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Mystery Solved! The Body in the Car Park is Richard III

Amazing DNA Detective Work Proves Identity of the Notorious King


Portrait of Richard III

Portrait of Richard III


Early in February 2013, scientists confirmed that the skeleton found under a local council parking lot in Leicester was, in fact, King Richard III, killed at the Battle of Bosworth.

The skeleton, with very distinct curvature of the spine and clearly fatal head wounds, was uncovered in August 2012 under the parking lot of the city's Social Services Department. For months, teams from the University of Leicester - where DNA fingerprinting was invented - working with other academics from around Britain - studied the remains. After determining its radiocarbon date was consistent with Richard III's death in 1485, specialists examined the ten wounds on the body. They determined that the injuries are consistent with what is known about Richard's death in battle and with the common practice of inflicting humiliation wounds on the body after death.

Then followed the genetic detective work, first confirming through DNA testing that Richard's known descendants were actually genetically related to his known antecedents along two maternal lines. The DNA extracted from the skeleton was then compared to DNA supplied by two descendants - one anonymous and the other Canadian Michael Ibsen. Ibsen's mother was a 17th generation direct descendent of Richard III's sister, Anne of York.

Finally, on February 4, the team of scientists - milking the moment for all it was worth - spent about 40 minutes laying out the trail of detection, saving the best for last - a slide clearly showing how the DNA fingerprint of the skeleton exactly matched the DNA of the known descendants. Then to applause from a packed press conference at the University of Leicester, lead archaeologist Richard Taylor said, "The skeleton is indeed Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England. Beyond reasonable doubt, it's Richard."

Rehabilitating Richard III?

Richard III, the hunchback king most of us only know from Shakespeare, is remembered for the murder of "The Princes in the Tower", the children of his brother King Edward IV, one of whom was the 12-year-old uncrowned king, Edward V. But new research suggests that the child king was conceived while his father was away fighting in France and was illegitimate. Richard III may have been the rightful heir to the throne, rather than the usurper that history paints.

After Richard's Death

The Tudors, in the shape of King Henry VII, came to the throne, effectively ending the Wars of the Roses. As they say, history is written by the victors. Since his claim to the throne was pretty flimsy, it was in Henry Tudor's interest to blacken the name of Richard III. Richard's body was brought to Leicester after the battle and publicly displayed so the people could see he was really dead. It was then buried in a prominent place in Grey Friars Priory.

According to legend, the body was disinterred after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII and the bones thrown away. In fact, the parking lot where the skeleton was found would have actually been the priory church and the bones remained where they had been buried (though without evidence of a coffin and with hands apparently tied in front of it), before the altar, more than 500 years before.

Now, Richard III will be reburied - probably in Leicester Cathedral - early in 2014. I say probably because almost as soon as the press conference ended, different factions were vying for the honor. Westminster Abbey is where later kings were buried but that was probably never going to be in the equation. York, on the other hand, had a somewhat stronger claim to press. Richard was, afterall a Yorkist king - in the York camp during the Wars of the Roses. Leicester, a relatively undistinguished provincial city, having enjoyed its moment in the sun, wanted more of the same. The pomp and ceremony of a royal funeral - albeit one more than 500 years too late - might deliver just the spotlight the city, and its University sought.

We'll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, a temporary exhibition in Leicester Guildhall, detailing Richard's life and the detective work of finding his body opened to the public within a week of the announcement. A more permanent exhibition was planned to coincide with the reinterrment in 2014.

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