The Bones Of Richard III: A Win For Risky Research
    By Oliver Knevitt | September 12th 2012 07:05 AM | 13 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Oliver

    In a nutshell: I like fossils. But even more than than that, I like arguments about fossils. Which is why my current occupation as a PhD researcher...

    View Oliver's Profile
    Never in a million years.

    That was my first reaction to finding out that the University of Leicester (where I am based) was about to commence an archaeological dig to uncover the bones of Richard III.

    But, a press conference this morning has showed be to be totally wrong - or at least, woefully pessimistic. Because, it seems that a team of archeaologists has uncovered some bones that are indeed very likely to have been Richard III's.

    The chances were remote. Leicester has been continuously inhabited since the stone ages, so generation after generation of inhabitants have torn down what was there before and built over. So the humble church that the last Plantagenet King of England's remains were rumored to have been buried in were likely to have been vestigial; at worst, gone completely. So, funding any project to search for his remains would be like putting millions of pounds on a horse with a broken leg.

    But, as has been proved this morning, it was worth that risk.

    Most media corporations were at the press conference, so I expect that there will be some comprehensive reports by them soon on this discovery. But I thought I would briefly write something up, basically because I cannot get enough of this stuff. I'm also aware that a lot of readers are american, so may not know much about Richard III.

    Richard III is essentially seen as a pantomime villain. The character that most people are familiar with is the Richard III as portrayed by Shakespeare. A dark, brooding, malevolent character that is both machiavellian and destructive. He is murderous and callous, petty and calculating. He had a hunched back and a withered hand. He murdered his nephews, the princes in the tower. He got his crown by cold blooded murder. He poisoned his wife. And the list goes on.

    Richard's history, however, was written by the victors. Richard was the last Plantagenet King of England, and he was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth by the Tudors. The Tudor dynasty lasted for a long time, including Henry VII, Henry VIII, Mary, and Elizabeth. Consequently, he was mythologized as a tyrant, particularly by Shakespeare, writing during Elizabeth's reign. Horrible Histories capture it perfectly here.

    Richard, then, is an enigma. He was clearly not the caricature that Shakespeare portrayed him as. The Richard III society recognized this, and have had a long dream of exonerating Richard.

    This is a clear case of not being able to rely on the history books. What is need is bones.

    So, this is precisely what a team from Leicester set out to do. There are some reliable documents that state that after Richard was killed at Bosworth, his corpse was buried in a humble Leicester Greyfriars Church, in the priory.

    The team then set out to find these remains. There was a reasonable chance that the church, long destroyed was situated under a car park, belonging to the county council. And really, it snowballed from there.

    In their first trench, the team uncovered the remains of the wall of the church. Here's the site, as I saw it last week.

    With a further trench, they uncovered the facing wall. Here are some artefacts,

    What may be the east window of the Church. Courtesy UoL

    A stone frieze, which may be from the Choir stall. Courtesy UoL

    They were able to produce a map of the church, which I've reproduced below. Again, map is courtesy of the UoL.

    So far so good then. Here comes the next interesting thing. The father of Christopher Wren visted someone called Richard Herrick in the 1600s, who had a lovely garden. In his garden, he had a big stone memorial saying "Here lies Richard III, King of England".

     And, well, here is it,

    So, now things are looking good. The team are looking for Richard's remains in exactly the location where he was described as being buried.

    Then the team found some human remains. No photos have been released for sensitive reasons. One of these skeletons was a female's, and was also rather fragmented, so clearly that's not him. This was found in the presbytery.

    However, on September 6th; just a couple of days ago, another, fully articulated skeleton was found here. It belonged to an adult male in his 30s, and was found in the choir area.

    The location alone is immensely important.  John Rous, reports that Richard ”at last was buried in the choir of the Friars Minor at Leicester”.

    Closer analysis revealed some more intriguiging details. Firstly, this individual has suffered several blows to the head, one by a bladed instrument. A contemporary account describes Richard as being killed by a pole axe by a Welshman. Certainly the individual was likely to have been killed in battle, as Richard was.

    Secondly, a barbed arrow was found, lodged in the back of the skeleton. It was not embedded in the spine itself, so wouldn't have been fatal but certainly nearby enough to have caused severe trauma.

    Thirdly - and perhaps most compellingly - the individual was found to be a sufferer of coleosis. I mentioned above that many subsequent historians described Richard as being deformed. Well, this condition, though not giving a true hunchback, caused the individual's right shoulder to droop.

    There you have it. We have an individual, of exactly Richard's age and physical condition, that seems to have died in the same circumstances as Richard, and was buried in the place that Richard is said to have been buried in. The chances are that Leicester have indeed found the remains of Richard the III.

    It doesn't end there. Luckily, the skeleton is in such a good state that there is a reasonable chance that DNA can be extracted from it. A genealologist has identified a direct maternal descendant, Michael Ebsen, who now lives in Canada, who this skeleton's DNA will be compared with.

    Instead of looking at nuclear DNA, the team will instead look at mitochondrial DNA. This has many advantages. Firstly, mtDNA is transferred maternally, and we have a direct maternal heir in Michael Ebsen. But also, mtDNA is much more resistant to decay than nuclear DNA, and so there is a reasonable chance that a complete genome can be sequenced. The results will be out in around 12 weeks, so we have that to look forward to.

    While listening to the press conference this morning, I was completely blown away. Such a finding is completely unexpected, and need I say it, extremely lucky.

    It's tempting to use cliches like "worth every penny" in describing the decision to fund projects like this. However, in doing so it is impossible not to use that word: worth. How do you place the worth of a research project? Is the study worthless if the results are negative?

    I recently held an interview with Sir Alec Jeffreys, the discoverer of DNA fingerprinting, for a research magazine I'm involved in. In his long career, he has never been refused funding. Not once. But he bemoans the proliferation of "safe" research, such as big statistical studies, which he has always avoided. Yes, there is a place for applied research. But there seems to be an increasing difficulty in funding research that takes large risks, or using highly unconventional techniques. Much of the time, they draw blanks. But just occasionally, they pay off. Bigtime.

    This is why this sort of research - and this sort of result - makes me very happy. Yes, it's easy to say with hindsight that this is exactly the sort of research that we should be funding. But that, of course is the wisdom of hindsight. In reality, this is the complete opposite of "safe research". It's normally difficult to find funding for projects that are unlikely to see any return; that rely on a chance finding. And this just vindicates taking the risk completely; for all of us.

    As Phillippa Langley of the Richard III society said earlier today, "If you have a dream, fight for it"

    UoL statement is here
    Press release here


    I have just finished reading

    If this is Richard III, should we give him a state burial in London?

    and the associated comments.  These raise a lot of issues.  Some say he should be buried as a king, other say treat him as a criminal.

    Also, some say he should be given a Roman Catholic funeral, others and Anglican one.

    Some, alas, think it’s of no interest at all.  I would not waste Tower space on such — rehabilitation on a pig farm would be more appropriate.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    I agree about the need to fund risky research; in America, because science is more of a left wing field yet people on the left are 1900s nobility conservative about science - "prove without a doubt this can never hurt anyone or...harumph...the Bolsheviks will run loose" - there tends to be numerous layers of bureaucracy to do anything so archeology has a tough time, yet social psychology studies of Farmville players seem to sail through committees.

    I think, as I said in your comment on my earlier article about this, that they have been doing a lot of science by press release, but as long as they end up with a win people will forget that.

    If these are the remains of Richard, then he deserves to be buried as a King, after all he was anointed King.
    and died in battle protecting his kingdom, what form the service takes is immaterial, though representatives from all faiths should make the gesture and attend.
    Whatever his faults, and none have been proven conclusively, he is no worse than any before or after him.
    Richard deserves at least respect.
    Loyaulte me lie

    Oliver Knevitt
    Here's a quote from the Alec Jeffreys interview (sshh, don't tell my editor!):
    Science today is more like a large head of cattle, all plodding along in the same direction. Yes, most of the science being done today is safe science. _Rightly or wrongly, both the government and research councils are much more keen on focused research, and research that could have more impact than the sort of blue skies research which I have lived through in my career. That’s fine, but just remember there would be no such thing as DNA fingerprinting if the job had been given to applied translational research. There's a place for applied research, but for the most of it, in terms of our ability to interrogate the universe, what impact does it have? Zero.

    Hard not to agree.
    “Nowhere in the world have I seen better financial arrangements to assist a scholar to provide for his children”.

    So wrote Al-Ghazali (1058 – 1111), towards the end of his life, about the city of Baghdad.  This was even after the place had been conquered by the Turkish Sultan Tuğrul.  (The later conquests by Hulagu and Timur were much more thoroughgoing.)

    So I ask myself, what has changed?
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    The Matt cartoon from today’s Telegraph:

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    I dig the attempts at revisionist history that it is inspiring. There is so little to do in history that the last four decades have been nothing but 'what you think is true is not true, history was written by the winners' nonsense.  It's a wonderful fallacy but the Tudors were not walking from town-to-town rewriting tomes. They didn't need to, everyone already hated the guy because he did all the things they said he did.  

    Downside: obscure Plantaganet references used to be my go-to for historical humor references, now they could become popular again. Back to Angevins for me.
    We have now found the last resting place of a man we now believe to be Richard 111 - Whilst his bones are visible but the ground within his grave bears the shadow of the rest of his body - It is my view that he was buried in a holy place where sanctuary was that of a special place within the grey friars place of god and prayer - It is wrong in my opinion to move this mans remains to another place an act of defiling one of our kings graves - We should re invent the placed structures which defile this place of god and leave an important member of Leicesters buried dead to rest in peace.

    To move this man to the Cathedral or other place defeats what we are attempting to do preserving or historic past where it is, Legalized grave robbing is still grave robbing - Let this man be where those holy friars ensured with reverence his final place of rest - His fate was to be given sanctury in Gods house albeit a ruin - Return him to his designated historic resting place grave for our sake and the sake of preserving the past. A Leicester man who cares about our historic past

    Tough call. The guy was a total dick but not the only one to get a crown through treachery - and if being a dick and not dying in London are the criteria for not being buried with the other monarchs the Scottish and Irish can provide a list of people who should be exhumed and buried where their enemies wanted to piss on them.

    You realize it is not a church any more, right? That is where he was buried, not a parking lot.
    For a "total dick" who "everyone already hated the guy," this is how the city of York recorded the news of his death when they heard of it after the Battle of Bosworth Field: "This day was our good King Richard piteously slain and murdered; to the great heaviness of this city." So Hank Campbell might want to rethink his assumptions.

    As for where he should be buried: the only argument to be made for Westminster is that that is where his Queen, Anne Neville, was buried. By all accounts they truly loved each other and there is a certain fitness in the thought of them being reunited so man years after their deaths. Richard's disputed status, and the complications (which I can only imagine) of a Westminster burial argue against it. In addition, Anne's grave, while it occupies a place of great honour near the High Altar, is unmarked; she is commemorated by a bronze tablet on a wall nearby.

    The next likely place would be in Leicester. He could be placed in the Cathedral there. While I sympathize with patrick's desire for historic preservation, the fact is that while Richard was buried in a holy place, both the church and the Holy Brothers that worshiped there are gone. The church is now a car park. The holy ground has been desecrated; it would be the height of disrespect to just throw his bones back in the hole and pave them over again. Even if all the remains of Grey Friars were to be excavated-and I haven't heard that any such project is contemplated or is even feasible--it is no longer a church, and wouldn't be. And if you want the poor man to "rest in peace" the middle of an archaeological dig hardly seems conducive to that end.

    To my mind the most appropriate place for him to be buried would be St. Mary and All Saints Church at Fotheringhay. Fotheringhay was the seat of the Dukes of York; Richard was born at the castle there, and his parents are buried in the church, as well as another one of their sons. It is a lovely church, and Richard probably worshiped there himself, although the church has changed since his time. A burial at Fotheringhay would be a homecoming of sorts for Richard, and a good compromise besides. It is not important enough a place to offend the anti-Ricardians (except for the most rabid, who probably would happily toss his bones into the Soar and be done with it), but it is a place with enough connections to Richard and the House of York to satisfy all but the most rapid Ricardians (who would probably vote for a full state service and interment at Westminster--which Richard himself likely would have hated).

    I hope the DNA tests are conclusive, and I hope it is him and a fitting end to his story can finally be written.

     this is how the city of York recorded the news of his death when they heard of it after the Battle of Bosworth Field: "This day was our good King Richard piteously slain and murdered; to the great heaviness of this city." So Hank Campbell might want to rethink his assumptions.
    It's not an assumption.  It's always the case in history that if people can find any source that debunks well-known fact, the Myth Of The Oppressed Underdog kicks in and they assume the contrarian is accurate and the mainstream is not. 

    Finding someone in York to claim a Yorkist was not a murdering sociopath - famous for it even in a dynasty of murdering sociopaths - is not all that hard.  But the facts are otherwise.

    Don't get me wrong, it is cool if this is him - I wrote about him on this site first so I was obviously intrigued. I also said he should be buried wherever he would have wanted to be buried, not in a parking lot just because his enemies wanted him there.
    Oliver Knevitt
    To be honest, as nice as Leicester Cathedral is, it's hardly fitting for a King. I read somewhere that Richard himself wanted to be buried in York, so I second him for there.
    History is not all written by the victors.  For example, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle continued for some considerable time after the Norman conquest.

    The Normans were a brutal lot, but I think that feminists might approve of this law introduced by William:

    And if ane man hæmmde wiþ wimman to hire unþænces, sona forleas he þa limu he met plagode.

    See if you can translate that!

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England