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Digging up King Richard III

September 13, 2012 - Andrea Johnson
It seems that King Richard III really might have been a hunchback.

This week The Telegraph in London reported that archaeologists might have located the remains of the infamous English king under a parking lot in Leicester. This is the king who supposedly had his young nephews – the Princes in the Tower – murdered so he could take over the throne and supposedly died at The Battle of Bosworth shouting "My kingdom for a horse!" in 1485. The site where he was found used to be a church until King Henry VIII ordered it destroyed when he split with the Catholic Church in 1538. This is the church where the king was supposedly buried.

The archaeologists report that the skeleton they found is a fit, strong man who had severe scoliosis and had significant trauma to the back of his head and a barbed arrow still buried in one of his back vertebrae.

The scientists are going to compare his DNA with a direct descendant of one of Richard's sisters, a Canadian businessman who lives in London. The mitochondrial DNA, carried from mother to child, will probably still have considerable similarity to Richard's if they're related, even after 520 years. I am still fascinated by what scientists can find out with DNA and archaeological digs like this one.

The results of the study might be able to tell us with near certainty if this is Richard III, how he died, and how he was buried, but it won't tell us any more about whether he is actually guilty of killing the Princes in the Tower or – the other great accusation – of wanting to marry his niece. It can't tell us if he was evil or just misunderstood, as many apologists have believed over the centuries. Was he as evil as he was portrayed in Shakespeare's play?

I read a couple of historical mysteries when I was a teenager arguing in favor of Richard's innocence. One of my college English professors kept a picture of Richard III on her desk and was vehement in support of him. I think there's even a formal society in the UK and probably in America as well in support of Richard III. I'm not sure why he rates his own fan club after five centuries, but there's something about a mystery that inspires people's imagination. I think it's probably also fun for people to dress up in medieval costumes and pretend to be Plantagenets.

I will be watching to see the results of the DNA test.


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