Richard III in a Leicester car park

February 4, 2013 • 12:49 pm

by Greg Mayer

No, it’s not an avant-garde staging of Shakespeare, but the actual skeletal remains of the last Plantagenet king of England. Archeologists recovered the remains last summer based on historical accounts of where he was interred following his death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. The church of Greyfriars in which he had been buried had been demolished centuries earlier and its exact location forgotten, but a body was quickly located, and the strong scoliosis of the spine indicated it might well be Richard.

Richard III's skull, found last year beneath a Leicester car park (BBC).
Richard III’s skull, found last year beneath a Leicester car park (BBC).

The skeleton also exhibited numerous wounds, especially on the back of the head, consistent with death during a medieval battle. Osteologists also estimated the age of the male skeleton to be late 20’s to early 30’s (Richard died at 32), and radiocarbon analysis dated it to 1455-1540. The piece de resistance was the matching of mitochondrial DNA from the skeleton to a 17th generation descendant of Richard’s sister in the female line, meaning Richard and the descendant, Michael Ibsen of London, would have the same mitochondrial DNA (except for any mutations occurring in the intervening centuries). A second tested relative chose to remain anonymous; it could concievably be a member of the current royal family, since at least one of Richard’s female relatives married into the succeeding House of Tudor, but I don’t know the genealogy of the English royal families well enough to know if there is a continuous female line from a female progenitor of Richard to the current royal family.

The BBC has a very nice interactive guide to the remains, as well as several other linked pages describing the findings, including a video by geneticist and FOJ Steve Jones explaining the power of DNA in identification (not embeddable). Overall, it’s a really neat story about how multiple lines of evidence- osteology, archeology, genetics- allow us to make confident inferences about the past. I hope that the researchers will publish a paper with the details, as was done in the case of the genetic studies that showed that Anna Anderson was not Anastasia Romanova (pdf; may be paywalled).

Note the massive wound above and to the right of the entrance for the spinal cord, the smaller but still potentially fatal wound to the left, and the small dagger thrust to the right, the latter described as a post-mortem "humiliation" wound.
Note the massive wound above and to the right of the entrance for the spinal cord, the smaller but still potentially fatal wound to the left, and the small dagger thrust to the right, the latter described as a post-mortem “humiliation” wound (although perhaps a coup de grace, if he had managed to survive the other wounds).

79 thoughts on “Richard III in a Leicester car park

  1. Poor old King Richard.. Apart from being on the receiving end of some full-blooded Tudor spin – yes that’s YOU William Shake-scene – and probably murdering the Princes in the Tower (probable – not certain!) he wasn’t such a bad old cove. Certainly helped the poor get legal representation ….

    1. It’s very unlikely that he did murder the princes. He had nothing to gain from their death. Henry Tudor on the other hand needed them dead to allow him to take the throne so it’s much more likely that he did the deed.

      We’ll never know but the propaganda put out by the Tudors certainly painted R3 in a very bad light and most people have fallen for it.

      1. They also uncovered the remains of a robot. It has not entirely defunct: it was heard to say: “diodes down my left hand side” before lapsing into silence.

  2. And hats off to Leicester University’s brilliant build-up and stage-managing of the event over the past days and weeks.

    1. Bradford Uni has been examining remains from Towton for a fair number of years. Now Towton was one of the most truly horrific events in British history (more killed in one day than any other battle in UK history and that includes July 1 1916) and some of the skeletons that have been found there are really scary….


  3. Mrs DiscoveredJoys and I queued up to visit the dig in September. Basically there were several long trenches dug in a couple of car parks, showing cloister flooring, and walls of the choir, plus a body length cross trench which was where they had found the skeleton. The trenches were no more than 4 or 5 feet deep.

    A re-enactment society was providing information about the period, in costume, and there was a fletcher, a chapman, a knight, a crossbowman and an archer.

    A good time was had by all, apart from some bloke who had been hanging around for 500 years or so.

    1. I also visited the site during the dig and found it fascinating. The University of Leicester did a great job of explaining what was going on and the re-enactment society made for an entertaining day out.

      I’m so pleased that the remains have proven to be those of Richard III…

  4. A horse a horse, my kingdom for a horse.
    Not the kind of horse he was looking for in a parking lot!!! Well done Leicester University my old Alma Mata. I was born and raised 8 miles from Fotheringhay Castle where Richard was born,so I have a lot of conections to this. At school we used the phrase “Dick the Shit: to remember Richard the (terd) Third. Sorry I was 11 years old at the time.

    1. They paved paradise
      And put up a parking lot
      With a pink hotel, a boutique
      And a swinging hot spot

      Don’t it always seem to go
      That you don’t know what you’ve got
      Till it’s gone
      They paved paradise
      And put up a parking lot

      (Joni Mitchell)

      1. First time I’ve ever seen Leicester described as paradise. Coritanians of the World Unite! You have nothing to lose…er, that’s it, you have nothing to lose.

    2. But it made finding him easier. They just looked in the compact car spaces, because the two-doors kept wanting to be over him.

  5. I don’t think there’s a direct line, the current lot are mainly descended from Germans. Although Princes William and Harry may be related through their mother’s bloodline. I have read that Diana had a more legitimate claim to the throne than our current Queen.

    Prince Phillip was directly related to the Russian royal family and his DNA was used to identify the remains of a family menber killed by the bolsheviks.

    1. I think that’s right. Although the Stuarts and Hanovarians came in through the descendants of English monarch’s daughters who married into other dynasties, Queen Victoria’s mother’s maternal line doesn’t appear to have any Plantagenet (or English) members at least back to the 14th century. (You’ve got to love the trivia power of the internet!)

      1. The current queen is directly decended from Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV and hence the niece of Richard III.

        Elizabeth married Henry VII, from whom the Hanverians claim descent via Margaret Tudor, Mary Queen of Scots and James I/VI.

  6. What a conincidence. I just started reading The Tudors by G.J. Meyer. The book opens with a brief account of the Battle of Bosworth and explains how unique it was in that there are no 1st hand accounts of such a momentous battle. Thousands of participants, the last charge by mounted knights on English soil and the last death of an English king in battle (poor Richard III, or is that glorious?). Not to mention the rise of the famous/infamous Tudors. I would have thought that at the least Henry would have written an appropriately spun account himself, being the propaganda expert he appears to have been.

    Meyer says, “But because we have no eyewitness accounts, nor even any accounts written while memories of the battle were still fresh, we know far less about it than historians have traditionally pretended.”

    Fascinating work finding Richard III. Would love to work on a project like that.

  7. The NYT reported on this story today. Richard III suffered numerous battle wounds. I’m reading Pinker’s, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and I couldn’t help but wonder that he is right about violence declining. I can’t imagine living at such a violent time and in such a violent place. Check out this list of injuries the poor guy suffered.

    “In addition, team members said, the remains showed an array of injuries consistent with historical accounts of the fatal blows Richard III suffered on the battlefield, and other blows he was likely to have sustained from vengeful soldiers of the army of Henry Tudor, the Bosworth victor who succeeded Richard on the throne as King Henry VII, as the slain king’s body was carried on horseback into Leicester, including dagger thrusts to the cheek, jawbone and lower back. The skeleton displayed evidence of 10 wounds, 8 of them in the skull and some likely to have caused death, possibly by a blow from a halberd, a kind of medieval weapon with an axlike head on a long pole.”

    1. “Lower back” a euphemism for “Someone stuck a dagger up his arse” as was made clear on the Channel 4 documentary shown tonight.

  8. The teeth seem to be in amazingly good shape. I’d have thought that at least the king would’ve had access to refined sugar by that time?

    1. What could they have made it from? (Possibly apples?) Not sugar cane, and sugar beets hadn’t been developed.

      1. According to Wikipedia, sugar cane is native to India and Southeast Asia and was cultivated and exported by the Venetians in the 15th century. It was among the goods brought to the New World by Columbus, not among those brought back by him to Europe. So it’s at least conceivable (if not perhaps very likely) that English nobility could have had access to cane sugar in 1485.

          1. Try again. If he would have had some sugar cubes, he might have had a horse. I hate the past pluperfect subjunctive.

            1. Actually, I think “if he had had some” captures your meaning. “If he would have had some” means something along the lines of “if he intended to have some but didn’t”.

              (As long as we’re nitpicking.)

              1. It seems to me that Neil’s construction is common in the US, but much less so in British English. I have often wondered if this construction comes from another European language, and has been absorbed into American English.

        1. Ah, but he would have had a tough time finding a good cup of coffee! Which, in any case, is best black and untainted. 😉

  9. What rather tarnishes the story is the woo-woo story of the woman who started the search:

    The dramatic discovery was made after a screenwriter researching a play about the monarch “felt a chill” and was immediately convinced the royal was buried there.

    Experts began digging the site last September after Philippa Langley visited the car park in August 2009.

    She said: “It was a hot summer and I had goosebumps so badly and I was freezing cold. I walked past a particular spot and absolutely knew I was walking on his grave.

    “I am a rational human being but the feeling I got was the same feeling I have had before when a truth is given to me.

    “On a subsequent visit, I found a little white ‘R’ painted on the exact same spot. Of course it was ‘R’ for ‘reserved’, not ‘R’ for Richard but from that moment on, I was on a mission.”

    1. Caught about 20 mins of the Channel 4 documentary last night and was a bit put off by one of the chief protagonists getting all teary when they laid out the bones for analysis of the spine. Now I find out it was this lady. If she was such a ‘rational human being’ she should have come up with the possibility that what she was experiencing was the product of subconscious activity analysing the situation. Or perhaps she has had many such ‘chills’ and this one ended up being ‘significant’.

      1. I did wonder that too, when I read the item. In other words, had she previously researched the topic and it was intuition rather than supernatural? I’d like to think so, rather than (a) it really was the Ghost of Richard III (which I don’t believe) or (b) she’s completely imagining the whole ‘feeling’ thing in retrospect.

    2. Yes, I don’t find the evidence *overwhelmingly* convincing, at least from the press coverage, for instance see here: If the the scientists had matched Ibsen’s mitochondrial signature in a double blind test, that would have been impressive…

      This is one of those cases where there is likely to be a very strong confirmation bias. It does seem rather convenient that you dig a small hole somewhere around an ill defined site based on a hunch and immediately find what you are looking for.

  10. Richard III was a major benefactor of my alma mater, Queens’ College Cambridge. It’s nice they’ve found him at last.

    1. Which sort-of begs the question of where they’ll re-bury him. Could make for some amusing in-fighting and slinging of imprecations.
      Getting some coffee ; this might be amusing.

      1. I’ve already read of some disputation about where to rebury him. As an English monarch, an Anglican cathedral would be standard, but he’s a pre-Reformation English monarch, so some have said a Catholic cathedral would be more appropriate. A Catholic priest was present at the media viewing of the remains.


        1. And I just heard on the BBC world service that the city of York is claiming him, too, and wants him to be buried there rather than in Leicester. Apparently the royal family gets to decide if I understood correctly. Indeed, this might be amusing.

          1. Just read the story on the BBC website, and the York city council is going to just petition the queen, not sure how much of a say she has. Still, both Leicester and York thinking about those tourist dollars. Just like a medieval scramble for saints’ bones and pieces of the true cross! This could be entertaining, indeed.

            1. Well if saint’s bones are anything to go by, no problem. Just carve ‘im up and distribute the bits around the country. Should be plenty to go around.

              (Ghost of Richard III please note, that was a dig at saints, not a serious suggestion ; ) Wish I could find the link to the relevant Blackadder episode.)

              1. Someone should check to make sure that the Catholics didn’t in fact make him a saint somewhere along the line.

              2. Tricky call for the Catholic priest hired to deliver his eulogy in CofE Britain. Alas, poor Catholic! How abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Like Hamlet and elephants, the Holy See never forgets. This little bone of contention could reanimate the Thirty Years’ War, Part Two.

              3. Someone should check to make sure that the Catholics didn’t in fact make him a saint somewhere along the line.

                He’s almost certainly a Moron* by now. Though if the Catholics totally believed the Tudor propaganda about his character and deeds, he’d fit right in with the bulk of their ‘saints’.

        2. Although all of the Catholic cathedrals which were around at his time are now Anglican ones, e.g., Westminster Abbey and York Minster.

          1. Well then, problem solved! Bury him where he would have been buried originally, had he been accorded the honour of a state funeral, and the place where current Royalty would be buried – in what was then a Catholic cathedral in his day, and is now a C of E cathedral. Entirely appropriate.

      2. By the amount of comments, I’d better get … in the words of Jim Morrison … “half-gallons of wine and six packs of beer.”

  11. Good to see an archaeology story covered in the media that involves a minimal discussion of the science and the many lines of evidence. So much better than the way archaeology is too often dumbed down into treasure hunt stories à la Indiana Jones.

    1. Intelligent human being: “Isn’t it amazing how multiple lines of evidence-osteology, archeology, genetics-allow us to make confident inferences about the past?”

      Ken Ham: “You can’t know that. It’s all based on your presuppositions. Were you there? Now, the book that I in my omniscience have chosen as my holy book says clearly that Richard was never king in England, nor did he have a horse. (Quoting): ‘See Dick. See Jane. See Dick run.’ This clearly shows that Richard was in America, and that he was on foot, not on horseback.”

      1. LOL!!! It’s so sad, but yes, that’s most of the “historical” shows these days. Remember when they had real scientists on TV and the crackpots had to limit themselves to psudo science journals and bad newsletters?

    2. I watched the programme last night (so I could FF through the adverts) : by the standards of TV, a pretty job. Then again, it is Channel 4, who’ve been doing TV archaeology without making too much of a hash of it for 20-odd years.

  12. “..Richard and the descendant, Michael Ibsen of London, would have the same mitochondrial DNA..”

    That’s London, Ontario, Canada—not THE London,
    in case anyone’s interested. So they went further afield to verify than might be assumed. I think the mitochondrial DNA came from his now-deceased mother, reducing a bit the possibility of any mutations.

    1. Although sadly I did not do it intentionally, London serves double duty– he’s from London, Ontario, but now lives in London, England. His branch of the family had moved to Canada, but then Michael moved to the UK.


      1. Yes, I got the brothers Jeff and Michael mixed up. The rather provincial Toronto Star did seem to imply that the elderly Mum (now deceased) and Dad lived in London, Canada in 2004 when she got the call from the genealogists, and that they used her mitochondrial DNA.

        One can be driving out of Toronto and, to my great mirth anyway, see a highway sign saying something like [Paris 78 London 133], the distances being kms.

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