© Richard III Society - Leicestershire Branch
Richard III Society
Leicestershire Branch

The Re-interment Story - Identification

How King Richard’s mortal remains were identified

By September 12th 2012 a preliminary examination had been made and the media were informed. Once again the eyes of the world were on Leicester. The skeleton was of a well-nourished adult male in his late 20s or early 30s. He had enjoyed a high protein diet, consisting of significant amounts of fish, suggesting high status. He had several perimortem injuries to the skull and a bladed implement appeared to have cleaved part of the rear of the skull, suggesting death in battle.   The skeleton had spinal abnormalities, indicating severe curvature of the spine (scoliosis) causing the right shoulder to be a little higher than the left. There was no evidence of the withered arm or twisted leg of Shakespeare's play. The skeleton would have been about 5ft 8ins without the scoliosis, which could have caused him to appear shorter. The male was in his 30s and had a slender physique. In 2003 John Ashdown-Hill had undertaken the task of trying to find an all-female line descendant of the House of York. At that time the purpose was to identify some bones in Mechlin, which could be those of Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy, Richard III’s sister. To this end John was looking to trace a descendant of Margaret's mother Cecily Neville, or a close female relative of hers. The mtDNA is normally passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter etc. unchanged. Analysing the DNA John managed to trace a descendant of Cecily's eldest daughter Anne to a lady living in Canada, Joy Ibsen. Joy's DNA was analysed and it seems that Joy, and therefore Richard III, was descended from Haplogroup J. This meant that we had Richard III's mtDNA. Sadly, Joy Ibsen died in 2008, but her son Michael carries the same mtDNA as his mother. Being male he will not pass it on, but he did supply a sample of DNA for matching with that of Richard III. DNA samples were extracted from the teeth and the right femur of the skeleton to compare with known descendants of Anne of York. By this time Kevin Schurer of Leicester University had found another all-female line relative, Wendy Duldig. DNA starts to deteriorate when we die and Leicester is not the ideal dry climate in which to preserve it at its best. There are only a couple of laboratories in Europe that can handle ancient DNA. Specialist facilities are required, with the environment being completely clean as the slightest trace of modern DNA could contaminate the specimen. Turi King, a geneticist from Leicester University worked at York University and travelled to the Université Paul Sabatier in Toulouse for the work to be independently analysed. Finding a DNA Match A match was found between the DNA of Michael Ibsen, Wendy Duldig, and the skeleton in the Greyfriars. Even better, Richard not only belongs to Haplogroup J, but also to a rare subgroup to which only 1.5% belong. When the skeleton had died was determined by radio carbon dating. Although not an exact science, it is a good guide. Tests done at Oxford and Glasgow universities indicated date of death between 1412 - 1449 (Oxford) and 1430 - 1460 (Glasgow). This
was not promising as Richard died in 1485. However, carbon dating of marine life gives different results from that of land-based life. Carbon in the atmosphere is less able to react with marine life. This also applies to land-based life with a high seafood diet. We know that mass spectrometry tests of the bones showed a high protein diet consisting of 25% of seafood. When this was fed into the equation a revised date of between 1475 and 1530 appeared. By no means conclusive, but certainly now in the right area.   We also know that the scoliosis was late onset - after the age of ten. The 10th and 11th thoracic vertebrae showing uneven growth as the spine bent. This could have resulted in arthritis, causing pain. In time it may also have caused heart and lung problems. Was scoliosis a problem? Although, we do know that Richard was a soldier, wearing armour, leading armies and undertaking sieges. How much of a problem the scoliosis was is hard to say. Probably at the time of his death it wasn’t a huge problem. The teeth have given us important information, not only DNA. There was evidence of disease and tooth decay and, calcified plaque was analysed to tell us about diet and environment. Richard lost some back teeth before he died, probably due to dental caries. Micro-CT scanning of the skeleton was done and revealed two large wounds at the base of the back of the skull, probably delivered with a halberd or sword and likely to have been fatal. The eyes of the world were once again on Leicester when on February 4th 2013 Richard Buckley announced "It is the academic conclusion of the University of Leicester that the individual exhumed at The Greyfriars in August of 2012 is indeed King Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England." Using the high resolution micro-CT scans of the skull, Professor Caroline Wilkinson managed to recreate a face from images of the skull. Her work relied solely on anatomical guidelines and could be justified scientifically. Caroline has worked with the police in several missing person cases. At the time that she reconstructed the head the DNA results had not been announced. The head was commissoned and paid for by the Richard III Society and is on permanent loan to the Richard III Visitor Centre. Since its first appearance in a black wig with bushy black eyebrows, Richard’s head has undergone some changes. In 2014 Turi King at Leicester University undertook to sequence the whole genome of Richard III. During this process Turi discovered that Richard would have been blonde as a child and had blue eyes. This resulted in Caroline giving the head a new blonde wig and blonde eyebrows. It is however reasonable to suppose that Richard’s hair would have darkened as he grew older and in all probabilty he would have had mid-brown hair like the Society of Antiquaries portrait. Turi also found that his hair would have been wavy, again like the Antiquaries portrait. The head then underwent a third change and now has a wig which is brown and wavy.