Richard III?

February 5 2013

Image of Richard III?

Picture: BBC

I really want to believe that the skeleton found in a car park in Leicester is Richard III. (I'm aware this topic isn't very art historical, but you'll have to indulge me). The Wars of the Roses were the first thing to awaken my interest in history, and the story of Richard III in particular. I remember being quite convinced, as a seven year old, that Richard was a good 'un, and that Shakespeare was a Tudor propogandist villain. If the body is Richard's, which it certainly seems to be, then those responsible for finding it have performed nothing short of a historical miracle, and deserve our fullest possible congratulations. After all, what were the chances of finding the King's body in the first trench of the first dig, under a parking space marked 'R'...

And yet... It is true that the TV programme, The King in the Car Park, broadcast in the UK last night made for good telly, and that the newspaper reports have set out the main facts of the case well. The University of Leicester's website also has some intriguing further information. But the problem with being a trained, empirical historian is that you tend to want to examine all the evidence yourself, and then make up your own mind, rather than rely on the reports of others. And so far I cannot do that. The published evidence that the body is Richard III is quite convincing. But it really cannot be said to be entirely convincing.

Why does it matter? It's a good story, and has been fun to follow. But for an anorak like me that's not enough. If we want to be able to say, 'This is Richard III', with such conviction that we are able then to bury him with all the dignity the Church can muster, in a shrine in some exalted cathedral,* then we must be absolutely sure, beyond not just reasonable doubt but any doubt, that it is him. And we are not yet there.

Here are some of the problems I have with the evidence presented so far. First, having argued for decades (with some compelling contemporary evidence, it has to be said) that Richard III absolutely did not have a crooked spine, Ricardians have now seized on the fact that the skeleton did have a crooked spine as proof that it must be Richard III. I'm sorry, but that's not good enough. Secondly, the evidence that Richard III was buried in Greyfriars monastery is quite strong, but to be sure this particular body is him we need to have far more archaeological evidence about the rest of the site, and even to be able to discount other bodies buried therein. Heralding the first body you dig up and then not fully excavating the rest of the site, is, again, not really good enough. I don't think we yet have conclusive proof that the body was by the altar. Thirdly, the evidence that the body died a violent death is useful, but hardly a clincher in a violent age, and in a place not far from one of the bloodiest battles fought on English soil. I'm also puzzled at the bound hands theory - why would you bind the hands of a dead person? Is it possible that the large slice at the back of the head, the bound hands, and the way the skull was rather oddly placed in the grave (higher than the skeleton), all suggest instead that we are dealing with some unfortunate captive who was beheaded? And finally, what of the DNA evidence? For me, the most compelling evidence was the DNA analysis linking the bones to Richard's descendants. But so far we have had no published evidence to back this up. All we had in the TV programme was the simple, impossibly brief conclusion that 'we have a match'.

Well, what sort of match? The graph above, from the University of Leicester's website, shows part of a sequence from the DNA of two descendants of Richard III's sister, Anne of York. The two descendants' DNA matches perfectly. The bottom graph shows the partial DNA sequence of Richard III. At first glance they look close - there is indeed 'a match'. But look closer and you'll see that there are quite distinct differences. My main question here is, if two (apparently seperate) descendants of Richard III's sister have, after 18 generations, entirely identical DNA matches, then why does Richard III's not also match identically?

There may be a perfectly acceptable explanation for all this (and I'm no geneticist), but the problem is we are not provided with one. And before you think I'm just being curmudgeonly here, then you may be interested to read this from today's Guardian:

"Mitochondria is not brilliant for detecting relatedness but, given you've got so far back in time, so many generations back, it's as good as it can get. If the only thing you can compare that ancient DNA with is somebody living today, then you'd want it to be mitochondria," said Mark Thomas, a professor of evolutionary genetics at University College London.

But it is not ideal. Two people could have the same mitochondrial type just by chance and it would not necessarily mean they shared a common ancestor at the time of Richard III. "If Richard III had a very common type of mitochondrial DNA, then there will be plenty of people in the country that have got the same," said Thomas.

Even if there is good circumstantial evidence to suggest two people are related, they might still share the same mtDNA by chance. One thing to look out for in any forthcoming research paper is just how rare the mtDNA type is that King's team measured – the rarer it is, the less likely it is to be a chance result and the more likely it is to be a robust family connection.

Ross Barnett of the Centre for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum in Copenhagen also questioned the depth of the mtDNA match between the skeleton and Ibsen.

"The [diagrams] they showed were only about 30 base pairs or so … you need to have quite a lot more than 30 base pairs to get a deep match." The more common a mtDNA type is in the population, the more base pairs of DNA are required to get a reliable match.

I have some concerns with other aspects of the archaeological evidence too. Now it is true that historians have long been wary of archaeologists jumping to logical-sounding conclusions based on almost no evidence, and I may just be being academically sniffy here. But take this explanation for some of the wounds on the body:

There was another sword slash to the skull, which would also have penetrated to the brain and proved fatal in moments, but the others came after death, and were described – in an image still resonant from many battlegrounds today – as "humiliation injuries". They could not have happened to a man protected by armour, and are consistent with the accounts of his body being stripped on the battlefield, and brought back to Leicester naked, slung over the pommel of a horse. That, almost certainly, was when the thrusting injury through the right buttock and into the pelvis happened.

Professor Lin Foxhall, head of the university's archaeology department, and Bob Savage, an expert on medieval weapons from the Royal Armouries, pointed out that Richard's face was relatively undamaged.

"They'd killed the king and they needed to keep him recognisable," Savage said. "To me, the injuries are fully consistent with the accounts of his dying in a melee, and [being] unhorsed – I believe he was dead within minutes of coming off his horse. But they took care not to bash the face about too much."

"It's the Gaddafi effect," Foxhall said. "We saw just this in the horrible mobile-phone footage of Gaddafi being found, and you can hear the voices shouting 'not the face, don't touch the face'. It's one of those dreadful lessons from history which we never learn."

This all sounds logical, but as hard historical evidence it won't entirely do. First, we cannot judge a battle in 1485 by comparing it to the death of a dictator in 2011. I don't know, but I suspect that those who confronted Richard III at Bosworth tried to kill him as quickly as they could, face or no face. There is no contemporary evidence that anyone cared a jot about Richard's face. And then there is the sudden supposition that this skeleton was that of a man who was wearing armour, when in fact there is no evidence he was wearing armour at all. Yes, if you assume this body was Richard III, he would have been wearing armour. But you cannot make that assumption first, and then use it as part of your argument that he was Richard III. Haven't the archaeologists got ahead of themselves here?

All of which brings me onto my main concern with this story - the academic processes followed by the University of Leicester (and I'm not just talking about the unfortunate archaeological digging that split open the body's leg and skull). As a historian, I cannot help but be instinctively uncomfortable with the seemingly subjective way in which the University has gone about their task. The press conference held yesterday to announce the discovery made for dramatic TV, but reflected badly on the University's regard for academic process and objectivity. One wondered if the university found only what they wanted to find. This is, however, potentially one of the most important archaeological and historical discoveries in British history, and the university owed it to their fellow historians and archaeological colleagues to ensure that the evidence was not only presented fairly, but in great detail, and at leisure (the DNA match was only made on Saturday night!). Instead, we have had no peer review process, and no in-depth evidence to analyse for ourselves. All we have so far is an engaging but historically redundant TV programme, and an entirely deficient (from an academic point of view) section on the University of Leicester website which raises more questions than answers, especially when it comes to the DNA evidence. On which, as Professor Mary Beard writes:

Then I found myself thinking... this is a complicated bit of scientific analysis being given its first outing in a Press Conference, not ever having been through the process of peer review. DNA evidence is tricky and any scientist would want their results peer evaluated before going completely public. OK, I see that there is a tricky dividing line. We want to have us, the public, informed of what's been going on -- and we dont necessarily think it is a great idea that we should all have to wait for that for months or years, until the academic seal of approval has been granted. But the idea of the publication of research by press conference isn't one I feel very comfortable with (as a member of the public, I want not just a story, but a validated story).

I know I may come across as an old grump on this, and I really don't mean to begrudge the team at Leicester their excitement and justly won praise. I've little doubt that they're right and that the body really is Richard III. History and historians will forever owe them a debt of gratitude. But from a historical point of view the stakes could not be higher, and I just wish that a little more care had been taken to present the evidence properly. It's a shame that there need to be any doubts at all. I don't want to have any doubts. I want it to be true.

*I would argue for burial in York.

Update - a reader writes:

The concerns you raise regarding the university's approach to identifying the putative remains of the King are well taken. But on one point, there may be an easy answer. You ask "... if two (apparently seperate) descendants of Richard III's sister have, after 18 generations, entirely identical DNA matches, then why does Richard III's not also match identically? According to the CBC National news last evening the descendants are actually Canadian brothers (Jeff and Michael Ibsen) whom, one presumes, are likely to have close to matching DNA. The film clip is here.

Update II - Neil Jeffares, via Twitter, asks some pertinent DNA questions:

How many of the other bodies left below the parking lot would have passed the mtDNA test? We need the numbers. After all, if it survives unchanged for 18 generations, lots of people must have the same...

How many of RIII's maternal cousins (perhaps many times removed) also slain at Bosworth and buried in same carpark?

Update III - more DNA questions on

Ancient DNA, however, is very susceptible to contamination, sparking some skepticism.

"Before being convinced of ANY aDNA study, it should be explicit that all possible cautions were taken to avoid potential contamination," Avila wrote in an email to LiveScience. "It is just part of the protocol." (aDNA refers to ancient DNA.)

Avila also warned that people could share mitochondrial DNA even if they didn't share a family tree. To be confident that Ibsen is related to the owner of the disinterred skeleton, the researchers must present statistics showing how common the DNA profile is in the United Kingdom, she said. Otherwise, the similarities between Ibsen's mitochondrial DNA and the skeleton's could be coincidental.

Avila noted that she doesn't necessarily disbelieve the team's conclusion that the skeleton is Richard III's, just that the DNA evidence isn't the strongest piece of the puzzle.

"It seems to me that osteological as well as archaeological evidence is stronger, however 'DNA evidence' sounds fancier so it looks like they used it as the hook to capture the attention of media," she said.

Personally, I see it the other way round. I hope we are able to say that the DNA evidence is stronger than the interesting, but not wholly convincing, archaeological evidence. Apparently fuller DNA details will be released in a week or so.

Update IV - revisiting this on 2nd September 2013, I see that the University of Leicester has still not released a fuller analysis of the DNA evidence.

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.