It was recently announced that a team led by University of Leicester geneticist Dr. Turi King will attempt to sequence the full genome of Richard III*. This analysis will allow insight into Richard III’s genetic make-up, including susceptibility to certain diseases, hair and eye color, and Turi King is particularly interested in looking for DNA evidence of a predisposition to scoliosis.
But like many other aspects of Richard III’s life, this too is a thorny subject. While Michael Ibsen, who’s mitochondrial DNA proved the skeleton in the car park was indeed Richard III, has no objections to the testing and has agreed to participate in the project, others are against conducting further testing on the remains of an anointed king.
John Ashdown-Hill, an independent historian that was part of the "Looking for Richard" team, argues that by taking further bone samples the University of Leicester has gone against the agreement they made with Buckingham Palace before the dig began. While he agrees that mitochondrial DNA was necessary to obtain solid proof that the skeleton did indeed belong to Richard III, further testing is futile and will offer no valuable information.
Reports that the Church of England, with support from the Queen and government ministers, has declined requests (one made by the Richard III Society in 1993 and another by Channel 4 in 1995) to perform forensic tests to establish whether the bones buried in Sir Christopher Wren's urn in Westminster Abbey are those of Richard III’s nephews is being used as proof that further testing on the remains of Richard III goes against the agreement made with Buckingham Palace.
Another fact that Ashdown-Hill is leaning on to support his claim is that this testing goes against precedents is the 1964 discovery of the remains of Anne de Mowbray, the child bride of Richard of York (one of the two “Princes in the Tower”). The remains of the 8-year-old Duchess of York was discovered accidently on a construction site and was reburied in Westminster Abbey in 1965 without being scientifically investigated.
However the University of Leicester, who was granted the exhumation license for the body, has already collected what they referred to as ‘small samples’ needed to conduct the additional genome testing. And that the testing is soon to be underway.
Those who support Turi King and the University of Leicester in their quest to sequence the full genome of Richard III could argue that the reason the Church of England denied permission to test the remains in Wren’s urn had less to do with the fact they were Royals and more to do with the fact that there is a possibility they may not be the remains of Richard III’s nephews and the question of what to do with the remains then would be raised.
Likewise the handling of Anne de Mowbray’s remains could be discarded as the scientific testing we have now was not available in 1964.
The use of genome sequencing is a huge breakthrough for historians and archeologist. Considering that there are no surviving contemporary portraits of Richard III (the oldest paintings were painted around 40 or 50 years after his death) the ability to ascertain information regarding the appearance and physical traits of Richard III could help to either confirm or deny the king’s posthumous reputation.
It’s a historian’s job to preserve history and with the legal battle over where to bury Richard III raging on, why shouldn’t thy use every tool at their disposal to learn more about the last English king killed in battle.
Whether you are for or against the additional testing, one thing is certain; the discovery of Richard III’s remains has historians and archeologist more determined than ever to discover the lost gravesites of British monarchs. And to avoid future confusion I think it’s time that a new set of laws and regulations is set by the Monarchy regarding how to deal with the discovery of royal remains.
*The £100,000 ($165,000) sequencing project is being funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Leverhulme Trust and Alec Jeffreys, the genetics professor at the University of Leicester who developed genetic fingerprinting. It will be conducted at the University of Leicester and in collaboration with Professor Michael Hofreiter of the University of Potsdam.