SCIENCE DISPATCH: How that whole Richard III thing really went down

Dis bro.
Dis bro. // Creative Commons

This is the third article in a WEEKEND series by Aishwarya Vijay. Taking the time to read intense science magazines and research so that we don’t have to, Aishwarya will be giving our faithful readers regular updates on the field, so we aren’t all taken by surprise when, like, the sun melts.

Now that the royal baby buzz has died down a bit, the English have found a new way to make the monarchy relevant. Except that this monarch has been somewhat irrelevant for more than 500 years now – talk about a comeback!

A team of archaeologists has finally confirmed, as of Feb. 4, that they have found the true remains of Richard III. For those who aren’t well-versed on all their English monarchs, Richard was kind of an ass. After Kind Edward IV died, his young son Edward V, 12 at the time, succeeded him. Richard, a war hero and the young king’s uncle, was named lord protector of Edward and his younger brother, although protecting them wasn’t exactly high on his agenda.

Instead, he locked them both in the Tower of London and, until this day, it is rumored that he ordered them executed as well. Richard did not live too long after that — he was killed by Henry Tudor’s forces in the Battle of Bosworth. Henry, the new king, quickly and quietly buried him around 1495 in Greyfriars friary.

Due to massive development on the land and a lack of records, nobody knew exactly where this church was until now.

Then, in August, a team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester announced that they would search for Richard’s actual remains. By using a common technique called superimposition – basically, taking maps from subsequent historical periods and comparing fixed points – they found that the once-hallowed Greyfriars friary was now a gigantic mall parking lot.

They then found a skull and some bones that revealed a violent battle death. The skeleton showed many injuries, including an arrowhead to the back and two potentially fatal skull wounds. The spine itself is badly curved and shows a condition known as scoliosis, which past historical records mentioned Richard as having. In many ways, the physical description matched that of contemporary records of Richard. But, then again, a lot of people in 15th century England died gruesome battle deaths – it wasn’t exactly the Enlightenment. How could they really prove this was Richard?

That’s the interesting part. The thing is, though DNA is remarkably resistant to degradation and can survive under reasonable conditions for centuries or even millennia when other biological molecules have decayed away, even if there were a descendent of Richard III floating around, his or her genome would be so mixed with others by now that it would be hard to find the link.

But, of course, the show must go on, especially if said show will put you on track for tenure. Instead of normal genomic DNA, the researchers used DNA from mitochondria, small organelles that provide cells with their energy. Unlike the main genome from the nucleus, which is mixed up when sperm fertilizes an egg, mitochondrial DNA passes without combination from mother to child. This meant that if researchers could find a direct line of females from Richard’s mother, the duchess of York, they could find a potential match even generations later.

They managed to find a 17th generation descendant of Richard named Joy Ibsen in Canada. Ibsen had recently died, but her son was able to provide a DNA sample postmortem. Turns out they were extremely lucky, because Ibsen had only one daughter, who has no children, meaning the line would have ended pretty soon. By matching the DNA sample to that of the remains, scientist were finally able to confirm that the skeleton found in the Leicester parking lot was, without a doubt, the late and (not really) great Richard III. 

So, Richard can finally be laid to rest, although some doubt that he deserves it. Others, such as Philipa Langley from the Richard III Support Society (yes, this is actually a thing), believe it is a chance to get rid of Tudor propaganda and clear the good name of her king. How much of a personality they can glean from a worn skeleton remains to be seen.

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