Finding King Richard III's body a triumph of science and scholarship

Scholarship, determination and 21st century science lay behind the discovery and authentication of English King Richard III's remains

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 July, 2013, 12:31am

The discovery of the mortal remains of England's King Richard III under a car park in Leicester will be remembered as one of the greatest historical scoops in modern times, a wonderful combination of science and historiography.

The heroine of this story is a woman, Philippa Langley, a screenwriter and a Ricardian to the core, that is to say a person convinced that a great injustice was done by the Tudor usurper to Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet kings. Historians and playwrights seeking the favour of the Tudor depicted him as a repulsive monster, a fate strikingly similar to the posthumous damnatio memoriae suffered by the Roman emperor Nero. Ricardians are members of the Richard III Society, created in 1924 and with affiliated members all over the world. Over the years Langley had assembled a mass of historical data about Richard III. Using old maps, she had guessed that the British monarch's remains would be found in a certain spot in Leicester city. The unlucky king was interred in Leicester on August 24, 1485 inside the Greyfriars church of the Annunciation of Mary the Virgin. His body was cut down after he was left naked, hands tied, in public view in the city square to show that he was really dead. He had been killed two days earlier at the battle of Bosworth Field.

The Franciscan church was demolished in 1538, like many others religious temples, by order of the son of the man who had defeated him, king Henry VIII. The land was then sold and transformed into a large garden, so large that in the following centuries only a part was built over and the rest was covered in tarmac and used as a car park.

Langley had raised sufficient money by 2011 to start using a ground-penetrating radar but the digging began on 24 August 2012 right under a white letter R, which was what remained of the sign 'Reserved Car Park'. She hit gold on the first day, because there stood the choir of the church and there she found human remains - the backbone of a skeleton that showed signs of scoliosis. The feet were missing - probably due to construction work done in Victorian times - two mortal blows had shattered the skull, and a small rusted barbed arrow laid close to a scapula. She knew in her heart that she had found Richard III but she also knew that further tests were needed to convince all the people that had disagreed with her search.

In the meantime another Ricardian, the historian John Ashdown-Hill, had discovered through studying archival records, a direct female line running between Anne of York, sister of Richard, and a lady living in Canada, Joy Ibsen, a 17th- generation descendant with a son, Michael Ibsen, living in London. A test of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) passed from mother to daughter could be arranged. Later another female line was discovered and even some descendants via the male line - they all requested anonymity; for the male line Y chromosomal DNA, paternally inherited, was to be tested.

The department of genetics at the University of Leicester was ready to help, and was wonderfully equipped for that. It was there that in 1984 Sir Alex Jeffreys discovered techniques of DNA fingerprinting. They extracted mtDNA from one of the teeth and the match was soon after confirmed with Michael Ibsen and with the other descendants. The skeleton belonged to Richard III beyond any reasonable doubt.

Interdisciplinary study of the bones revealed more matches: 10 battle-related injuries, some probably inflicted after death and some before; his height of 170cm; his age; and radiocarbon dating also placed the mortal remains to the right period. That man had had a diet rich in fish, the bone analysis revealed, a sign of wealth in his times. But there was no sign of a withered arm, a proof of one of the many not-so-innocent lies spread by Shakespeare and other literati.

The king had fought valiantly but lost against a usurper who had no legal claims to the throne. Henry Tudor, who was crowned King Henry VII, had invaded the kingdom with an army more than half of which was French; only 1,000 knights on his side were English, the rest being Welsh and Scottish. Richard III had a larger army, but shameful treason and a clever tactical deployment by the Earl of Oxford, the commander of the Tudor army, won the day.

Oxford was following a book of strategy written in 1410 by a Venetian woman, Catherine de Pizan, whose title was The Book of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry, in which she applied to modern warfare the precepts of the Roman strategist Vegetius as well as those of a friend of her father, John of Legnano.

De Pizan (1363-1430) was herself an extraordinary character: she challenged misogyny and stereotypes about women which were prevalent even in the most civilised late mediaeval capital of Europe, Paris, where she had spent most of her life. She became the first professional woman writer in European history.

So we may say that a woman contributed to Richard III losing the battle and his life, but also that it was a woman who finally found him.

Angelo Paratico is a businessman, novelist and foreign correspondent based in Hong Kong