Richard III: The Question of Identity

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King Richard III's grave

Is the skeleton found in this grave on the site of the Greyfriar’s priory in Leicester really that of Richard III? Copyright image by Natasha Sheldon, all rights reserved.

On the 26th March 2015, the body of Richard III was finally laid to rest in Leicester Cathedral.

Or was it? According to British historian Dominic Selwood’s article in The Telegraph, it is “far from clear” that the body once simply known as Skeleton 1 is actually that of the last Plantagenet King.

Selwood questions the validity of the dating and bone analysis, as well as the DNA results, as evidence of the skeleton’s identity. In light of this, Decoded Past decided to review the evidence to see if there really is a question mark hanging over the identity of the skeleton that would be King.

The Age of the Bones

Selwood claims that the carbon dating of the bones is “a bit of a mess,” pointing out that with a date range between 1475–1530, “you may as well stick your finger in the air.”

In fact, radiocarbon dating can be no more specific than this, but a time span of 55 years is not as inexact as he suggests. After all, that makes skeleton 1’s death contemporary with events at the end of the War of Roses and buried in the known burial site of the defeated King.


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And while the carbon dating range may be unacceptably wide for Selwood, he overlooks evidence for the age of the skeleton at time of death. CT analysis of the bones has given an age of death of between 30-34 years old. Richard was 32 when he died.

War Wounds

This is not the only evidence that Selwood overlooks.

“Richard was a war veteran – but the bones show no healed wounds,” he argues. But lack of bodily wounds is no surprise because Richard would have worn armour into battle– a fact that explains why there was no evidence of defensive wounds on the arms and hands of the skeleton, according to a team of experts who published their analysis of the trauma to the skeleton.

As for the cause of death, The Lancet report concludes that skeleton 1 would have died unhelmed after a dagger blow to his head drove him to his knees or prostrate. The fatal blows to the inferior cranium or lower half of the skull– an area that would only have been exposed to damage in this position– followed. This matches the death dealt to King Richard.

Life and Lifestyle

Analysis of the isotopes in the bones and teeth of Skeleton 1 also reveal convincing parallels between the King and his purported remains. The Journal of Archaeological Science discusses how collagen from two of the skeleton’s teeth, plus the femur and rib (to give an overview of long-term and recent life conditions) revealed that, like Richard, the skeleton grew up in Northamptonshire.

Richard was king for the last 2 years of his life and although a noble, we would expect that his diet became even richer when he ascended the throne.

Increased nitrogen and oxygen isotopes in skeleton 1 indicate that at the end of his life, he also experienced an increase in game and freshwater fish in his diet– as well as an increase in wine consumption.

The Line of Descent

“The DNA analysis has also been controversial,” states Selwood. “The skeleton’s mitochondrial DNA shows descent from the same female line as Richard. But every mother passes the same mitochondrial DNA to her sons and daughters, and her daughters pass it to their sons and daughters, and so on. Over generations and centuries, that means a large group of people in different places with different surnames.

The other usable DNA from the bones is the Y-chromosome DNA, which passes from father to son. Unfortunately, the Leicester car park bones do not have Richard’s expected male-line DNA.”

But the DNA evidence, while far from conclusive, is not as easy to dismiss as Selwood believes. The results of the DNA analysis, published by a multidiscipline, multinational team of academics in Nature Communications, acknowledges that the Y chromosome DNA is unreliable because of the possibility of afalse paternity event,” but also gives good reasons why.

The Y chromosome relatives are related to Richard through Edward III– four generations before Richard. Given that the estimated average rate of false paternity is 1-2%, it is not inconceivable that such an event could have occurred in the 19 generations between Richard and his modern “relatives.”

As for the mtDNA, the Nature report shows this matched one descendant perfectly, with a single base pair substitution in a second relative– entirely consistent with the mutations expected throughout time, but close enough to establish skeleton 1 as of the same matrilineal line as the King.

The King’s Appearance

Earliest Surviving portrait of Richard III

This picture of Richard III is the earliest known portrait of the King and shows him with light brown hair and pale eyes– features confirmed by the DNA of Skeleton 1. Image by Silverwhistle.

Then there is the question of the appearance of Skeleton 1. The Nature report shows that there was a 96% probability for blue eyes and a 77% probability for blond hair. In Selwood’s view, this weakens the case further. “We know Richard almost certainly had black hair and brown eyes,” he claims.

According to the experts in the Nature report: “Current hair colour DNA predictions resemble childhood hair colour and it is important to note that in certain blond individuals, hair colour can darken during adolescence. It is therefore possible that Skeleton 1 had brown hair as seen in contemporary Europeans with a similarly high blond probability as obtained for Skeleton 1.”

The only portraits we have of King Richard are posthumous, with the earliest dating to the 1510s. Of these, an arch framed portrait held by the Society of Antiquities of London, shows a Richard with light brown hair and pale eyes– an appearance which, in the experts’ opinion: closely matches the genetically predicted eye and hair colour results.”

The Wrong Man?

The international experts believe that there is a 0.999994-0.9999999 probability in favour of Skeleton 1 being King Richard III, a fact disputed on the grounds of the DNA according to The Telegraph article.

“Professor Michael Hicks, a leading Richard III scholar, has challenged Leicester University’s claim that we can be 99.999 per cent certain it is Richard,” says Selwood. “The most we can conclude, he points out, is that the bones belong to someone with the same female-line DNA group as Richard. No more.”

The Nature team acknowledges that while the inconclusive Y chromosome data weakens the DNA evidence, the mtDNA supports a 2/3 probability that Skeleton 1 is that of the King. But crucially, both Selwood and Professor Hicks are ignoring the fact that the international experts who determined the identity of the skeleton did not just use the DNA to calculate this probability, but the supporting bone and dating analysis as well.

The Last Plantagenet King

So is Skeleton 1 the wrong body? Well, based on the experts’ opinion, there is a 0.000006-0.00000001 chance it is. But then, what are the chances that a skeleton of a high status male of the same age as Richard, who spent his childhood in the same place, with the same matrilineal descent, who died in the same time period of battle wounds, and had a spinal deformity, would be buried in exactly the same place as the Last Plantagenet?

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© Copyright 2015 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

Comments

  1. Vincent E. Summers says

    A most invigorating rebuttal to the dissenters. Dissension can be useful tool. It makes the one presenting his case give closer attention to the arguments in favor. I think you’ve covered the bases pretty well. Will there be further rebuttal?

    • Natasha Sheldon says

      I suspect there will be, Vincent-certainly from Professor Hicks. i believe the problem lies when all the weight is put on the DNA evidence. True, this is not 100% conclusive- on its own. But dissenters really do tend to ignore the rest of the evidence, which when taken altogether make, I believe a convincing case for the identity of Skeleton 1. After all, it would be far too improbable coincidence for it to be someone else with so many factors in common with Richard.

  2. HMW says

    There are also the details of a burial in haste in a hole that was too short (not flat with the head higher than the body and hands that may have been bound ) and no coffin …… but in the choir of a church (ie high status). Other than this being Richard these are surely hard to explain circumstances, especially when added to everything else?

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