LONDON – Scientists announced Monday that they had definitively identified a skeleton unearthed in northern England last summer as that of Richard III, the medieval king who died more than 500 years ago in battle and was portrayed by William Shakespeare as a homicidal tyrant who killed his two young nephews in order to ascend the throne.
DNA from the bones, found beneath the ruins of an old church, matches that of a living descendant of the monarch’s sister, researchers said.
“Rarely have the conclusions of academic research been so eagerly awaited,” Richard Buckley, the lead archaeologist on the excavation, told a phalanx of reporters Monday morning. “Beyond reasonable doubt, the individual exhumed … is indeed Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England.”
The dramatic announcement capped a brief hunt for Richard’s remains whose progress has been closely charted by international media and whose success has been barely short of miraculous.
Working from old maps of Leicester, about 100 miles northwest of London, archaeologists from the local university had less than a month to dig in a small municipal parking lot – one of the few spaces not built over in the crowded city center. The team stumbled on the ruins of the medieval priory where records say Richard was buried, then found the bones a few days later last September.
“It was an extraordinary discovery that stunned all of us,” Buckley said.
The nearly intact skeleton bore obvious traces of trauma to the skull and of scoliosis, a curvature of the spine that matched contemporary descriptions of Richard’s appearance. The feet were missing, almost certainly the result of later disturbance, and the hands were crossed at the wrist, which suggests that they may have been tied.
Scientists at the University of Leicester, which pioneered the practice of DNA fingerprinting, were able to extract samples from the bones and compare them to a man descended from Richard III’s sister Anne. The match through the maternal line was virtually perfect.
“The DNA evidence points to these being the remains of Richard III,” said Turi King, the project’s geneticist.
Richard reigned from 1483 to 1485, and occupies a unique place in England’s long line of colorful rulers. He was the last king to be killed in combat, at the Battle of Bosworth Field, by his successor, Henry VII. His death ended the Plantagenet dynasty and ushered in the long era of the Tudors, including Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
Jo Appleby, an osteologist at the university, said the skeleton belonged to an adult male in his late 20s to late 30s; Richard III was 32 when he died. The man would have stood 5-foot-8 at full height, but the curved spine would have made him appear shorter.
The skull was riddled with wounds strongly indicative of death in battle, including two blows from bladed weapons, either of which would have been fatal, Appleby said.
Richard III is one of England’s most controversial monarchs, reviled by some as a bloodthirsty despot who stopped at nothing to gain power, but revered by others who insist that he has been unfairly maligned. His supporters note that the repugnant portrait of Richard in today’s popular imagination is based almost entirely on accounts from the time of the usurping Tudors, especially Shakespeare’s indelible characterization of him as a “deform’d, unfinish’d” man without scruples.
Fans say Richard III was an enlightened, capable ruler whose important social reforms included the presumption of innocence for defendants and the granting of bail, which remain pillars of the legal system in Britain and the U.S.
What happened to Richard’s two nephews, however, who were his rivals for the throne and who were shut up in the Tower of London as young boys, never to be seen again, remains a mystery.