Finding and seeing Richard III

We blogged about how archeologists have discovered what they thought was the skeleton of King Richard III, the monarch who, according to Shakespeare’s play of the same name, murdered his way to the crown until he was killed at the Battle of Bosworth field (“a horse!  My kingdom for a horse!”) by Henry, the Earl of Richmond, who would found the Tudor dynasty.  Well, yesterday DNA evidence confirmed that the skeleton–with its curved spine (Shakespeare described him as a hunchback) and a skull that had been hacked by a sword–is, in fact, that of Richard III, the last of the Plantagenets.  Not only that, facial reconstruction based on the skull showed his face, which is exactly that of a contemporary portrait of Richard.  This has also sparked controversy about whether Shakespeare was a propagandist for the Tudors in making him such an over-the-top but extraordinarily interesting villain.  Some say Richard was a good king after all.  The details of the DNA research, my take on the controversy, and the  pictures are after the jump.From  Scientists identify remains as those of King Richard III – by Henry Chu:

More than 500 years after his death in battle, scientists announced Monday that they had definitively identified a skeleton unearthed in northern England last summer as that of Richard III, the medieval king portrayed by William Shakespeare as a homicidal tyrant who killed his two young nephews in order to ascend the throne.

DNA from the bones, found beneath the ruins of an old church, matches that of a living descendant of the monarch’s sister, researchers said.

“Rarely have the conclusions of academic research been so eagerly awaited,” Richard Buckley, the lead archaeologist on the excavation, told a phalanx of reporters Monday morning. “Beyond reasonable doubt, the individual exhumed … is indeed Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England.”

The dramatic announcement capped a brief hunt for Richard’s remains, the progress of which has been closely charted by international media and whose success has been barely short of miraculous.

Working from old maps of Leicester, about 100 miles northwest of London, archaeologists from the local university had less than a month to dig in a small municipal parking lot — one of the few spaces not built over in the crowded city center. The team stumbled on the ruins of the medieval priory where records say Richard was buried, then found the bones a few days later last September.

“It was an extraordinary discovery that stunned all of us,” Buckley said.

The nearly intact skeleton bore obvious traces of trauma to the skull and of scoliosis, a curvature of the spine that matched contemporary descriptions of Richard’s appearance. The feet were missing, almost certainly the result of later disturbance, and the hands were crossed at the wrist, which suggests that they may have been tied.

Scientists at the University of Leicester, which pioneered the practice of DNA fingerprinting, were able to extract samples from the bones and compare them to a man descended from Richard III’s sister Anne. The match through the maternal line was virtually perfect.

“The DNA evidence points to these being the remains of Richard III,” said Turi King, the project’s geneticist.

Richard reigned from 1483 to 1485, and occupies a unique place in England’s long line of colorful rulers. He was the last king to be killed in combat, at the Battle of Bosworth Field, by his successor, Henry VII. His death ended the Plantagenet dynasty and ushered in the long era of the Tudors, including Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

Jo Appleby, an osteologist at the university, said the skeleton belonged to an adult male in his late 20s to late 30s; Richard III was 32 when he died. The man would have stood 5-foot-8 at full height, but the curved spine would have made him appear shorter.

The skull was riddled with wounds strongly indicative of death in battle, including two blows from bladed weapons, either of which would have been fatal, Appleby said.

Richard III is one of England’s most controversial monarchs, reviled by some as a bloodthirsty despot who stopped at nothing to gain power, but revered by others who insist that he has been unfairly maligned. His supporters note that the repugnant portrait of Richard in today’s popular imagination is based almost entirely on accounts from the time of the usurping Tudors, especially Shakespeare’s indelible characterization of him as a “deform’d, unfinish’d” man without scruples.

Fans say Richard III was an enlightened, capable ruler whose important social reforms included the presumption of innocence for defendants and the granting of bail, which remain pillars of the legal system in Britain and the U.S.

What happened to Richard’s two nephews, however, who were his rivals for the throne and who were shut up in the Tower of London as young boys, never to be seen again, remains a mystery.

Yes, those nephews.  Whether Richard systematically murdered everyone between him and the throne, as Shakespeare says, we do know this:  After his brother Edward IV died, the throne would have gone to the older of his two sons, both of whom were just young children, and if he died, the other son would succeed.  Richard was the “protector,” who declared the two sons illegitimate, a huge slander of their mother the former Queen, and locked them in the Tower of London.  And then the two boys mysteriously disappeared.  Whereupon Richard took the throne.  Cui bono?  He was surely a usurper, at least.

Here is his skull:


King Richard III's skull


Here is the Facial reconstruction:

Richard III facial reconstruction


Which is also a testament to the  artists of the day, since this looks just like the portrait we have of him:


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  • tODD

    I’m a little suspicious of that facial reconstruction. I’m sure that the skull gave some input into its making, but it seems likely that the artist involved also intentionally made it look like the portrait. After all, you can see the portrait in the background. And he’s wearing the same hat. Surely that can’t be coincidence?

  • Confirmation bias on the reconstruction, eh wot?
    I’m also a bit suspicious of the claim that the mtDNA proves conclusively that this is the skeleton of Richard III, though taken with the other evidence it is pretty strong.

  • SKPeterson

    The “gentlemen” @ 1 and 2 are obviously shills for those great villains, the usurping Tudors, sent to raise alarm and ruckus. Soon, they will make the outrageous claim that the royal family is actually German.

  • Richard

    Shakespeare was a propagandist for the Tudors. Josephine Tey got it right–go back and read her classic “Daughter of Time.”

  • There’s an ongoing controversy about Richard’s guilt, especially in the case of the two princes. Both sides make telling arguments. I take no sides, myself.

    What interests me is that it’s news — in a sort of dog bites man sense — that Richard looked pretty much like we always thought he did, except for the major deformities. Any theater director would happily cast this guy in the part, but he’d tell him to scrunch over a little more and curl up his left arm.

  • Jon

    I find it fascinating the way they located him, and also that his remains were in such great shape considering their age and the manner of his burial.

  • helen

    Richard @ IV
    Daughter of Time. Josephine Tey

    “Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.” –Francis Bacon

    Apparently not enough time, since the Tudor story is being told here.
    According to Tey, Richard couldn’t have eliminated all the claimants to the throne, most (probably including his nephews) lived after him. But not long into Henry Tudor’s reign all of them died, disappeared, or were shut up in a convent, in the case of some women.

    And, according to the story, people who take the trouble to look, have found that this was not news.
    It’s been in the books all along; Shakespeare, writing under the Tudors, makes the better story (politically speaking.) But his “authoritative source” was all of 8 years old and being fostered by a Tudor when Richard III died!
    You really ought to read the book! (You’ll probably have to go to a used book store now.)
    Or ILS it from your favorite library. [I’m delighted to see that PCL still has several copies (the one copy per title ukase evidently hasn’t reached them yet) and some are even checked out! Not bad for a book published in 1952.] 🙂

  • helen

    Read it even if I’ve told you too much.
    I re read it about every five years and it’s still fun!

    I think I’ll opt for the trilogy tomorrow.
    Three “Inspector Grants” at once, and I won’t have to dig in my boxes for them. [I need a second walk in closet, lined with book shelves!]

  • Joanne

    Well, now we need two uteruses. One for the Neandertal man, and now one to bring back the Plantagenets, and get some good bloodlust going at Buckingham Palace. Those Hanoverians are deadly dull.

  • Gene Veith

    I just heard that Queen Elizabeth is opposing giving Richard III a royal burial in Westminster Abbey. Indeed, if he was, in fact, the true king overthrown by a usurper, then the Queen would not be queen anymore. I guess the throne would have to go to the guy from Canada who supplied the DNA or some such. Also, Roman Catholics are hailing the find, defending Richard, and are trying to give him a Catholic burial. If Richard were, indeed, the true king and wasn’t overthrown by Henry Tudor, there wouldn’t have been a Henry VIII, no English Reformation, no Anglican church, no Puritans, no separatist Protestants on the Mayflower to settle America, and England–and no doubt America–would be Catholic countries to this very day. See this:

  • sg

    “Those Hanoverians are deadly dull.”

    Queen Victoria was the last Hanoveran. She was the only dull one of that bunch, likely due to always being pregnant and then later in perpetual mourning. The current house descends from her husband, Albert of Saxe-Coburg.

  • Gene Veith

    So would someone explain how the Richard III apologists explain how he, the Duke of Gloucester, took the throne? He was the Lord Protector after King Edward IV’s death and he declared his two young sons illegitimate and took the throne for himself. Does Tey and the others think they were illegitimate? Later those two boys “disappeared,” but whether Richard had them killed or not is not the main issue in determining whether or not he was the rightful king. Did he commit an act of usurpation in declaring the two princes in the royal line as bastards? Was there any evidence of that? I don’t mean to be a “Tudor apologist”; if anything I might be a Shakespeare apologist. (And if Shakespeare was a Tudor apologist, what does that do to the claim that he was a secret Catholic?)

  • Gene Veith

    And, Todd, see this for the facial reconstruction: