Shakespeare painted the last of the York rulers of England as a murderous maniac who was rightly dispatched to hell by Henry Tudor in 1485. But the story of Richard III's skeleton supposedly dug up last year in a parking lot may top that of the Bard for pulling the wool over our eyes. Or it may be the luckiest archeological find since King Tut . . . .
The last of the York dynasty was buried in Greyfriars, Leicester, but Britons are now talking about re-interring the bones believed to be Richard's in Westminster Cathedral with England's other beloved monarchs. In 2012, a writer from Edinburgh, Philippa Langley, was walking over a particular spot in the municipal parking lot when she got goosebumps and "absolutely knew I was walking on his grave." Langley helped fund an archeological excavation and on February 4, 2013, the University of Leicester confirmed that a skeleton found in the excavation was, "beyond reasonable doubt," that of Richard III, based on a combination of evidence from radiocarbon dating, comparison with contemporary reports of his slight frame, and a comparison of his mitochondrial DNA with two matrilineal descendants of Richard III's eldest sister, Anne of York.
Hunches and Hunchbacks
According to a BBC article, “Richard III: The Twisted Bones that Reveal a King,” the skeleton had a “striking curvature” that could only be that of the hunchback king. But according to a Daily Beast article, “Unraveling King Richard III’s Secrets,” Shakespeare wrote a century after the fact and had a pro-Tudor, anti-York political agenda. “Portraits made after his defeat that show Richard with a hump- or at least uneven shoulders- are suspect as Tudor propaganda.” There is no historical evidence of Richard III having a “striking curvature” of the spine. Or even “uneven shoulders.” There is no evidence beyond Shakespeare of his deformity. In fact, there is historical evidence to the contrary. The article, “Richard’s Comeback,” quotes the historian, Thomas More, as saying Richard III was of “bodily shape comely enough, onely (sic) of low stature.” The Countess of Desmond reported that, at a royal ball, Richard was the ‘“handsomest man in the room . . . except for his brother, Edward, and was very well made."
Despite historical evidence, most articles that discuss remaining doubts about the case like, “Doubts Remain that the Leicester body is Richard III,” miss this point and take it as a historical fact that Richard III had scoliosis as does the skeleton that has been found in the parking lot.
What of historical depictions of Richard III’s face? “No portraits made during his lifetime have survived and some later copies show signs of having been altered to make him appear more sinister” (“ Richard III: The Twisted Bones”). Nevertheless, a 3D scan of the skull was taken, and a 3D face created and painted. Ashdown –Hill is quoted as telling the BBC in the article, “Richard III Facial Reconstruction Reveals Slain King More than 500 Years After His Death,”that it “largely matched” the “prominent features” in posthumous representations of the king. The artist, Janine Aitken said her part was “interpretive not scientific.” At least it is a pleasant face. But is it Richard III’s face?
Jumping to Forensic Conclusions
And the skeleton includes 10 battle wounds showing Richard III “met a violent death…”eight to the head and two to the body—which they believe were inflicted at or around the time of death. Since he died in a battle, did not other soldiers meet untimely wounds in such a manner?
Not a few scientists are waiting for peer-reviewed results. But there are none. Instead of waiting for a boring academic conference, the sponsors at the Richard III Society chose to release the results via a Hollywood style press conference.
What kind of DNA analysis was used? Mitochondrial DNA. According to Bryony Jones in his CNN article, “Body Found under Parking Lot is King Richard III, Scientists Prove,” “the mitochondrial DNA extracted from the bones was matched to Michael Ibsen, a Canadian cabinetmaker and direct descendant of Richard III’s sister, Anne of York, and a second distant relative who wishes to remain anonymous.” Well, end of story and close that book. Right? Not so fast. Some scientists believe that the testing done was not sufficient. Why?
Mitochondrial DNA has limitations. It does reflect the deepest ancestry [see The Seven Daughters of Eve by Bryan Sykes], but is also prone to contamination [under such circumstances]( Pappas). Especially when we are discussing skeletons reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead interred improperly for centuries in damp soil. Timothy Bestor, Professor of Genetics and Development at Columbia University Medical Center, is quoted in the NY Academy of Sciences article, “Skeletal Remains of King Richard III Reportedly Discovered,” as saying that the possible quality of the [mitochondrial] DNA [under the given circumstances] was one of his key reasons for skepticism. “’After 500 years or more in a wet environment like England’s, “‘the microbes are going to degrade the DNA. It’s just food to them, ‘” says Dr. Bestor. And Pappas quotes Maria Avila, a computational biologist at the Center for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum as saying, “The DNA results presented today are too weak, as they stand, to support the claim that [the] DNA [sample] is actually from Richard III…more in depth DNA analysis summed to the archaeological and osteological [bone analysis] results would make a round story [She is requesting Autosomal DNA analysis akin to what was done with the hominin discovery of the Denisovans].” And she wonders about contamination with the type of DNA testing that was done. Avila says that, “Before being convinced of ANY atDNA study, it should be explicit that all possible cautions were taken to avoid contamination” and … “ also warned that people could share mitochondrial DNA even if they share a family tree” ( Pappas). The article, “Doubts Remain that the Leicester Body is Richard III,” a Mark Thomas at University College London is quoted as saying that “people can have matching mitochondrial DNA by chance and not be related.”
And Bestor asserts there other reasons to be skeptical, even though “Richard Buckley, lead archeologist from the University of Leicester, asserts ‘“this is beyond reasonable doubt’” based on genetic and historical forensic evidence.” Bestor argues that beyond the high risk of sample contamination, there are three other “particularly complicating factors.” Of course, it is often an overlooked fact that “the English aristocracy reproduced within a closed gene pool in order to preserve lineages. This inbreeding results in consanguinity” (“Skeletal Remains of King Richard III”). Dr. Bestor is quoted as saying, “ You may have the same mitochondrial haplotype, but that does not guarantee a lineal descent from a given individual.” [ Mitochondrial DNA analysis is not the same as Y haplotype DNA analysis because it focuses on deeper ancestry whereas male haplotype DNA analysis is linked to more recent male lines ]. He also points out the possibility of adoption. [The possibility of an adoption or any type of non-paternity event increases as one delves back into the distant past of any family tree]:
Another confounding factor is that, in the 17-25 generations separating King Richard’s sister from her extant relatives, there is a fair chance that children of deceased parents’ may have been adopted by their parents’ siblings somewhere along the way. After all, medieval lives were short. Such adoptions may have been kept private and excluded from historical or genealogical records.
Moreover, Bestor points out that the “genetic sequences and statistical data are yet to be released” but adds that the “historical evidence is quite compelling.” According to this article, forensic evidence of the bones (1455-1540)matches with the time that Richard III was to have died ( 1485). But didn’t many people die at this same time during the same battle with similar wounds?Astonishing or Unbelievable? Watch the University of Leicester's Full Press Conference