Science. “Three sets of female bones of about the right age had been found and Belgian colleagues asked me how they could clarify which (if any) of these bones were Margaret’s. I said DNA – so they asked me to provide a sequence.”

In order to find a match, Dr. Ashdown- Hill began to trace descendants of Margaret and her female relatives. He had no idea if any of the lines of descent survived. “Women have the major problem that they changed their names when they married,” said Dr. Ashdown-Hill. “Eventually I traced one line to Joy Ibsen in Canada, and I contacted her and she gave a DNA sample.” Joy’s son, Michael Ibsen provided the mtDNA for the search for Richard III.

Anthropology and The Limitations of DNA

Despite having a source of DNA from the body, and a comparative source from a descendant, there is no guarantee that the experts will be able to use the DNA evidence to obtain a conclusive ID of the Greyfriars skeleton. The mtDNA of Michael Ibsen could have mutated so significantly over the 17 generations between him and his great great aunt that comparison is impossible. The amount of DNA that survives is key. “Different bits [of DNA] have different mutation rates,” explained Dr. King. “The accuracy of the method will be contingent on how much DNA we can retrieve – the longer the sequence, the more accurate we can be.”

There is little the experts can do regarding the quantity and quality of the DNA except cross their fingers and hope. But genealogy can help by finding another source of comparative DNA. A team of four genealogists led by Leicester University’s Dr. Kevin Scherer have been searching for an alternative line of descent. “We’ve used various forms of evidence,” Dr. Schurer told Decoded Science, “but especially wills, parish registers, probate, and vital registration.”

Is It Richard III?

Dr. Schurer and his team have been successful in tracing another descendant. What this means for the DNA analysis is a closely guarded secret. But with the results of the investigation due for release on February 4, 2013, there isn’t long to wait.

Sources

Ashdown-Hill, J. The Last Days of Richard III. (2011). The History Press.

University of Leicester Press Office. ‘It’s not like CSI’: the Science of the Search for Richard III. (2012). Accessed January 27, 2013.

Genetics Home Reference. What is DNA? (2013). Accessed January 27, 2013.

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