The science behind identifying King Richard III’s skeleton
On 4 February 2013, the University of Leicester announced it had discovered the remains of the last Plantagenet king, King Richard III, who died in 1485.There was strong circumstantial evidence that a skeleton found at the site of the Grey Friars church in Leicester was indeed that of King Richard III. However, before the identity of the skeleton could be confirmed, rigorous scientific investigations including DNA analysis, radiocarbon dating and skeletal examination were required.
University of Leicester archaeologists co-director Richard Buckley, the lead archaeologist on the Search for Richard III, said: “It is the academic conclusion of the University of Leicester that the individual exhumed at Grey Friars in August 2012 is indeed King Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England.
“It has been an honour 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. Rarely have the conclusions of academic research been so eagerly awaited.”
Evidence from archaeological dig
Archaeologists from University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) carried out a dig at the site of the Grey Friars church in Leicester - where Richard III is believed to have been buried.
The team uncovered a fully articulated skeleton, with possible battle injuries and scoliosis of the spine.
The initial archaeological investigation showed:
- The burial is in the choir of the church, as recorded by the chronicler of the time, John Rous.
- The grave has apparently been hastily dug and was not quite long enough.
- There is no evidence of a coffin, shroud or clothing as might be expected for a high-status burial.
- The disposition of the arms is unusual, raising the possibility that the hands could have been tied.
- The skeletal remains show that the person suffered from severe scoliosis and had died as a result of wounds received in battle.
Evidence from DNA analysis
University of Leicester geneticist Dr Turi King found a match between DNA from the skeleton and two direct descendents of Richard III on the female line.
The modern DNA work was carried out by Dr King at the University of Leicester. Dr King carried out the ancient DNA analysis in dedicated ancient DNA facilities at the University of York, in the lab of Professor Michael Hofreiter with Gloria Gonzales Fortes, and travelled to the Université Paul Sabatier in Toulouse to work with Dr Patricia Balaresque and Laure Tonasso and where the work was independently verified.
This was checked with mitochondrial DNA from the two female-line descendents - Canadian-born furniture maker Michael Ibsen and a second person who wishes to remain anonymous.
Their link with Richard III was verified by a genealogical study led by University Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Kevin Schürer.
Dr King said: “The aim of our part of the project is to use DNA evidence to help identify the skeletal remains found at the Grey Friars site: does the DNA analysis corroborate the archaeological evidence and point to these being the remains of Richard III?
“The first step was to determine if the two female line relatives - Michael Ibsen and a second person who wishes to remain anonymous - shared the same mitochondrial DNA sequences. The analysis showed that these two individuals shared the same relatively rare mitochondrial DNA sequence.
“We then had to see if it was even possible to retrieve ancient DNA from the Grey Friars skeleton. DNA breaks down over time and how quickly this happens is very dependent on the burial conditions. Therefore, we were extremely pleased to find that we could obtain a DNA sample from the skeletal remains.
“Finally, the DNA sequence obtained from the Grey Friars skeletal remains was compared with the two maternal line relatives of Richard III. 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.
“Like a forensic case, the DNA evidence must be assessed alongside the other evidence. Here the results of the archaeological and osteological analysis, combined with the genealogical and genetic evidence, make for a strong and compelling case that these are indeed the remains of Richard III.
In addition, the researchers are hoping to compare the skeleton’s DNA with descendants down the male line.
To do this, they will need to obtain Y chromosome data - the male sex chromosome. Preliminary analysis of the DNA confirmed that these are indeed the remains of a male and so researchers are hopeful that they will be able to analyse the Y chromosome.
“A number of the men identified as descendants of Edward III through his son John of Gaunt - who would both have shared the same Y chromosome as Richard III - have been kind enough to donate their DNA to our project.
“The analysis of their DNA is complete and I now have a consensus Y chromosome type of these individuals.
“As such, this side of the work is in its early stages and may indeed prove inconclusive, but we are hopeful that, if it’s possible to conduct a full analysis, it will provide a complete picture on both the male and female lines.”
Evidence from radiocarbon dating
The University of Leicester commissioned analysis from the Universities of Oxford and Glasgow that carried out radiocarbon dating analysis of the skeleton to help determine the time period in which the individual would have died.
Radiocarbon dating is also useful for telling us about the individual’s diet - which can be an indicator of their social status.
The radiocarbon dating shows:
- the individual had a high-protein diet - including significant amounts of seafood - meaning he was likely to be of high status;
- the individual died in the second half of the 15th or in the early 16th century - consistent with Richard’s death in 1485.
Evidence from bone analysis
Dr Jo Appleby, an osteoarchaeologist based at the University of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History, conducted an extensive examination of the Grey Friars skeleton.
Her main findings were:
- The individual was male, in his late 20s to late 30s, and had gracile or feminine build.
- He had severe scoliosis - perhaps with an onset at the time of puberty.
- Although around 1.61 m tall, his disability meant he would have stood up to 0.3 m shorter and his right shoulder would be higher than the left.
- Trauma to the skeleton suggests death following a significant blow to the rear of the skull.
- Other injuries may have occurred at around the time of death. These include several injuries to the head, one to the rib and one to the pelvis - thought to have been caused by a wound through the right buttock.
- Evidence suggests significant post-mortem mutilation - ‘insult wounds’ - although the face may have been deliberately left intact to ensure he was still recognisable.
Dr Appleby said: “Taken as a whole, the skeletal evidence provides a highly convincing case for identification as Richard III.
“The analysis of the skeleton proved that it was an adult male, but with an unusually slender, almost feminine, build for a man. This is in keeping with historical sources which describe Richard as being of very slender build. There is, however, no indication that he had a withered arm (as portrayed by Shakespeare) - both arms were of a similar size and both were used normally during life.
“The skeleton is that of an individual aged between the late twenties and late thirties. We know that Richard III was 32 when he died and this is entirely consistent with the Grey Friars skeleton.
“Without the spinal abnormality, the Grey Friars skeleton would have stood roughly 1.72 m high. This would have been above average height for a medieval male; however, the curve in the spine would have taken a significant amount off his apparent height when standing.
“This individual was not born with scoliosis, but it developed after the age of 10. The condition would have put additional strain on the heart and lungs, and it may have caused pain, but we cannot be specific about this.
“Our work has shown that a large wound to the base of the skull at the back represents a ‘slice’ cut off the skull by a bladed weapon. We cannot say for certain exactly what weapon caused this injury, but it is consistent with something similar to a halberd.
“A smaller injury, also on the base of the skull, was caused by a bladed weapon which penetrated through to the inner surface of the skull opposite the entry point, a distance of 10.5 cm. Both of these injuries would have caused almost instant loss of consciousness and death would have followed quickly afterwards.
“A further three wounds have been identified on the outer surface of the vault of the skull. In addition to these, there is a small rectangular injury on the cheekbone. Finally, on the skull, there is a cut mark on the lower jaw, caused by a bladed weapon, consistent with a knife or dagger. We speculate that the helmet had been lost by this stage in the battle.
“This has led us to speculate that they may reflect attacks on the body after death, although we cannot confirm this directly from the bones. Examples of such ‘humiliation injuries’ are well known from the historical and forensic literature; and historical sources have suggested that Richard’s body was mistreated after the battle.
“In addition, there is a cut mark on a rib which did not penetrate the ribcage and an injury on the right pelvis. This is highly consistent with being a blade wound from a knife or dagger, which came from behind in an upward movement.
“Detailed three-dimensional reconstruction of the pelvis has indicated that this injury was caused by a thrust through the right buttock, not far from the midline of the body.
“These two wounds are also likely to have been inflicted after armour had been removed from the body. This leads us to speculate that they may also represent post-mortem humiliation injuries inflicted on this individual after death.”
Evidence from the genealogical study
Professor Kevin Schürer, the University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor with special responsibility for Research and Enterprise, led a genealogical study to verify the connection between Canadian-born furniture maker Michael Ibsen and Richard III.
They also aimed to find other descendants of the king by exploring both the male and female lines of descent.
The team included David Annal, previously Principal Family History Specialist at the Family Records Centre, The National Archives and Dr Morris Bierbrier, a Fellow of the Society of Genealogists, specialising in royal lineage.
The team found:
- confirmation of the maternal link between Anne of York - Richard III’s sister - and Michael Ibsen’s mother Joy;
- documentary evidence for each ‘link’ of the chain between Anne of York and Joy Ibsen;
- a second maternal descendent - who wishes to remain anonymous - whose DNA has been used to verify the link between the skeleton and Michael Ibsen.
Professor Kevin Schürer said: “We wanted to try and verify the identity of the skeleton against present DNA. We wanted to both look on the male line of direct descent and the female line of direct descent to match both aspects of the DNA.
“What we have done is to look at the line from Anne of York to Michael Ibsen and accurately checked every link of the chain. This was to ensure that we can give documentary evidence that the daughters and the mothers match up all the way to Joy Ibsen and Michael Ibsen.
“We have been successful in proving that link, and I think that’s an important part of the scientific experiment. There is always a risk that you may have a match between ‘A’ and ‘B’ - but without having all the links in the chain, the link may be spurious.
“Right from the start of the project, we did not want to rely entirely on the DNA between Michael and the skeleton. We always wanted - for scientific reasons - to triangulate that wherever possible.
“We set about trying to secure a second maternal line, and after several weeks of research we actually did discover this person. The documentary evidence again is there to support this.”
Comparison with historical sources
There are a several contemporary accounts which claim to tell us about Richard III’s appearance and character - but it can be difficult to know how much their representations were affected by contemporary or later events, including the Tudor ascent.
Fifteenth-century scholar John Rous completed his History of England in 1486, which contained some unflattering but not entirely derogatory material about Richard III.
John Rous said:
- Richard was “slight in body and weak in strength” - which corresponds with Dr Jo Appleby’s description of the skeleton as “gracile”.
- He was buried among the Friars Minor (Franciscans) of Leicester in the choir of the church. This was the part of the church where the search team discovered the remains.
Similarly, fifteenth-century Silesian nobleman Nicolas von Poppelau - who met and clearly liked Richard III - said Richard was taller and slimmer than himself, not so solid and far leaner with delicate arms and legs.
Professor Lin Foxhall, Head of the University of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History, said: “Jo’s discoveries about the delicate, ‘gracile’ character of the skeleton and some of its gender-ambivalent characteristics might encourage us now to see these historical descriptions in a new light, and to read these descriptions rather differently than I suspect translators have done in the past.
“In Latin, ‘vis’, ‘strength, vigor’, is often a characteristically masculine quality. If we have identified this skeleton as the right individual, Rous’s and von Poppolau’s accounts could actually have been more acute and precise descriptions of the living person than anyone has realised.
“Our archaeological research does not tell us anything about the character of Richard III, and of course his physical condition and appearance were not a manifestation of his character. Texts also don’t always tell us ‘the facts’ in a straightforward way.
“But, now that we may be able to set these texts against the archaeological finds, we could end up rewriting a little bit of history in a big way.”
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