Rediscovering Richard III: Greyfriars Skeleton Revealed as the Last Plantagenet

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Home / Rediscovering Richard III: Greyfriars Skeleton Revealed as the Last Plantagenet

On the February 4, 2013, Leicester University confirmed the identity of the Greyfriars skeleton found in September as that of Richard III. Decoded Science was present at the press announcement that revealed the defining evidence that identified the lost King, as well as details of his life, death and burial.

Richard III: The Skeletal Evidence

Radiocarbon dating of samples from the rib bones by the Universities of Oxford and Glasgow proved that the individual was of high status, consuming a high protein diet rich in seafood. The samples also placed the date of death between 1455 and 1540, which covers the period of Richard III’s death in 1485. Computed tomography (CT) scans of the skeleton showed that the skeleton and the King died at a similar age – the skeleton’s age at death was its early 30s, and Richard III died at the age of 32.

Analysis of the skeleton by Leicester University osteoarchaeologist Dr. Jo Appleby and the East Midlands Forensic Pathology Unit under Professor Guy Rutty revealed similar characteristics expected of Richard III. At 5 foot 8 inches, the skeleton was that of a tall, slender man.

This is in keeping with historical sources which describe Richard as being of very slender build.”

Said Dr. Jo Appleby at the press conference. This height was probably diminished by a spinal deformity. The skeleton suffered from a condition known as scoliosis, which would have led to the right shoulder being higher than the left. It seems that the individual was not born this way, but would have developed the condition after the age of 10. Although not the same condition, this could explain where Richard III’s reputation as a hunchback came from.

DNA Evidence & The Greyfriars Skeleton

DNA proved to be the key to identifying the skeleton. The DNA evidence was examined by Dr. Turi King at Leicester and York Universities and verified in Toulouse. “DNA breaks down over time,” said Dr. King at the press conference, “and how quickly this happens is very dependent on the burial conditions. Therefore, we were extremely pleased to find that we could obtain a DNA sample from the skeletal remains.”

The Greyfriars skeleton’s ancient DNA was compared to samples from modern descendants of Richard III’s female relatives. Professor Kevin Schurer was tasked with verifying possible descendant Michael Ibsen’s descent. But he also began another search. “Right from the start of the project, we did not want to rely entirely on the DNA between Michael and the skeleton,” said Professor Schurer at the press conference. “We set about trying to secure a second maternal line and after several weeks of research we actually discovered this person.”

The DNA of this anonymous descendant was compared to that of Michael Ibsen, confirming the family connection. The next step was to compare the modern DNA with that of the skeleton. “The DNA sequence obtained from the Greyfriar skeletal remains was compared with the two maternal line relatives of Richard III,” said Dr. King. “We were very excited to find that there is a DNA match between the maternal DNA from the family of Richard III and the skeletal remains we found at the Greyfriar’s dig.”

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