Researchers in Leicester, England, are hoping they have finally solved a 500-year-old mystery thanks to modern technology and some Canadian-born DNA.
On Monday, a team at the University of Leicester is set to reveal the results of DNA tests on a skeleton found underneath a local parking lot last summer. The bones are believed to be those of King Richard III, who died in 1485 during a battle roughly 25 kilometres away in Bosworth Field. The whereabouts of his body have been a mystery for centuries, with Richard’s place in the history books coloured by Shakespeare’s portrayal of the king as a loathsome hunchbacked tyrant who murdered his nephews to remain in power.
The skeleton became an international sensation when archeologists uncovered it last August while searching the site of an old monastery. University researchers have since been conducting a battery of tests on the bones, including taking DNA samples. Those samples have been matched against DNA from Michael Ibsen, who is believed to be a direct descendant of Richard’s sister, Anne. “It has been an extraordinary series of events,” Mr. Ibsen, who was born in Canada and now lives in London, told reporters last week.
All the publicity has already been a huge boost to this manufacturing centre, which has fallen on tough times lately as factories close and the unemployment rate creeps up to 15 per cent, roughly twice the national average. Local officials have already been trying to cash in on the “Richard Effect.” They have already spent $1.3-million buying a building next to the excavation site and plan to turn it into a visitors centre. There is talk of opening a Richard museum as well and organizing Richard-themed events across the city. A movie screenplay is also in the works along with a television documentary.
“If the remains turn out to be those of King Richard III, Leicester and Leicestershire stand to benefit from a multimillion-pound economic boost as tourists from across the globe visit the area,” Andrew Bacon, head of Leicester and Leicestershire Enterprise Partnership, wrote in the local paper shortly after the bones were discovered.
The university also has a lot riding on the outcome. It has devoted substantial resources to the project and promoted it heavily. It has also joined with the Richard III Society in using the publicity surrounding the discovery to help rehabilitate the king’s image.
University officials kept tight-lipped all weekend about the results, and Mr. Ibsen also declined comment. Officials said some readings were still arriving Sunday and a final decision wouldn’t be made until then.
But is it Richard? So far the evidence looks compelling. The male skeleton shows signs of battle trauma, especially in the skull, and has a spinal abnormality called scoliosis, consistent with what some would call a hunchback. An iron arrow was also found in the spine. According to some historical accounts, Richard spotted Henry VII during the fighting and rode off to kill him. Instead, he was surrounded, pulled off his horse and killed in a fight with soldiers.
The DNA results almost don’t matter. If they are positive the city will push to have the skeleton buried in a tomb at Leicester Cathedral as part of its overall Richard promotion plan. And even if the tests are negative or inconclusive, many believe there will be enough evidence to claim the skeleton is Richard.
“If all the other results come in positive, then I think we are going to take the view that it is Richard III,” said Wendy Moorhen, deputy chair of the Richard III Society. “The circumstantial evidence combined with a certain amount of scientific evidence strongly points to it being Richard.”
The next step will be changing the image of Richard as a brutal ruler, which many in the society believe has been built up by centuries of propaganda by Tudor monarchs.
Rehabilitating Richard “is a tough one because the academics tend to believe the traditional view,” said Ms. Moorhen. “But because there is all this publicity at the moment it gives us a platform to re-examine the history and to bring forward the arguments that he was a decent king.”
TWO VERSIONS OF RICHARD III
In the more than 500 years since his death, two versions of King Richard III have survived.
Richard, in literature, has been cast as a villain in the story of England’s monarchy. William Shakespeare was essential in building his reputation as murderer, usurper and hunchback, in what some historians view as a smear campaign designed by his successors, the Tudors.
Richard, in the eyes of historians, was a pious Christian and ruler devoted to good governance.
He was well-regarded during his reign as duke of Gloucester, according Lynda Pidgeon, a research officer for The Richard III Society. “He took care of his people, he had made a lot of religious donations and tried to make sure all of those living in the wilds of Yorkshire had access to a good, educated priest,” she told the BBC. “It was not just about the nobles; he looked after the poor people.”
Richard began a descent into infamy in 1483, when his brother, King Edward IV, died unexpectedly. He was appointed protector of the realm and his 12-year-old nephew, Edward V, was made king. Richard sent Edward and his younger brother to the Tower of London, declared them illegitimate, and the boys were never seen again.
In the years after he was killed in battle in 1485, Mr. Shakespeare, Sir Thomas More and John Rous, a 15th-century historian, helped spread Richard’s dark reputation, including accounts that he was a wicked and unnatural creature, a hunchback born with teeth and hair.
The question of his character centres on whether Richard’s power grab was motivated by public good, or whether, as Mr. Shakespeare suggests, he plotted for years to wrestle the throne from his brother’s family.
- Kate Hammer, with research from the Encyclopedia Britannica