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The winter of our discontent

It was nearly two years ago, in February 2013, that genetic genealogists and history buffs everywhere — The Legal Genealogist among them — held their collective breath.

Would it be…? Could it be…? Was it true that the skeletal remains found underneath a car parking lot in Leicester, England, could be those of Richard III?

The remains were found in an excavation of what is believed to have been Grey Friars friary, a small Franciscan church where Richard’s body was taken after the battle where he died.1 Though some reports were that Richard was buried there, the official British history of the monarchy reports even today: “Buried without a monument in Leicester, Richard’s bones were scattered during the English Reformation.”2

An examination of the remains was consistent with what’s known of Richard: the person buried, like Richard, had a deformation of the spine; the person buried had wounds consistent with battle wounds; and a barbed metal arrowhead was found where it would have been embedded in the person’s back.3

The scientists who had studied the remains and who had analyzed DNA taken from the bones stood before the microphones that day in February 2013 and told us the conclusion they’d come to.

“Beyond reasonable doubt the individual exhumed at Grey Friars on September 12th is indeed Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England.”4

At the time, we thought it couldn’t get much cooler than that.

I mean, seriously, think about it. Richard III is such a fascinating historical figure. He ruled for only two years, yet his decision to set aside the sons of his brother Edward IV and take the throne himself is one of the most hotly debated issues of history.

Was he, as he is often described, an ambitious hunchback with a withered arm who would stop at nothing to secure his own power? Or was there really reason to believe the boys illegitimate? Did Richard murder them, the princes in the tower? Did that justify the overthrow of that King by his successor, Henry VII, whose Tudor family came to power when Richard died in that last battle at Bosworth Field?

And one of the most enduring mysteries was — what had happened to Richard after that last battle?

It’s that question that the scientists answered in that February 2013 press conference.

But it did get cooler than that.

Because, when the scientists answered that question almost two years ago, they promised they’d ultimately publish all their findings for others to study.

That publication occurred yesterday, in an article entitled “Identification of the remains of King Richard III” and published online by the journal Nature Communications.5 It surely closes the case on the remains as Richard III. And it also opens the door wide on another mystery.

Let’s close the case first. Again, the historical evidence was all consistent with the remains being Richard. But it’s the mitochondrial DNA evidence that nails this door shut.

Remember that mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, is the kind of DNA that passes from a mother to all of her children but that only her daughters can pass on.6 Richard would have had the mtDNA of his mother, Cecile Neville, and mtDNA was extracted from the skeletal remains.

Richard’s sister, Anne of York, would also have had the mtDNA of their mother, and she would have been able to pass it down to her children, and her daughters to her grandchildren, and her granddaughters to her great grandchildren and so on down the generations.

Two descendants of Anne of York, whose common ancestor is Anne’s early-16th century granddaughter Catherine Manners Constable, were both tested — and their mtDNA matched that of the skeletal remains. The two modern individuals are 14th cousins twice removed from each other, and in the case of one of these very distant cousins, full mtDNA sequencing produced an exact match; in the case of the other, full sequencing produced a single difference in a single position in the mtDNA — a result, the study says, is “consistent with these individuals being matrilinear relatives over the time period considered.”7

Moreover, the study checked existing databases of European and British mtDNA samples and didn’t find a single other person whose mtDNA matches — suggesting that the match was extremely unlikely to have occurred simply as a matter of chance.8

Now let’s open the new case. Because the scientists were also able to get enough YDNA from the skeletal remains to test them. YDNA, remember, is the kind of DNA passed from father to son to son in the direct male line with very few changes over the generations.9

The most recent common male ancestor of Richard III and anybody alive today to test was Edward III of England, who lived from 1312 to 1377. The scientists had to work down the line from Edward III to John of Gaunt and forward some 13 generations to Henry Somerset, the 5th Duke of Beaufort, and then many more generations forward to today to find candidates to test.

And the YDNA doesn’t match.10

Now this mismatch isn’t really all that surprising. While there isn’t any definitive study on the topic, the generally accepted odds of misattributed paternity in any given generation are between one and five percent.11 Even among the five modern descendants of Henry Somerset who were tested, one was found to have a fundamentally different YDNA from the other four, “indicating that a false-paternity event had occurred within the last four generations.”12

So… where did the particular paternity problem arise in Richard’s case?

Well, just about anywhere in a whole lot of generations, really. The study reports that: “a false-paternity event could have happened in any of the 19 generations separating Richard III and the 5th Duke of Beaufort, on either branch of the genealogy descending from Edward III. Indeed, even with a conservative false-paternity rate … the chance of a false-paternity occuring in this number of generations is 16%.”13

It could have been on Richard’s side — between that most recent common ancestor Edward III and Richard were four generations and four paternity events: Edward’s own fathering (or not) of Edmund of York, Edmund’s fathering (or not) of Richard of Cambridge, Richard’s fathering (or not) of Richard of York, and that Richard’s fathering (or not) of Richard III.

It could have been somewhere down the line on the Beaufort side — although the evidence is pretty compelling that four of the five tested Beaufort descendants all share a common male ancestor, it might not be any further back than that 18th century Duke. There are 13 generations between John of Gaunt and that Duke, and the study itself notes that “Two illegitimacy events where sons born out of wedlock were later legitimized are known to have occurred in the period between John of Gaunt and Henry Somerset, 5th Duke of Beaufort.”14

So why does anybody care?

Well, England still has royalty. Hereditary monarchy and all that, y’know. And — depending on where the particular paternity problem occurred — those hereditary monarchs may not have been hereditary monarchs at all.

If the paternity event occurred in the single generation from Edward III to John of Gaunt, then none of the English monarchs from Henry IV on to today — the current British Royal family among them — had any hereditary claim to the throne.15 If it occurred on Richard III’s side, then there’s no impact on subsequent monarchs at all. And if it happened anywhere else, it’d depend on when, where … and who.

One case closed.

Another case opened.

Ah, it is “the winter of our discontent”…16


  1. See generally “Human remains found in search for King Richard III at Leicester car park,” This is Leicester, online, posted 12 Sep 2012 ( : accessed 2 Feb 2013).
  2. Richard III,” The British Monarchy, History of the Monarchy ( : accessed 2 Dec 2014).
  3. Skeleton with ‘battle injuries’ found by Richard III dig team in Leicester,” This is Leicester, online, posted 12 Sep 2012 ( : accessed 2 Feb 2013).
  4. See Judy G. Russell, “And the answer is…,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 4 Feb 2013 ( : accessed 2 Dec 2014).
  5. King, Turi E. et al., “Identification of the remains of King Richard III,” Nature Communications, posted 2 Dec 2014 ( : accessed 2 Dec 2014).
  6. See ISOGG Wiki (, “Mitochondrial DNA,” rev. 4 Sep 2014.
  7. King, Turi E. et al., “Identification of the remains of King Richard III,” Nature Communications, posted 2 Dec 2014 ( : accessed 2 Dec 2014).
  8. Ibid.
  9. ISOGG Wiki (, “Y chromosome DNA tests,” rev. 27 Nov 2014.
  10. King, Turi E. et al., “Identification of the remains of King Richard III,” Nature Communications, posted 2 Dec 2014 ( : accessed 2 Dec 2014).
  11. See generally ISOGG Wiki (, “Non-paternity event,” rev. 25 Aug 2014.
  12. King, Turi E. et al., “Identification of the remains of King Richard III,” Nature Communications, posted 2 Dec 2014 ( : accessed 2 Dec 2014).
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., Figure 1.
  15. See “The DNA trail: How scientists searched for a genetic match,” chart illustrating Sarah Knapton, “Richard III DNA shows British Royal family may not have royal bloodline,” The Telegraph, posted 2 Dec 2014 ( : accessed 2 Dec 2014).
  16. See William Shakespeare, Richard III, Act I, scene I; Project Gutenberg HTML version ( : accessed 2 Dec 2014).
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