The King is in a terrible way. Wounded, bleeding, he sees his world in disarray. The upstart Richmond has the field. Now he will have Richmond. His loyal aide Catesby urges retreat: “Withdraw, my lord,” he says. “I’ll help you to a horse.”
Not this King, not this day. “Slave, I have set my life upon a cast,” Richard snarls. “And I will stand the hazard of the die: I think there be six Richmonds in the field; five have I slain to-day instead of him.” He needs only the means to go after Richmond. “A horse! a horse!” he howls. “My kingdom for a horse!”
And then what?
Yes, yes, I know. Richmond kills him and becomes the first great Tudor Monarch, Henry VII. He consolidates his shaky hold on the throne by marrying Richard’s niece and siring doomed Arthur and the man who later becomes King Henry VIII. And Richard’s body is buried in a Greyfriars church. But the church is long gone, a victim of the younger Henry’s theological purge. And some have speculated that the same mob which burned the church carried Richard’s desiccated body out and threw it in a river.
Well, speculate no longer. They found the body.
Archeologist Richard Buckley of Leicester University, who led a team funded by the Richard III Society, announced that he and his team had determined “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the bones discovered under a Leicester car park are those of the last Plantagenet king.
A team of scientists led by Turi King of the University’s Department of Genetics echoed Buckley’s findings. A press release from the University pointed to radiocarbon dating of the bones, which placed the time of death in the latter half of the 15th century or the early part of the 16th (Richard died in 1485); evidence of a high protein diet (at the time, available in England only to those of high status), multiple wounds – including two to the skull, either of which could have been fatal, and several post-mortem “humiliation wounds” which would have probably not been inflicted on an ordinary soldier.
The skeleton showed that the dead man (DNA confirmed that it was a man) suffered from severe scoliosis, which would have been consistent with Shakespeare’s description of Richard as a “hunchback.” Scientists determined from the bones that the man who had them had a “slender, almost feminine” build, which would have been consistent with contemporary descriptions of Richard.
The most powerful evidence that the bones belonged to Richard, however, was a mitochondrial DNA match between the bones and a saliva sample taken from Michael Ibsen, a Canadian cabinetmaker who is known to have descended from Richard’s sister, Anne of York, (and, presumably, from Richard’s mother, Cecily Neville.) The University also obtained a DNA sample from a second descendent, who declined to be identified, and found a match there.
“The DNA sequence obtained from the Greyfriars skeletal remains was compared with the two maternal line relatives of Richard III,” Dr. King said. “We were very excited to find that there is a DNA match between the maternal DNA from the family of Richard the Third and the skeletal remains we found at the Grey Friars dig.”
Mitochondrial DNA, while generally considered the best genetic evidence for determining ancestry, is not conclusive in and of itself. The mitochondria are that part of the cell which turns glucose into energy; it is passed down through the maternal line almost completely unchanged. “It’s as good as it can get,” says Mark Thomas, a professor of evolutionary genetics at University College London. “If the only thing you can compare that ancient DNA with is somebody living today, then you’d want it to be mitochondria.”
It is not perfect, however. It is conceivable that the skeleton received its mitochondrial DNA not from Cecily Neville but from Cecily Neville’s mother – either directly or through another daughter. Or from Cecily Neville’s mother’s mother. And so on.
It is uncertain at this point how common the mitochondrial DNA shared by Ibsen and the skeleton is. The rarer the DNA, the more likely the bones belong to Richard III. “If Richard III had a very common type of mitochondrial DNA, then there will be plenty of people in the country that have got the same,” Thomas said.
However, when combined with the other evidence Buckley’s team compiled – including discovery of the remains of the Greyfriars church nearby – the DNA evidence that these bones belonged to Shakespeare’s great villain is very strong.
“It has been an honor and privilege for all of us to be at the centre of an academic project that has had such phenomenal global interest and mass public appeal,” Buckley said. “Rarely have the conclusions of academic research been so eagerly awaited.”
The historic value of the discovery is still unclear. While controversy remains as to whether Richard, considered in the context of his time, was as bad as Shakespeare painted him to be, it is unlikely that the discovery of his remains will add light to the debate over the quality of his kingship.
However, the discovery may be of value to the cash-strapped English Government. Following peer review of the Buckley-King team’s findings, a formal reinterment of the last Plantagenet will be in Leicester Cathedral in 2014.
Information first published in The Guardian of London was used in preparing this article.