By now, you’ve seen the headlines. The bones that scientists found buried under a car park in Leicester, England, have been identified as those of the last Plantagenet king of England: Richard III. For those of you who might be new to this story, archaeologists identified and excavated the most likely burial spot for Richard III, under a car park near the Leicester City Council building, and unearthed a human skeleton with skeletal abnormalities similar to those of Richard III. Geneticists were called in to perform DNA analysis to determine if these bones were those of the English king. The DNA findings were just recently released. Now that scientists can say beyond a reasonable doubt that these bones belong to Richard III, we are learning new things about the ancient king.
I have already provided a detailed account of the nefarious history of Richard III and his short reign on the English throne, as well as information about the DNA tests, in an earlier blog entry. Here I discuss the evidence that supports the proper identification of Richard III more than 500 years after his death and mention a few other related projects where archaeologists and geneticists are teaming up to provide answers to some of history’s great mysteries.
In the case of Richard III, the key piece of evidence, in my opinion, is the DNA analysis. Geneticists just revealed that mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) isolated from the human remains found under the car park was an exact match to that isolated from Richard III’s 17th-great-grandnephew, a direct descendant of Richard’s sister Anne of York. Since mtDNA is inherited unchanged through the maternal line, this match proves that the great-grandnephew and Richard III share a maternal lineage. Does the mtDNA analysis provide definitive evidence that the remains are those of Richard III? Not exactly. You could argue that the remains belong to any relative within the same maternal lineage. This is where other evidence becomes important.
Scientists performed radiocarbon dating of the bones and determined that the remains date back to 1455–1540 AD. Richard III died at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, so the radiocarbon dating results support the identification. Also, Richard III was known to have developed scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, as a teenager. There is no doubt that the bones found under the car park exhibit obvious curvature of the spine (see the BBC photo gallery of Richard III’s skeleton). Finally, Richard III died in battle, and many of the wounds still evident on the skeleton are consistent with wounds expected in a battle setting. Taken together, this evidence, and the fact that archaeologists found his body at the exact site where the king was reportedly buried, convinces me that scientists have properly identified Richard III.
What new things have we learned about this medieval king from this discovery?
We have a better idea of Richard III’s true appearance. There are no surviving contemporary portraits of the king, and there is much speculation that existing portraits and descriptions were clouded by Tudor propaganda, making him appear more sinister and deformed than he really was. Scientists were able to use his skull for facial reconstruction and give us a more accurate portrayal. We also learned that he would have been about 5 feet 8 inches (1.7m) tall had his spine developed normally, but scoliosis made him appear much shorter. He had an unusually slender, almost feminine, frame.
At the time of his death, Richard III sustained at least ten injuries, including eight to the skull, two of which would be fatal. Some of these wounds were cuts to the face and head or “humiliation” injuries, where a weapon was thrust through the buttocks. He was buried hastily beneath Greyfriars church in a grave that was too small, and his wrists may have been bound when his body was buried.
Side note: Richard III may not be the only long-buried English king identified by combining archaeology and genetic analysis. As I write this, historians and scientists are attempting to locate and identify the remains of Alfred the Great and Henry I.
Unfortunately, there is little hope that the identification of Richard III will shed light on the most heinous crime attributed to him: the murders of his two young nephews who were next in line to the throne upon the death of their father Edward IV. In his quest to become king, Richard III had his nephews declared illegitimate and imprisoned at the Tower of London, never to be seen again. Some claim that the princes were murdered on Richard III’s orders. While we may never know his role in the princes death, scientists might be able to identify the princes’ remains.
Fittingly, the same DNA technology that allowed identification of Richard III could also be used to identify the putative remains of the young princes, which were discovered in the Tower of London almost 200 years after their father’s death and reburied in Westminster Abbey. The key is a a locket that contains hair from Mary Tudor, the daughter of the princes’ sister Elizabeth and thus the boys’ niece. A match between mtDNA from this hair and mtDNA from the skeletal remains is strong evidence that the remains are those of the imprisoned princes. Unfortunately, there are some hurdles to overcome before scientists can perform this DNA testing, so we may never know if we have found the ill-fated nephews of Richard III. More information.