King’s DNA throws a curve ball; WSU scholars weigh in


WSU historian Jesse Spohnholz, left, and molecular anthropologist Brian Kemp. Skeleton in foreground is not that of King Richard III. (Photo by Shelly Hanks, WSU Photo Services)
WSU historian Jesse Spohnholz, left, and molecular anthropologist Brian Kemp. Skeleton in foreground is not that of King Richard III. (Photo by Shelly Hanks, WSU Photo Services)

By Linda Weiford, WSU News

PULLMAN, Wash. – The recent announcement that a skeleton found under a parking lot in England two years ago is that of King Richard III has laid one mystery to rest – while giving rise to another.

The solved mystery? We know for certain that the ancient bones are those of the 15th century king. The new mystery: Did someone commit adultery, raising doubts about centuries of royal claim to the throne?

King Richard III’s bones were found beneath a car park in 2012. Forensic examination revealed he had been hacked to death in battle. (Photo courtesy of University of Leicester/Rex Features)

Findings of a study published this month in the journal Nature Communications confirmed the skeleton as that of the English monarch who was killed in battle in 1485. But the DNA analysis also lays bare the fact that a break – or breaks – occurred on the male side of the monarch’s family tree.

The study, conducted by a multidisciplinary research team at England’s Leicester University, calls it a “non-paternity event.” In other words, a woman married to a king had a son from another man.

Closing the 529-year-old missing person case of King Richard III has opened a historical can of genealogical worms, and a great deal of scientific and historical expertise would be required to untangle it, according to two Washington State University scholars.

Risqué royalty?

“Basically, the more information that was gleaned from retrieving the king’s DNA, the more complicated the story became,” said WSU molecular anthropologist Brian Kemp who, with WSU historian Jesse Spohnholz, read the report and commented on its findings.

“At what point in the royal lineage the infidelity occurred is not known, and to identify the break in the male line would require examining six centuries of marriages,” said Kemp, who is widely known for his genetic analyses of 10,000-year-old Native Americans.

Genetic testing through Richard III’s maternal DNA, combined with other evidence, confirmed that the skeleton was the king’s, Kemp said. But the male DNA side didn’t match.

“There are 19 links in the chain where a paternity break appears to have occurred,” he said. “To definitively pinpoint where would require exhuming skeletons along the chain and analyzing their DNA.”

Igniting controversy

Though Richard III has been dead for more than 500 years, his DNA curveball has sparked a modern-day controversy, replete with tabloid-like headlines and finger-pointing Tweets.

Is it, as Shakespeare wrote, much ado about nothing?

“Scientific evidence is calling into question lines of succession in the medieval monarchy,” said Spohnholz, associate professor of European history. “It disrupts a widely held belief that royal claim to the throne was based on the bloodline.”

To complicate the debate, the surprise surfaced after analyzing DNA extracted from King Richard III – the last English king to perish in battle and a controversial figure of much historical significance, said Spohnholz, even though he reigned for only two years and died at age 32.

Here’s why: Richard III was brutally killed by his distant cousin Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth in central England. His death marked the end of the 300-plus-year Plantagenet rule and the beginning of the Tudor dynasty that included Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I.

“Whether this paternity break occurred before Richard’s reign, or after, thereby challenging the blood line of the Tudors, is not known,” said Spohnholz.

Portrait of a king changing

Shakespeare portrayed the doomed king as a hobbling “hunchbacked toad” with a withered arm. Not so, according to the analysis of the monarch’s skeleton. (Photo of actor Antony Sher as Richard III in 1984 from Joe Cock’s Studio Collection, copyright Shakespeare Birthplace Trust)

Many people know Richard III as a hump-backed, tyrannical murderer through Shakespeare’s play, “Richard III,” in which the disparaged king moans that he is so ugly that dogs bark at him. But, said Spohnholz, the excavated skeleton reveals the king had scoliosis, or a sideways curve of the spine, and not the kind of hunchback deformity portrayed by Shakespeare and Tudor family members who sought to discredit Richard III after his death.

“This case reminds us that knowledge of history is constantly evolving,” Spohnholz said. “As new evidence is revealed, our knowledge of history changes too.”

To trace where the male line of descendants was broken would require even more scientific and historical inquiry than that required to identify Richard III’s remains, agreed Spohnholz and Kemp. Historians would need to pore over six centuries of royal family genealogical documents – both preceding and following the reign of Richard III, they said.

What’s more, DNA samples would be needed from numerous long-dead aristocrats ceremoniously buried in caskets, unlike Richard III who was repeatedly hacked in the head and tossed into a shallow grave with his hands bound.

Regardless of whether this paternal whodunit gets solved, “it demonstrates that claims to the throne aren’t strictly biological,” said Spohnholz. “Victories in battle and the perception of having power are also qualifiers.”

Of course, ploughing through old documents and using high-tech DNA testing and radiocarbon dating cannot expose an even bigger skeleton in the closet – the centuries-old rumor that King Richard III murdered his two young nephews in the Tower of London to secure his crown.

“DNA won’t distort the facts,” said Kemp, “but unfortunately, people will.”


Brian Kemp, WSU molecular anthropologist, 509-335-7403,
Jesse Spohnholz, WSU European historian, 509-335-7506
Linda Weiford, WSU News, 509-335-7209,