Are These the Bones of Richard III?

In central England, an archaeological dig is happening in an unlikely spot—a parking lot in the city of Leicester. The goal: To find the final resting spot of Richard III, the last of England’s Plantagenet kings and perhaps one of its most maligned rulers. Richard III reigned over England for only two years before being killed by Henry Tudor’s army during the Battle of Bosworth Field in August 1485 at the end of the War of the Roses, which pitted Richard’s House of York against the House of Lancaster. Many historical records suggest that Richard’s body was brought to Leicester and buried between the nave and altar at Grey Friars church. You would think that a king’s tomb would be well marked and well remembered, even for an unpopular king like Richard III, but that is not the case here. Henry was said to have erected a memorial for his former rival, but that and any other monuments, along with the church itself, are long gone, destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when Henry VIII was named Supreme Head of the Church in England and systematically razed monasteries, convents and friaries throughout England, Wales and Ireland between 1536 and 1541. Since then, the exact location of Richard III’s remains was lost to history. However, thanks to a team of University of Leicester archaeologists and geneticists that might be changing.

Using historical and current maps, Richard Buckley and his team of archaeologists identified the most likely location of Grey Friars church—beneath the parking lot of the Leicester City Council building. On August 25, the team began excavating and located thick walls and tiled floors of a medieval friary and garden, as well as various artifacts. The most exciting discovery was two sets of human remains: One of a female and one of a male that exhibit skeletal abnormalities similar to those of Richard III.

Like Richard III, the skeleton buried beneath the modern-day parking lot had severe scoliosis, or curvature of the spine. The skeleton also exhibited signs of a violent death, with a broken skull and an arrowhead lodged in the upper back. Were these injuries that Richard had sustained on the battlefield? Based on this scant and circumstantial evidence, we cannot say definitively that these bones are those of Richard III. This is where DNA comes in.

Turi King, a geneticist at the University of Leicester, is leading efforts to use mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) analysis to determine whether the remains found below the parking lot are indeed those of Richard III. Her team will extract mtDNA from teeth and possibly a femur then sequence the mtDNA. This sequence will be compared to the mtDNA sequence of a 17th-great-grandnephew of Richard III. Because this man and Richard III share a maternal line and mtDNA is inherited through the maternal line, a mtDNA match between the two men would be strong evidence to support the hypothesis that scientists have found Richard III. This work is not yet complete, so we will have to wait a few more months to learn the results.

If DNA evidence supports the claim that these are Richard’s bones, what then? Some folks are calling for his remains to be reburied in a place befitting a king, possibly Westminster Abbey. Others believe that, although he was a king, he may not deserve a burial place of such respect and prominence. After all, the list of misdeeds attributed to him is long and nefarious. In 1483, after his brother’s death, Richard was named Protector of his twelve-year-old nephew, King Edward V, and his younger brother, but Richard was not satisfied being the king’s protector. He seized the throne, imprisoned the two princes in the Tower of London and, as some claim, murdered the two boys to secure his spot on the throne. There were also rumors that he was involved in the earlier deaths of his own wife and Henry VI. However, how many of these actions were true and how many were simply Tudor propaganda?

As often happens in history, the victors were able to twist opinions and events to their advantage. After Richard’s death, members of the House of Lancaster did their best to defame the late king and portray him as a brutal tyrant. Many of these accounts made their way into a play written in the 1590s by William Shakespeare, who portrayed Richard III as an evil and corrupt king and exaggerated his physical deformities. However, regardless of his real or perceived misdeeds, Richard III did some good things during his short time wearing the crown, including implementing a system of legal aid for defendants who could not afford representation and legal rights and protections for accused persons. Also, the legal system became easier for the common man to understand during his reign when the first laws written entirely in English were passed. As for the disappearance of the young princes, no clear evidence has been discovered to prove Richard’s involvement.

Many unanswered questions still surround Richard III. Was he an evil tyrant who murdered his brother’s sons to gain the throne? Did he murder others in his ambition to become king? Even the fate of his body after his defeat at the Battle of Bosworth is not known definitively. Many historical accounts suggest his body was buried at Grey Friars church, but others state that his body was thrown into the Soar River. Unfortunately, we have little hope in answering many of these questions more than 500 years after Richard’s death, but this latest discovery in a Leicester parking lot and the results of mtDNA analysis may help us at least clear up the mystery of his final resting place.

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Terri Sundquist

Terri has worked as a Scientific Communications Specialist at Promega Corporation for more than 13 years, and prior to that, spent more than 5 years solving problems and answering questions as a Promega Technical Services Scientist. She graduated with B.S. degrees in Chemistry and Biology at the University of Wisconsin—River Falls, then earned her M.S. in Molecular Biology from the Mayo Graduate School in Rochester Minnesota.

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