Finding the Mitochondrial DNA of King Richard III

In 1468, Margaret of York, the sister of king Edward IV and of Richard, Duke of Gloucester – the future Richard III - married Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Apart from one brief visit to England, Margaret subsequently spent the rest of her life in Burgundy and Flanders. She endeared herself to her new people both by her kindness, and by her willingness to speak their languages, French and Dutch. She is, to this day, remembered with affection in modern Belgium, and the modern Belgian interest in Margaret of York is an important part of this story.

When her husband left her a childless widow, still relatively young, Margaret settled at the palace in her dower town of Mechelen (or Malines). Here she presided over the upbringing of her step-daughter, Mary of Burgundy, and later of Mary’s children and grandchildren. Only one wing of Margaret's Mechelen Palace survives today. But happily this surviving wing was restored in the 1990s.

When Margaret died, in 1503, she was buried, at her own request, in the Franciscan Priory Church in Mechelen. She had asked for a simple burial, but that wish was ignored. It is reported that the bells of Mechelen Cathedral tolled for ten days in mourning for Margaret, and her step-grandchildren gave her a splendid funerary monument, which included a bronze plaque with an angel, bearing her coat of arms, and an inscription. There were also two large groups of statuary in the arches of the rood screen. On the side facing the high altar, Margaret was shown entering heavenly glory, accompanied by her patroness, St Margaret, while towards the nave, Franciscan friars were depicted, lamenting around Margaret's dead body.

All of this was destroyed, and Margaret's remains were lost, when the priory church was sacked in the religious wars of the sixteenth century. However, a modern bronze plaque, bearing a copy of Margaret's original tomb inscription, and an angel, with her coat of arms, was erected by the Richard III Society at the former priory in the year 2000.

Meanwhile, during the 20th century, in the course of restoring the former priory church, several sets of female bones were found. Though none of them came from Margaret's precise original tomb location, it was thought that her remains might be amongst them.

In 2003 – the 500th anniversary of Margaret's death – I attended a conference in her honour in Mechelen. At this conference the problem of the multiple possible Margaret bones and how to identify them was considered.  As a result, I began discussions with Belgian colleagues on the topic of DNA. We knew that if we could identify Margaret's DNA sequence, it might be possible to determine whether any of the bones were indeed hers.

In the case of the Mechelen bones, it was necessary to compare their mtDNA with a mtDNA sample from a living descendant of one of Margaret of York's close female relatives, in an all-female line of descent. Such a sample would reveal the mtDNA sequence of Margaret herself, and of all of her siblings, including Richard III.

I began by tracing Margaret of York's (and Richard III’s) female family line backwards, via Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, and her mother, Joan Beaufort. Surprisingly, perhaps, it isn’t possible to go very far. The earliest identifiable female-line ancestress of Margaret of York and her siblings is their great grand mother, Catherine de Roët, Duchess of Lancaster. Catherine's father was a knight from the Low Countries called Gilles de Roët, but the identity of her mother is unknown.

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The family tree on the right indicates that Catherine's sister, Philippa married the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, whose children therefore had the DNA sequence which I was seeking. However, only one of the Chaucer children was a daughter, and she chose to become a nun. Catherine's daughter, Joan Beaufort had no full-blood sisters, but any female line descendant of Cecily Neville or of her sisters would meet my requirements.

My best hope at first appeared to be Cecily Neville's middle daughter, Elizabeth of York, Duchess of Suffolk, who had lots of children, but sadly her line of descent rapidly died out.

Cecily Neville's eldest daughter, Anne of York, by contrast, had only one surviving daughter. However she has innumerable living descendants. Finally it was to be one of her lines of descent that I was able to trace in an unbroken female chain to the present day.

The family tree shows a direct and all-female line from Anne of York to the present day. Of course, I didn't arrive at this pedigree straight away. Quite a lot of work was involved. Nor did I arrive at it without assistance, and I should like to take this opportunity to publicly thank Dave Perry for all the help he gave me in tracing this family tree. Tracing a female line of descent is hard because of the changes of surname, and it is always difficult in genealogy to work forward in time, rather than backwards. The main difficulty in this case, though, was that I had to follow every possible all-female line of descent, since I had no way of knowing at the outset which line (if any) would persist until the present day.

As you can see, this pedigree runs from Anne of York's only daughter, Anne St Leger, to a living descendant, Joy Brown (Mrs Ibsen) whom I eventually traced. You may notice that this family line had quite an affection for the name Barbara! 

When I first made contact with her, Joy had no idea that she was descended from the house of York, but fortunately she was fascinated by the idea. Even more fortunately she agreed to provide a DNA sample, the analysis of which led to a DNA sequence, which is the sequence not only of Joy herself, but also of Edward IV, Richard III and Margaret of York.

The late Joy Ibsen

The late Joy Ibsen

It was very fortunate that I found Joy in time to record her mtDNA sequence. Joy died in 2008. She has living children, but it seems probable that her all-female line of descent from Anne of York — an unbroken line, preserved for us through a total of 17 generations — is now coming to an end.

Nevertheless, her DNA sequence is now on record. It belongs to one of the rarer European groups, and is believed to indicate descent from a population which migrated to Europe from the near east in comparatively recent times (in the order of 10,000 years or so ago). This population group is thought to have brought with it the farming techniques which gradually superseded the hunter-gatherer lifestyle which had previously prevailed in Europe.

Sadly, as far as the Mechelen bones are concerned, comparison with Joy's DNA sequence has indicated that two of the possible sets of bones discovered in Mechelen could not be those of Margaret of York. Work on samples from the third set of Mechelen bones is still ongoing. Perhaps Margaret's remains were scattered when her tomb was broken up, and will never now be found. However, should more bones from the priory site ever come to light, Joy's mtDNA sequence will now always be available for further comparison.

Moreover, her DNA - through a new sample donated in August 2012 by her eldest son, Michael Ibsen was also used to help establish the identity of remains found in Leicester, on the site of the Greyfriars Church where Richard III was buried in 1485.