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A win for genetic genealogy

The Legal Genealogist is not a morning person. To put it mildly. Generally speaking when I’m up at 5 a.m. it’s because I haven’t been to bed yet.

But I had to know… couldn’t wait… would it be, could it be…?

And the answer is…


At the press conference at the University of Leicester, England, this morning, scientists confirmed that the skeletal remains found under a parking lot in Leicester late last summer are those of King Richard III. The lead archeologist on the project, Richard Buckley, announced the team’s conclusion:

“Beyond reasonable doubt the individual exhumed at Grey Friars on September 12th is indeed Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England.”

As noted in yesterday’s blog, the forensic evidence by itself seemed pretty compelling,1 and Buckley reiterated what was known in the press conference. Contemporary accounts were that Richard’s body had been taken to the Grey Friars friary immediately after the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 where his forces lost to those of his successor, Henry VII, and had been hastily buried near the altar. And that’s exactly where the skeleton was found. And the bones were carbon-dated to a period from 1455-1540.

Dr. Jo Appleby of the team then explained that the skeleton fitted other known facts about Richard: it was an adult male but with an unusually slender, feminine build. That’s consistent with descriptions of Richard.

The bones were of a man in his late 20s or early 30s, and Richard was 32 when he died. The wounds suffered by the person buried were consistent with battle wounds and with reports at the time of how Richard had died. And the man had a serious curvature of the spine (though no withered arm, despite Shakespeare’s descriptions).

So, Appleby said, the skeletal evidence provided a “highly convincing case” that this is Richard III.

But the absolute nail in the coffin (pun absolutely intended although there actually was no coffin here) was the DNA analysis — something that couldn’t have been done without both good scientific work … and good genealogy.

Prof. Kevin Schürer of the University said the team was confident of the genealogical work identifying a Canadian-born furniture maker as a descendant of the Yorkist line, from which Richard also descended. Michael Ibsen was identified as a 17th generation nephew of Richard III in a direct female line of descent so he would have the same mitochondrial DNA as Richard. That means the DNA was passed down over more than 500 years from mother to daughter to daughter to daughter and finally to a son who agreed to be tested.

This sort of genealogy is surely easier when you’re talking about descendants of royalty and nobility than peasantry, of course, but even in the upper crust following the female line down through that many generations is agonizingly difficult. But in this case, good solid genealogical efforts traced the line forward from Cecily Neville, Duchess of York (3 May 1415 – 31 May 1495), mother of Richard III and Anne of York, Duchess of Exeter (1439-1476), through 16 generations of Anne’s direct female descendants and finally to 55-year-old Michael Ibsen, a furniture-maker now living in London.2

Geneticist Dr. Turi King then spoke and explained that extracting an adequate DNA sample from the remains was difficult but analysis of the sample from the skeleton was possible for comparison against Ibsen’s sample. And, it turns out, genealogists had identified a second man, who’s chosen to remain anonymous, who also descends from Anne of York who also agreed to be tested.

The result of this three-way analysis, according to Dr. King: “there is a DNA match between the maternal DNA from the family of Richard the Third and the skeletal remains we found at the Grey Friars dig.”

And the serendipity of the whole thing? Mitochondrial DNA, the type used for this analysis, the only type that could be used here, is passed by a mother to all of her children, but only a daughter can then pass it on to the next generation.3 So Michael Ibsen and his anonymous distant cousin, the men whose DNA was tested for comparison, can’t pass this type of DNA on to their own children.

Neither Michael Ibsen nor his cousin have living female relatives in this line of descent.

In other words, one more generation and this result today wouldn’t have been possible.

Now just how much more of a reason do we as modern genealogists need to get ourselves and our cousins DNA-tested, I ask you?

And just how cool is this whole turn of events?

For more information: The University of Leicester news release
University of Leicester Richard III home page
University of Leicester Lines of Descent page
University of Leicester Richard III DNA results page
Richard III Leicester Facebook page
Richard III Society updated page (to launch today)
Debbie Cruwys Kennett’s blog post
Professor Kevin Schürer YouTube video about DNA


Images courtesy of University of Leicester

  1. Judy G. Russell, “Rewriting history through DNA,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 3 Feb 2013 ( : accessed 4 Feb 2013).
  2. Table 1, Plantagenet DNA( : accessed 2 Feb 2013).
  3. See ISOGG Wiki (, “Mitochondrial DNA,” rev. 30 Jul 2010.
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