Genealogists help confirm identity of Leicester's royal remains

By Jon Bauckham, 5 February 2013 - 1:17am

After months of DNA tests, researchers have finally announced that a skeleton unearthed last year is that of Plantagenet monarch Richard III 

Monday 4 February 2013
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The skeleton was buried underneath what was once the church of Greyfriars, corresponding with claims made in a number of historical texts © University of Leicester 

A skeleton found buried beneath a car park in Leicester is “beyond reasonable doubt” that of Richard III.

Researchers from the University of Leicester presented their conclusions to the media on 4 February following months of scientific tests on the remains, which were unearthed in September last year.

Examination of the skeleton revealed ten separate battle injuries, including eight to the skull. It was also found that the individual had suffered from scoliosis – curvature of the spine – somewhat in keeping with the famous Shakespearean depiction of the Plantagenet monarch as a "hunchback".

To help confirm the skeleton’s identity, the team turned to historian and author John Ashdown-Hill, who in 2004 had tracked down Joy Ibsen, a direct descendant of Richard’s sister Anne of York. Ashdown-Hill’s initial research had also directed archaeologists to the site of a Franciscan friary known as Greyfriars, where the remains were then discovered.

“An enormous family tree grew on my computer,” said Ashdown-Hill on Radio 4’s Today programme. “You have to trace every possible line of descent because you don’t know which one will die out in 1745 and which one will carry on to the present day – you have to trace them all.”

Professor Kevin Schürer led a full-scale genealogical study to verify the initial research, alongside David Annal (previously Principal Family History Specialist at The National Archives) and Dr Morris Bierbrier (Fellow of the Society of Genealogists).

Not only did the genealogists find documentary evidence for each ‘link’ of the chain between Anne of York and the late Joy Ibsen, but they were able to make contact with a second maternal line descendant – who wishes remain anonymous – whose DNA was used to confirm a match between genetic material extracted from the skeleton and a swab provided by Joy’s son, Michael.

“Right from the start of the project, we did not want to rely entirely on the DNA between Michael and the skeleton. We always wanted to triangulate that wherever possible,” explains Professor Schürer. “We set about trying to secure a second maternal line, and after several weeks of research we actually did discover this person. The documentary evidence again is there to support this.”

Richard III ruled England for two years until he was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, paving the way for Henry VII and the Tudor dynasty. Although subsequent historical accounts have painted the monarch as a cruel tyrant, some enthusiasts have sought to restore his reputation in recent years.

Phillippa Langley of the Richard III Society said the discovery was “an historic moment that will rewrite the history books.”

take it further

► John Ashdown-Hill's book The Last Days of Richard III is out now


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