On February 4th, researchers announced that a skeleton unearthed in 2012 was indeed Richard III, the last in England’s Plantagenet line. On August 24th, 2012, exactly 528 years and two days after his death at the Battle of Bosworth Field, remains were dug up from under a parking lot in Leicester. DNA and skeletal analysis enabled researchers to confirm the skeleton’s identity.
Richard III is often remembered as a cruel king, and members of the Richard III Society have worked since 1924 to rehabilitate his name. Their research revealed that a medieval historian, John Rouse, had written only days after Richard III’s death that his body had been buried next to the ruins of the Greyfriars Priory in Leicester. Other sources wrote than angry mobs had thrown his body into the River Soar after the battle (2). Phillipa Langley, a member of the Richard III Society, spearheaded the search for the body, gathering donors to raise $250,000 for the excavation and analysis effort (1, 2).
Two bodies, one male and one female, were taken from the excavation site (3). The identity of the female skeleton is still unclear. Detailed analysis on the male skeleton was conducted in England and France.
The body was confirmed to be that of a slender man in his twenties or thirties, and radiocarbon analysis of the body’s rib bones indicated that the person had died between 1455 and 1540. These details were consistent with accounts of Richard III, who is said to have died at 32 in 1485 (2). Richard III, who suffered from scoliosis, was hunchbacked, and the extreme curvature of the skeleton’s upper spine supported this diagnosis (2). Bone analysis revealed a lifestyle rich with protein, a luxury only available to the privileged of the time (2).
Furthermore, the body was riddled with wounds, including one that matched the fatal wound to the back of his neck described by witnesses. A halberd, a medieval weapon, was used for the strike. The body also had nine other wounds, including those resembling dagger gashes to the cheek, jaw, and lower back. All were supposedly delivered postmortem by soldiers in the army of Henry Tudor, the victor of the battle, who went on to become King Henry VII (2). A part of the skull had also been removed postmortem (4).
Turi King, a researcher at the University of Leicester, led the genetic analysis. “We made sure that the excavation was carried out in clean conditions,” she said. “The main thing you’re worried about is modern DNA contamination” (3). A tooth was pulled from the skeleton, ground to a powder, and mixed with a buffer to extract the DNA for analysis. Two descendants of Anne of York, the sister of Richard III, supplied the DNA for comparison. Researchers used mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down from mothers, in their analysis (3). The specific type of mitochondrial DNA found in all of the samples is carried by only 1-2% of the English population (2).
Since the discovery of the body, researchers have completed facial reconstruction of Richard III, and plans have been made for his burial in the Leicester Cathedral. However, analysis on the body is not yet complete. King plans to conduct further genetic research on the body, reconstructing Y-chromosomes from the remains to compare with Richard III’s male descendants. However, the degradation of the DNA promises to make this process difficult (3).
- The Richard III Society. Available at: http://www.richardiii.net/index.php (9 February 2013)
- J. Burnes, Bones Under Parking Lot Belonged to Richard III (2013). Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/05/world/europe/richard-the-third-bones.html?_r=0 (7 February 2013)
- P. Walter, Richard III body found under Leicester car park (2013). Available at: http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/2013/02/richard-iii-third-3-body (9 February 2013).
- Discovery of Remains of England’s King Richard III Confirmed (2013). Available at: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130204094610.htm (9 February 2013).
- The Real Richard III. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130205-richardiii-english-king-3d-reconstruction-science-archaeology/ (9 February 2013).
Facial reconstruction of Richard III. Photograph by Dan Kitwood, Getty Images.