Richard III DNA Test Sparks Controversy

facial reconstruction of King Richard III
A new facial reconstruction of King Richard III, based on the bones unearthed beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England, show the vilified monarch in a kinder, gentler light. (Image credit: copyright Richard III Society)

King Richard III has been dead for more than 500 years, but his bones continue to ignite fresh controversy.

The medieval king, unearthed from a Leicester parking lot in 2012, has been the center of debate over where and how his body should be reburied. Now, a plan to sequence the full genome of Richard III has brought new strife.

"Why is the University of Leicester doing this, and why is it doing it without any consultation?" said John Ashdown-Hill, an independent historian involved with the search for the bones. The DNA testing will add very little to scientific knowledge, and it breaks agreements with Buckingham Palace made before the University got involved in the Richard III search, Ashdown-Hill told Live Science. [See Photos of the Search of King Richard III]

"We're talking about a member of the royal family and a former head of state," he said.

A lost king – and controversy

Richard III died in 1485, a victim on the field at the Battle of Bosworth, part of the English War of the Roses. Historical records held that his battered body was taken to Leicester and buried, but the grave was lost in the early 1600s. 

The search for Richard III's body was sparked by the Richard III Society, a group of historical enthusiasts who call themselves Ricardians. Ashdown-Hill is a part of the Looking for Richard team that got the ball rolling; he started working to sequence the mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down the maternal line, of Richard III's living descendant in 2003.

Screenwriter and dedicated Ricardian Philippa Langley took the lead on the archaeology, urging the Leicester City Council to allow a dig in its building's parking lot, as historical records suggested the lot sat over the site of Greyfriars, the church where Richard III was buried. The Richard III society funded the dig and hired University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) to do the archaeology. ULAS is an independent group of archaeologists embedded in the University of Leicester's school of archaeology and ancient history.

An artist's conception of the tomb that will be built for King Richard III in Leicester Cathedral. (Image credit: Van Heyningen and Haward)

These players have sometimes clashed with each other, as well was with outsiders. Most prominent are debates over where the king will be reburied. The University of Leicester was granted the exhumation license for the body, making it the institution responsible for the reburial. The plan is to rebury Richard III in Leicester Cathedral. That arrangement has sparked anger from some who claim relation to the king who'd like to see him buried in his adopted hometown of York. And even some who accept a Leicester burial are upset with the modernistic designs for Richard III's tomb

DNA debate

As a result of the burial controversy, a judicial review of the University of Leicester's custody of the body is ongoing, with a judgment expected in a few weeks. Against this backdrop come the criticisms of a newly announced project to sequence the entire genome of Richard III. The identification of the king's body was made with mitochondrial DNA, which is a limited portion of the body's DNA.

That mitochondrial DNA test was necessary, as Richard III was buried in a shallow grave without a coffin or remaining marker, Ashdown-Hill said. But further testing, he argues, goes against precedent.

"Her Majesty the Queen would not allow exhumation of other royal remains, or the testing of them," Ashdown-Hill said. The hurried circumstances of Richard III's burial and the turmoil at the time are the only reasons his bones don't lie in state like other monarchs, he said — in which case, they would never be studied. [Images: A New Dig at Richard III's Grave]

The only other royal body exhumed was Anne de Mowbray, the 8-year-old Duchess of York, and the child bride of one of Richard III's nephews, one of the two "Princes in the Tower" who were kept in the Tower of London and then vanished when Richard took the throne. (Rumors persist that he had them murdered.) The little Duchess was found accidentally in 1964 on a construction site; her body was not scientifically investigated, and she was reburied in Westminster Abbey in 1965.

"It's breaking the precedent we had in 1965, what's going on at the moment [with Richard III]," Ashdown-Hill said. 

Crumbling trust

The controversy also reflects distrust between the University of Leicester and some on the search team not affiliated with the university. The Looking for Richard team instigated the project and fought an uphill battle to get everyone else on board for the actual investigation, Ashdown-Hill said.

"We had to work really hard to get them to do it, and yet when they found it, everything was, 'The University of Leicester has done this, the University of Leicester has done that,'" he said.

The Looking for Richard team talked with Buckingham Palace before the University of Leicester got involved and agreed that images of any remains found shouldn't be broadcast and that the remains should be treated with respect, Ashdown-Hill said. The university now claims the right to continue the scientific investigation, and has already taken additional bone samples. Even if the courts judge rules the university doesn't have legal custody of the body, they may still continue the DNA analysis, Ashdown-Hill said.

"This might tell us whether or not Richard III had difficulty in digesting milk, for example," he said. "It might tell us whether his hair was medium brown, light brown or dark brown. But is that really very valuable information?"

Turi King, the University of Leicester geneticist leading the DNA project did not respond to a request for comment; instead, the university sent a statement defending the decision. The study was considered by the ethics committee of the university and the university's college of medicine before approval and is governed by guidelines set by the Church of England and the governmental body English Heritage, according to the University.

"King Richard III is a figure of immense historical and cultural significance, and the information that we hope to obtain from sequencing his genome will provide insights into the health and ancestry of the king and his historical environment," the university statement reads.

Editor's Note: This article was updated Feb. 26 at 10:05 a.m. Eastern to correct the spelling of "Ricardians."

Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.