Tuesday 17 July 2018

The DNA of the Missing Princes

A recent newspaper report announced that newly discovered DNA could prove whether Richard III murdered the princes in the Tower. What is the real significance of this discovery?

The research was undertaken by Society member, Glen Moran, after hearing a talk by John Ashdown-Hill. He revealed that, contrary to previous assumptions, an all female line had survived on the princes' mother's side. This means that mitochondrial DNA that would match the princes could be identified.

If it were possible to examine the DNA of any of the various bones speculatively identified as those of the ‘Princes in the Tower’, this new discovery would help to establish for certain whether they really are those of the missing princes. The DNA already obtained from Richard III would also be key.

If the bones did include Richard III’s male line DNA, then it would be certain that they were closely related. However, technically, they might still be another relative, such as otherwise unknown royal bastards. This is, of course, highly unlikely, but only with the female line DNA as well could scientists be absolutely certain.

The other scenario in which the female line DNA could prove significant is if either Cecily duchess of York (the princes’ grandmother), or Elizabeth Woodville (their mother) had been unfaithful so that their offspring did not actually share the male line DNA of Richard III. Again, this is highly unlikely, although some historians and writers have argued that we should believe contemporary rumours that Edward IV was illegitimate. (For a recent refutation of ‘evidence’ for this, see Livia Visser-Fuchs’ article in the most recent edition of The Ricardian).

Could this impact on our understanding of whether Richard III killed the princes? This would depend on finding bones that could positively be identified as those of the princes. If the evidence of the bones indicated that the boys were clearly too old to have died in Richard III’s reign, then we would know that he could not have ordered their deaths. There are of course various sites rumoured to hold the remains of one or other of the princes, but whether the right body can be found and access granted for testing is of course another challenge. Unfortunately, if the boys merely fell sick or were killed by someone else during Richard’s reign, or shortly afterwards, the mystery would remain even if the bones could be found.