Richard III’s DNA Analysis Reveals Cuckoldry in the Family

Researchers can trace the monarch’s maternal lineage to modern relatives, but not the male side

Richard III engraving
An engraving of "Mr. Garrick" as Richard III in a production of Shakespeare’s play Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS

Two years ago, a skeleton was uncovered in a Leicester, England, parking lot. After a barrage of scientific analysis, the latest—a full genome sequencing—gives great certainty to the originalconclusion: This is the body of Richard III.

But this latest bit of research raised a new question. People who believed they were related to the monarch don’t carry genes that match those of the unearthed remains.

"We may have solved one historical puzzle, but in so doing, we opened up a whole new one," Kevin Schurer, the genealogy specialist on the paper, told BBC News

The Y chromosome, passed from father to son, gives researchers a way to trace back family trees for generations. Mitochondrial DNA, genetic material found in the cellular organelles called mitochondria, is likewise passed from mother to daughter. The living relatives of Richard III on the maternal side (descendants of Richard’s eldest sister Anne of York) carry mitochondrial DNA that match that of the monarch’s remains. But when researchers tried to trace the lineage of the Y chromosome, they didn’t find a match.

"That means at least one person along the family tree had a biological father that was different from the father written down on his or her birth certificate," writes Mary Beth Griggs for Popular Science

The finding means that at some point between Richard III and Henry, Somerset, the 5th Duke of Beaufort (who lived between 1744 and 1803) and whose living descendants provided DNA for the new study, someone was cuckolded.

For the BBC, Paul Rincon writes:

Richard III and his royal rival, Henry Tudor (later Henry VII), were both descendants of King Edward III. The infidelity could, in theory, have occurred either on the branch leading back from Henry to Edward or on the branch leading from Richard to Edward.

Henry's ancestor John of Gaunt was plagued by rumours of illegitimacy throughout his life, apparently prompted by the absence of Edward III at his birth. He was reportedly enraged by gossip suggesting he was the son of a Flemish butcher.

The genetic analysis, published in Nature Communications, also revealed more mundane information. Richard III was blue-eyed and may have been blond, at least as a child. And two people, Wendy Duldig and Michael Ibsen, had it confirmed that they can claim an unbroken line of female ancestors leading back to Anne of York. 

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.