Canadian's DNA helps ID King Richard III's bones

A Canadian carpenter says he's stunned that his DNA helped solve a 500-year-old mystery that stumped British historians for centuries.

Remains found under parking lot in Leicester, England

Canadian's DNA helps ID King Richard III's bones

11 years ago
Duration 3:19
University of Leicester researchers say it is 'beyond reasonable doubt' that the remains unearthed last year under a parking lot are those of England's King Richard III

A Canadian carpenter says he's stunned that his DNA helped solve a 500-year-old mystery that stumped British historians for centuries.

Scientists said Monday it is "beyond reasonable doubt" that the remains unearthed last year under a parking lot in the city of Leicester are those of England's King Richard III.

University of Leicester researchers were able to make the discovery thanks to a DNA sample from Michael Ibsen, who is a 17th great-grand-nephew of Richard's older sister — Anne of York.

Ibsen, who was born in London, Ont., but now lives in London, England, said he was "stunned" to discover he was related to the king.

"It's difficult to digest," he said.

Geneticist Turi King said Ibsen shares with the skeleton a rare strain of mitochondrial DNA. She said combined with the archaeological evidence, that left little doubt the skeleton belonged to the king.

Archaeologists had long sought the monarch's grave, which has been the subject of speculation for centuries.

They, along with historians and local tourism officials, had all been hoping for confirmation that king's long-lost remains had been found.

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And so had the monarch's fans in the Richard III Society, set up to re-evaluate the reputation of a reviled monarch.

"It will be a whole new era for Richard III," the society's Lynda Pidgeon said. "It's certainly going to spark a lot more interest. Hopefully people will have a more open mind toward Richard."

Few monarchs have seen their reputations decline as much after death as Richard III. He ruled England between 1483 and 1485, during the decades-long tussle over the throne known as the Wars of the Roses, which pitted two wings of the ruling Plantagenet dynasty — York and Lancaster —against one another.

His brief reign saw liberal reforms, including the introduction of the right to bail and the lifting of restrictions on books and printing presses.

But his rule was challenged, and he was defeated and killed by the army of Henry Tudor, who took the throne as King Henry VII and ended the Plantagenet line.

Death was just the start of Richard's problems. Historians writing under the victorious Tudors comprehensively trashed his reputation, accusing him of myriad crimes — most famously, the murder of the "Princes in the Tower," the two sons of his elder brother, King Edward IV.

William Shakespeare indelibly depicted Richard as a hunchbacked usurper who left a trail of bodies on his way to the throne before dying in battle, shouting "My kingdom for a horse."

That view was repeated by many historians, and Richard remains a villain in the popular imagination. But others argue that the image is unfair, and say Richard's reputation was smeared by his Tudor successors.

For centuries, the location of Richard's body has been unknown.

Grave location forgotten

The skull of England's King Richard III, found at the Grey Friars excavation in Leicester. (University of Leicester/Associated Press)

Records say he was buried by the Franciscan monks of Grey Friars at their church in Leicester, 160 kilometres north of London. The church was closed and dismantled after King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1538, and its location eventually was forgotten.

But last year a team led by University of Leicester archaeologist Richard Buckley identified a possible location of the grave through map regression analysis, starting with a current map and analyzing earlier maps to discover what had changed and not changed.

Ground-penetrating radar was employed to find the best places to start digging.

The team began excavating in a parking lot last August. Within a week they had located thick walls and the remains of tiled floors. Soon after, they found human remains — the skeleton of an adult male who appeared to have died in battle.

No coffin, shroud

He had been buried unceremoniously, without coffin or shroud — plausible for a despised and defeated enemy.

Osteologist Jo Appleby said the 10 injuries to the body were inflicted by weapons like swords, daggers and halberds and were consistent with accounts of Richard being struck down in battle — his helmet knocked from his head — before his body was stripped naked and flung over the back of a horse in disgrace.

She said some scars, including a knife wound to the buttock, bore the hallmarks of "humiliation injuries" inflicted after death.

The remains also displayed signs of scoliosis, which is a form of spinal curvature, consistent with contemporary accounts of Richard's appearance, though not with Shakespeare's description of him as a "deform'd, unfinished," hunchback.

Researchers conducted a battery of scientific tests, including radiocarbon dating to determine the skeleton's age. They found the skeleton belonged to a man aged between his late 20s and late 30s who died between 1455 and 1540. Richard was 32 when he died in 1485.

The mayor of Leicester, Peter Soulsby, said the monarch would be interred in the city's cathedral and a memorial service would be held.

With files from The Associated Press