Richard III Rises Again

Aug. 15, 2014

By Medical Discovery News

Richard III at Bosworth

One of the literary world’s most despicable villains, William Shakespeare portrayed Richard III as a clever, ruthless murderer obsessed with ascending to the throne of England. Historical accounts of this last king of the Plantagenet dynasty are more kind and describe a complex figure, who during his brief reign instituted reforms beneficial to the common man. For example, he started the Court of Requests where common people’s petitions could be heard, instituted the practice of bail for citizens, and banned restrictions on printing and selling books. While these historical accounts provide some good information about Richard III, new forensic science reports can give us an even more extensive view of this historical figure.

When King Edward IV died in 1483, his 12-year-old son Edward V inherited the throne while Edward’s brother Richard was named Lord Protector. Soon after, court gossip perpetrated by Richard resulted in Edward V and his siblings being declared illegitimate; therefore Edward V could not assume the throne. Richard was crowned king. Edward V, who was in the Tower of London, was presumably killed. Edward’s supporters then tried to unseat Richard III and replace him with Henry Tudor, who was living in exile.

This effort culminated at battle of Bosworth Field. Accounts of the battle indicate that Richard led a cavalry charge that almost killed Henry Tudor but fell short and Richard was surrounded and killed. Here the story becomes murky, with accounts differing on what happened to Richard’s body. 

Fast forward to 2012, when the City of Leicester and the University of Leicester began searching for Richard’s remains. They started at the site of the long-destroyed Church of the Grey Friars, where some say he was buried. The most likely spot for the church’s burial ground was beneath a parking lot, and they did discover human remains there.

Forensic science then played a major role in identifying those remains as Richard’s. The skeletal remains were those of a male who clearly suffered from spinal scoliosis or the curvature of the spine. The man would have had one shoulder higher than the other, giving him a hunched appearance, which fits Richard’s descriptions. Next, the remains showed multiple wounds to the head, which also coincide with accounts of Richard’s death on the battlefield.

Strong evidence came from mitochondrial DNA, which is always inherited from the mother and is therefore an accurate way to tell whether people are related. Using a DNA sample from a modern-day descendent of this once-royal family, the DNA analysis showed a clear match between the modern relative and Richard. Together, all the evidence points to Richard. Recently, 3-D mapping of the skull created a forensic reconstruction of his face.  

Richard’s remains will receive a dignified interment in Leicester’s cathedral next spring, although descendants of the Plantagenet family fought and lost a court battle to have him re-buried in York. In the meantime, scientists at the University of Leicester plan to sequence Richard’s whole genome, which would provide an unprecedented look at his ancestry and health. He will be the first prominent historical figure to have his total genomic sequence determined.

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