Richard III: The King in the Car Park

For TV night this week we watched the documentary about the finding of Richard III’s remains that was aired on Monday evening on Channel 4. It was presented by someone I didn’t really recognise – Simon Farnaby – who turns out to be a comedian who does the Horrible Histories programmes (which I haven’t watched, but know about). The format of the programme was that Farnaby & a camera crew showed up at key moments of the excavation and subsequent analysis of the skeleton & so we got to see what happened & what they discovered as it happened. There were also segments of the programme where Farnaby told us about the relevant history.

The project to excavate the car park in Leicester where the remains were found started with Phillipa Langley & the Richard III Society who did the preliminary work of figuring out where to dig, and funded the dig. So Langley was also present at all the key moments, and a fair amount of attention was paid to her (and her fellow society members’) reactions to what was discovered. Which I felt was overdone – she was quite clearly a nut, and was over-emotional at all possible moments. I would’ve preferred a bit more about the science behind the identification & a bit less of looking at some woman break down in tears seeing the skeleton of a man who’d been dead 500 years.

So, Richard III is the last king before the Tudors at the end period of the Wars of the Roses. He took the throne after his brother Edward IV died – usurping it from Edward IV’s son. Edward IV’s sons were locked up in the Tower of London and subsequently were not seen again, the Tudors claim Richard III killed them and various partisans of Richard’s right down to the modern day say that this is a lie put about for propaganda purposes. Richard only reigned for about 2 years, before he was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. The victor at this battle was Henry Tudor, who then took the throne as Henry VII. Obviously his and his descendants’ regime had good reason to cast Richard III as a terrible despot who deserved to be overthrown (but contemporary accounts suggest he was better liked than that), and also had good reason to insist that the Princes in the Tower were dead (as their claim to the throne would be better than Henry’s). The image of Richard III that’s come down to us via Shakespeare of a hunchbacked, murdering tyrant therefore needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. And the Richard III Society is devoted to the idea that he had no physical deformities, was a wise etc etc ruler & didn’t murder anyone. There was a segment of the programme that showed Farnaby talking to various of the society members on skype or something like that, and they were all very passionately saying things like “he would have nothing to gain from murdering the princes” and so on. Which made me roll my eyes somewhat, it has to be said. Of course there was probably some carefully chosen editing going on here – the programme did seem keen to play up the “aren’t these people weird?” theme. Perhaps to an unkind degree.

Langley & her fellow society members might’ve been nuts, but they were nuts that had done their homework. One of the legends surrounding the death of Richard III was that his body had been chucked in the river, but this was a later invention by a writer who’d visited the wrong church & found no signs of the grave so made something up to explain it. Langley had tracked down (with help from historians) more contemporary sources which said he had been buried in Greyfriars Church in Leicester, and she also tracked down where (geographically) that church had once been. And then we had another of the more “nutty woo-woo” bits, as she told us how she’d gone there and stood in the car park that was now there and stood at the parking bay labelled with an R and “felt something”.

So the Richard III Society raised the money (over £10,000) to fund an excavation by Leicester University to see if they could find the bones of Richard III. They double checked the info, and started by digging three trenches in the car park. The first thing they found, in the first trench, right under the letter R were human bones. The rest of the archaeological evidence (which mapped out where the church was) subsequently showed that these were a likely candidate for the bones of the very man they were looking for! I was a little annoyed that the woo-woo had lucked out 😉 But it was good for the excavation because the slim chance had actually paid off – it’s the sort of thing you couldn’t put in a story because no-one would believe the coincidence.

These bones were then properly excavated (with a slip-up of damaging the skull :/ but only that one slip-up) and taken off to Leicester University for analysis. Another more nutty bit was Langley’s insistence that the box containing the bones be transported drapped in the standard of Richard III. But anyway, once at the university they were subjected to all sorts of analysis. The first thing we were told about was the analysis of a piece of metal found near the spine – unfortunately this turned out to be a Roman nail that just happened to be in the soil there.

They also CT scanned the bones & could do quite a bit of analysis from that. The first, most striking, thing was that he did have a curvature of the spine – which was very upsetting for Langley. But this scoliosis seems to’ve been in the same plane as the torso and was probably not particularly visible when he was clothed. Maybe one of his shoulders would’ve been a bit raised, but not by much. And definitely no withered arm. So this shows us that the later Tudor propaganda about the deformities – hunchback, withered arm – was based on a kernel of truth and then exaggerated to fit the purposes of the Tudors. (Bear in mind that at this time any deformity would be seen as a punishment from God, and to indicate something about your moral character.) One other notable thing about the skeleton is that he seemed to have quite feminine features to his bone structure – more gracile than the average male and some particular features of the pelvis were towards the feminine end of the spectrum.

They could also see the causes of death from the bones. The notable wounds included a hole in the top of the skull made by a dagger pounded down through it and a blow that had sliced off a piece of the skull to an extent that would’ve exposed the brain. Clearly these were not survivable wounds (even with modern medicine) – tho it can’t be determined which one was the one that killed him as both happened at or very soon after death. They also said that there was a wound on his pelvis that had occurred after death – a knife thrust through the buttocks. These wounds fit the contemporary stories about how Richard had died – surrounded in the melee fighting and killed then, and subsequently his body was found and carried to Henry VII tied over a horse (for display to prove he was truly dead before he was buried). The buttock wound might well have occurred while he was tied over this horse.

They also carbon dated the bones. The first estimate came out a bit early (by about 50 years) but they then said that given he was a part of the elite he’d’ve had a diet rich in marine food. This would change the estimate, and the range of the new one covered the right date.

And they did the DNA testing, to see if it was an acceptable match of a known descendant of one of Richard III’s sisters. I was disappointed with this bit of the programme because it didn’t actually give us any details, just said that the “the DNA was a match”. Er, right, not much info there. Couldn’t we’ve cut some of the weepy woman stuff & talked a bit about what testing they did? I found more from the Leicester University website for the project – it seems they looked at the mitochondrial DNA extracted from the bones and compared it to two descendants in an unbroken maternal line from Anne Neville (Richard’s sister). A somewhat simplified explanation of this – mitochondria are the bits in a cell that provide the cell with energy, and once upon a time they were free living bacteria that now live in symbiosis inside other cells. This means that they still have some vestigial remains of their own DNA, which is distinct from the DNA of the main cell. Mitochondria are always inherited from one’s mother – they are present in the egg cell pre-fertilisation. So if you look at markers in the mitochondrial DNA then people who share a common maternal ancestor will share those markers (barring mutation, which is a relatively rare occurrence). So when they looked at the markers of the two maternal line descendants of Richard’s mother (via his sister) and compared it to the mitochondrial DNA extracted from the bones they found that the markers were the same. Interestingly the website also mentions that the three samples share a particularly rare form of one of markers, making it even more convincing that these are relatives in the maternal line (i.e. this gets even less likely to be a case of coincidence).

The website also mentions looking at the paternal line (i.e. looking at Y-chromosome markers that are only passed down from father to son) but then it just says that this is harder because it’s more clear-cut who someone’s mother is (as birth generally takes place in front of witnesses particularly at that level of society), but it’s harder to be sure who the father is (as conception happens in private and may not be accurately reported). So I guess that didn’t pan out with any of the putative direct male line descendants (of Richard’s father).

So each piece of evidence they showed isn’t completely convincing in itself. But taken all together it seems that this is extremely likely to be Richard III’s skeleton. He died at the right time, in the right way, he had the right sort of physical deformities, he was buried in the right place and he is of the right maternal line. Which is pretty awesome 🙂

They also did a reconstruction of his face from the skull, but I kept wondering about confirmation bias – it turned out to look quite like the portraits, and how much of that is because consciously or unconsciously any time there was a choice the one that made it look more like the portraits was chosen? This bit also drew the somewhat daft observation from Langley that “this wasn’t the face of a tyrant” – I’m not sure you can really say anything about his personality from a model of a computer reconstruction of a long dead man.

Overall I enjoyed this programme, even if I felt they could’ve cut quite a bit of Langley’s emotions and replaced it with the science. Farnaby was a good presenter – he narrated it with a sense of humour (unsurprisingly for a comedian) but this wasn’t at the expense of presenting the actual information.