Forensic Case Files: Richard III’s Remains Confirmed

On August 25, 2012, the Richard III Society, the University of Leicester Archeology Department and the Leicester City Council made an astounding announcement. Their joint efforts to find the remains of King Richard III had led them to a local municipal parking lot. The three trenches dug there not only revealed the walls from the Greyfriars Church in which Richard was said to be buried, but also a set of human remains—remains with a curious curvature to the spine and signs of violent, battle-related death. They proposed that this skeleton was the remains of Richard III, the last English monarch to die in battle, but they needed time to definitively prove his identification.

We covered this story last fall when the remains were finally excavated, and in the following posts concerning Richard’s supposed (and unproven) treachery in killing his nephews, the Princes in the Tower, and outlining the science that could ultimately prove Richard’s identity.

Yesterday, it was announced that ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’, the remains recovered were indeed those of King Richard III. It took the team over four months of intense testing using the tools of DNA analysis, forensic anthropological examination, carbon dating and environmental analysis to make this determination.

This is the evidence to support Richard’s identification:

  • Despite fears that nucleic acids within the bones might be too degraded after more than 500 years in the ground, DNA was successfully recovered from the teeth. Independent testing in Leicester and York confirmed the mitochondrial DNA match between the remains and Michael Ibsen of London, Ontario, a direct descendant of Anne of York, sister of the king. A second descendant was also found; this too was a match.
  • Carbon dating placed the remains between 1450 and 1540. Richard died at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.
  • Examination of the remains by a forensic anthropologist determined them to be from an individual in his late twenties or early thirties. At the time of his death, Richard was 32.
  • Radiocarbon dating revealed that the individual had consumed a high protein diet. Meat consumption in the fifteenth century was rare, except by those of high social status. 
  • There were ten injuries to the skull, including two fatal wounds by a sword and a halberd (a pole topped by a spiked axe). The latter removed a large chunk of the back of the skull.
  • The remains showed signs of severe scoliosis, which would present as the right shoulder sitting higher than the left. However, both arms appeared normal, in opposition to the Tudor portrayal of Richard as a ‘hunchback with a withered arm’.
  • Body positioning of the remains suggests that the hands were tied, as a prisoners’ might be.
  • The body was interred in a hastily dug grave. It was not long enough, causing the head to tip up so the body could fit. There was also no shroud or any grave artifacts. This careless treatment suggests burial at the hands of the victors of the battle and not those loyal to the Plantagenet cause or its king.

Richard’s remains will be re-interred at Leicester Cathedral. Next up for the Richard III society is to restore Richard’s tarnished reputation. Is it all a result of the victorious Tudor’s and their re-telling of history, or was any of it truth? This will be a challenge as they have centuries of belief to overcome.

For anyone wanting more information about Richard, the search for his remains and how they confirmed his identity, the University of Leicester has set up an excellent website containing all the information they now know: The Search for Richard III – Completed

Photo credit: The University of Leicester

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