Is the body in the car park really Richard III? At last, the answer

...and it could prove that he really didn’t commit the greatest crime in royal history

He was the most reviled and misunderstood monarch in English history, but one of the last remaining mysteries of Richard III could soon be resolved with the help of modern science and a fragment of DNA.

A group of scholars are gathering over the weekend to decide once and for all whether a skeleton found under a council car park in Leicester is that of the king who died in battle at nearby Bosworth Field in 1485.

They will review the latest findings of a series of scientific tests on the bones that are expected to support the theory that the battle-scarred body of the last Plantagenet king was interred under the floor of a medieval church, on a site where Leicester’s social services department later stood.

If the skeleton is confirmed to be that of Richard III, this could lead to fresh calls for DNA tests to be carried out on a set of children’s bones found in the Tower of London in 1674 which are thought to belong to his two nephews, the “princes in the Tower” whom he was supposed to have murdered.

The bones of the children are in a white marble sarcophagus in Westminster Abbey with the inscription: “These brothers being confined in the Tower of London, and there stifled with pillows, were privately and meanly buried, by the order of their perfidious uncle Richard the Usurper.”

However, not all scholars accept this interpretation of history, and some believe that the bones in Westminster are not even those of the two boys. DNA tests could resolve the issue, but Westminster Abbey and the Queen have so far resisted calls to have them examined forensically.

A detailed analysis of the Leicester skeleton, and the collective decision of the experts, will be publicly unveiled on Monday morning, although there seems little doubt in the minds of some that the “body in the car park” is the mortal remains of the most reviled monarch in English history.

Scientists, archaeologists and historians involved in the project have been sworn to secrecy until the final results of radiocarbon dating, DNA tests and bone analysis are officially released, along with a three-dimensional reconstruction of his head and face.

However, one expert close to the study said that he would be surprised if the initial excitement over the skeleton was shown to have been ill-founded. “The circumstantial evidence is just so strong,” he said.

The skeleton, excavated last September, has pronounced curvature of the spine caused by severe scoliosis which would have made the person’s right shoulder appear visibly higher than the left – supporting the Shakespearean description of Richard as “rudely stamp’d… deformed, unfinish’d”. The skeleton seems to have suffered a traumatic blow to the head, which cleaved the back of his cranium, and a barbed arrowhead was found embedded between the vertebrae. Both must have occurred at or near the moment of death, supporting the view that the man died on a medieval battlefield.

But it was the position of the burial site that has proved most tantalising. The skeleton was found under the choir floor of the abbey church of Greyfriars monastery, which although razed to the ground centuries ago has recently been located under the council car park by archaeologists. Only high-status people would have been interred under a church choir, precisely the place that historical records said the body of Richard was buried.

Leicester University geneticists working on the skeletal remains have extracted samples of mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited solely down the maternal line. They have compared it with the mitochondrial DNA of Michael Ibsen, a Canadian-born carpenter living in London who is, according to genealogical records, related to Richard’s sister, Anne of York, through 16 maternal generations.

If the bones are those of Richard III, the DNA tests should show that they share the same “haplotype” or genetic subgroup to that of Mr Ibsen. If the haplotype of Mr Ibsen is a rare one, and if it matches with that of the skeleton, this will be strong support in favour of its being the body of the king.

However, there is one test that could blow the king theory out of the water. Radiocarbon dating could place the skeleton in another period of history, perhaps the 14th or even 13th centuries, long before Richard lived. If so, the skeleton in the car park will remain a mystery.

Contested legacy: A pantomime villian

History belongs to the victors and rarely more so than in the case of Richard III, the hunchbacked king demonised by Shakespeare as a man so “rudely stamp’d” that “dogs bark at me as I halt by them”.

The last Plantagenet monarch fell at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, after which his body was said to have been stripped and publicly displayed for several days. Some accounts reported that his corpse was tipped into the local river; others said he was given a Christian burial at Greyfriars monastery.

Richard’s name became synonymous with evil deeds, epitomised by later accounts that he ordered the murder of his boy nephews, the two “princes in the tower”, pictured. The hatchet job on Richard was perfected by Shakespeare who preserved the dead king’s image as a “bottled spider” with a twisted body – a pantomime villain.

Historians do not know what happened to the two princes, except that they disappeared from the Tower in 1483. Some historians also point out that during Richard’s reign he oversaw some important and progressive changes, such as the command to all judges that they administer the law impartially.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: iOS Developer - Objective-C

£38000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Design and build advanced appli...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitm...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant - English and French Speaking

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding and successful online ...

Day In a Page

Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

David Starkey's assessment
Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

'An enormous privilege and adventure'

Oliver Sacks writing about his life
'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

Set a pest to catch a pest

Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests