Is the car park skeleton Richard III? Of course not. It’s a skeleton
As I said to the editor Rob Attar, hat’s off to BBC History magazine for its lead news story, “Was the skeleton in the car park really Richard III?”
Plenty of people could be accused of exploiting the identification, from the publishers of a seemingly endless supply of Richard III-related books (see selective list at the end) to the Plantagenet Alliance – and the University of Leicester has been explicitly charged with seeking to make money out of it. So to challenge the identification would seem to be a good thing to do, and also a good way to court publicity (and sell magazines). I’m surprised it’s taken this long – over 18 months after the first announcement of the discovery of the skeleton, and over a year since the formal confirmation of its identity as that of Richard III.
Nothing much has changed in the past year in terms of the story that Leicester University is putting out. By contrast, there’s been plenty to confirm what was said at the press conference on February 4 2013.
We had the peer-reviewed Antiquity paper about the dig in May last year; Turi King and other members of the team have been giving public talks in and beyond the UK, describing their work over and over again; ULAS returned to the friary in July last year for a bigger excavation; Leicester University has put a frightening amount of stuff online, available at its press office and a Richard III site; and Mathew Morris and Richard Buckley have written an excellent summary of the historical background, the 2012 dig and the science, in an illustrated book published in November.
We are promised further peer-reviewed papers, but on the evidence to date, it seems unlikely these will contain spectacular new revelations to cast doubt on the identification: rather, that they will largely support what has already been outlined. As Leicester University has been so confident of the attribution, we can hope for some pretty convincing evidence.
So what’s this all about?
First, we need to hear what BBC History magazine’s eminent interviewees are saying. One is a historian: Michael Hicks, Professor of Medieval History and Head of History at Winchester University, and author of the excellent The Wars of the Roses (Yale 2010). The other is an archaeologist: Martin Biddle, Emeritus Fellow of Medieval Archaeology at Oxford University, director of the Winchester Research Unit and (1961–71) director of Winchester excavations.
As you might expect, their critiques are not identical. Essentially, Biddle is concerned about the archaeological record, and Hicks doesn’t really like science (or archaeology). They present no new evidence. But let’s hear it in their own words. Emma McFarnon interviewed the two men for BBC History magazine (BBC below); I gather her story began when she asked Hicks to comment on the proposed genome sequencing. Peter Warzynski (Leicester Mercury, LM), Cahal Milmo (Independent, Indie) and Macrina Cooper-White (Huffington Post, HuffPo) also heard from Hicks; and you can listen to Brendan Cole interview Biddle for the Voice of Russia (VoR).
THE CASE AGAINST THE CAR PARK SKELETON BEING RICHARD III’S: MICHAEL HICKS
Location of grave
“Lots of other people who suffered similar wounds could have been buried in the choir of the church where the bones were found.” (BBC)
“There will be other people who are buried there – perhaps some with scoliosis – and some with battle injuries. I think more should have [been] done to examine exactly who else was buried there before arriving at the conclusion that this was a King of England.” (LM)
Nature of grave
“The misshapen hole where he was found does not tally with the accounts of the grand tomb which was supposedly placed over him by King Henry – it’s more the grave of someone who was not a former king.” (LM)
“Such a technique is imprecise. It will give you an era, but nothing more. In this case, it covers a period of 80 years.” (BBC)
“There are quite a number of people who could share the same radio carbon date of death (say 6 million).” (HuffPo)
“[The mitochondrial] DNA match from the Leicester skeleton could equally be the result of the bones being those of someone descended in the female line from Richard’s mother, Cecily Neville, including her two daughters. It could also be those traceable from the other daughters of Cecily’s mother, Joan Beaufort, any daughters of her grandmother Katherine Swynford, and so on.
“Joan Beaufort had 16 children, which made her the ancestor of much of the nobility of the Wars of the Roses – quite a few of whom died violently in those conflicts. There is some scientific debate about the accuracy of matching mitochondrial DNA in this way, but even if it is precise in this case, I’d argue it does not pinpoint these bones as Richard’s.” (BBC)
“If mitochondrial DNA doesn’t change over time, descendants in the female line from Richard’s maternal grandmother, great-grandmother, great-grandmother [sic], great-great-grandmother can share the same characteristics.” (Indie)
“There are quite a number of people who could share… parts of the same DNA today (say 3 million), the same mitochondrial DNA (a few 10s of 1000s).” (HuffPo)
“The only way I can see the matter being resolved is to examine the remains of Edward IV at Windsor, but the Queen would be very strongly opposed to anyone digging him up.” (LM)
“The presence of scoliosis does not represent conclusive proof [that the skeleton is Richard’s].” (BBC)
“We don’t know how many people had scoliosis at that time and there’s actually no reports written during Richard’s life which mentioned that he suffered from the condition. They only started to appear after his death.” (LM)
“The Leicester team themselves acknowledge that it’s extremely rare for archaeologists to find a known individual, let alone a king.” (BBC)
“I’m not saying that it’s not Richard – it’s perfectly conceivable that it is – but we are not in a position to say with any confidence that it’s him… it is very hard to prove that the skeleton belongs to a specific person.” (BBC)
“Archaeologists tend to make extremely bold claims and they work with probabilities. To say that it’s definitely Richard III is impossible. And I don’t think it will ever be possible to prove that these bones belong to him. I think that would be striving to achieve a precision, that 500-years on, can’t be achieved. It’s too soon to claim that the skeleton which was found belongs to Richard III.” (LM)
“We are going way beyond the available evidence if we say this is definitely Richard III. It could be – but it is not proven and we should not confuse possibilities or probabilities with certainties.” (Indie)
THE CASE AGAINST THE CAR PARK SKELETON BEING RICHARD III’S: MARTIN BIDDLE
Location of grave
“We… know very little about the graves in the east end of the church. How many burials were made there in the three centuries of the friary’s existence, and indeed after the battle of Bosworth? Without further excavation there is no way of knowing, and hence no certainty about the burial that it has been claimed was that of Richard III.” (BBC)
“None of the records of what happened are strictly contemporary, but it’s fairly clear that he was buried in the east end of the church of the Greyfriars at Leicester. But that east end is really rather big… only a small part of the east end has been excavated. We don’t know how many burials there were in it.” (VoR)
“We don’t know how those burials were placed – and the placing of burials in the east end of the church is really quite important. I mean the most important ones tend to be down the central axis.” (VoR)
“Until we know more about the archaeology of the east end of the Greyfriars church, in my view, the context is not clear. It could be Richard, but there may have been other people from Bosworth buried in the church. We don’t know. The documentary evidence is very thin and it’s always very unwise to say, well the one scrap of evidence we do have is it.” (VoR)
Nature of grave, and excavation techniques and records
“While some evidence has been presented in peer-reviewed journals, it’s the field records from the dig we need to see. I asked in a letter to The Times in 2012 for details about the shape and size of the grave pit but, as far as I know, this material is still not in the public domain.” (BBC)
[He did indeed write to the Times in 2012, published September 19 under the heading, “A full archaeological investigation of the burial site must take place before scientific analysis can be undertaken.” “What about the archaeological evidence?” he asked. “A good site plan, section drawings, photographs of the burial?”]
“The skull was damaged during the excavations, and was later replaced more or less where it seemed to have been. Yet it is a cardinal rule of burial excavation that everything is left in position until the whole body has been uncovered. And, while the excavators say the feet were removed by an undefined Victorian disturbance, anyone viewing the Channel 4 documentary on the dig will see that the lower legs were hit and moved by a mechanical digger.” (BBC)
“The second point is the context of the body in the grave itself… [we need to know] more about exactly how the body lies in the grave, and what the conditions are… I’ve asked to see and to have made public the original records of the excavation, but all we really have so far are computerised drawings.
“I have my worries about this. First of all, the photographs I’ve seen are not in my mind cleaned sufficiently to make clear all the possibilities of the body in the grave. Secondly, there are problems with both the head and the foot of the grave. The skull was found at a higher level than the body, and unfortunately as the television film showed, was actually taken up and disturbed and… broken… before it was realised that it was actually the skull of the body in the grave…
“I think the whole thing should have been from the very start conducted under forensic conditions, equivalent to the kind of care which with the development of forensic archaeology over the last 20 years or so, the police now give with their own archaeologists to the excavation of remains of perhaps the more recent dead. I thought that the excavation was not sufficiently clear as to regards the burial. I haven’t seen a longitudinal section of the grave pit, a proper measured one on site, not a computer reconstructed one, but a proper drawing measured on site with a longitudinal section which would show whether the head was indeed up against the end of the grave.” (VoR)
“Before all this goes any further, it would be wise to be certain the body really is his. Something akin to a coroner’s court should be set up to consider all the evidence.” (BBC)
“I don’t say that it’s not Richard III, it could be Richard III. It might even may be Richard III. But the point is in my view the evidence is in no way conclusive.” (VoR)
THE CASE ANALYSED
We can see that neither man actually says the skeleton is not Richard III’s – just that it might not be. No right-thinking person could disagree with that. Indeed, that is the line taken by none other than Leicester University. At the theatrical press announcement in February last year, Richard Buckley ended by saying, “It is the academic conclusion of the University of Leicester that beyond reasonable doubt, the individual exhumed at Greyfriars in September 2012 is indeed Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England.”
Not is, but “beyond reasonable doubt”. The question, then, is to what extent is it unlikely to be the king’s? What is the probability that Richard III’s grave has been found, and what degree of probability should we insist upon before we accept that it has?
As an archaeologist, it seems to me Hicks demands an altogether higher level of evidence for archaeology than he does for history. Analysed in the way he deconstructs Leicester’s research, his own writings would surely not survive scrutiny. He seems to completely undermine his own rather curious remarks about genetics when he suggests that comparison of the skeleton’s DNA with that of Edward IV would solve everything.
But his greatest error, I suggest, is to take each strand of evidence alone, without reference to the others. Like a climate-change denier, he picks at details, trails off into innuendo, and fails to confront the bigger picture. Of course – for example – on its own, the radiocarbon date does not prove the skeleton to be Richard III’s. But no one has said that it does, and as part of the package of data it is an important element. Martin Biddle asks perfectly reasonable questions about the archaeology. But – unable to answer his questions, which can in fact be better addressed from available evidence than he appears to suggest – he then proceeds to question other lines of research.
Contrary to his claim, the grave was excavated pretty much as any good, modern forensic study would have been conducted. Yet suppose the entire skeleton had been ripped out in the bucket of a JCB, and the bones retrieved from the spoilheap? Would we be in any different a position regarding the issue of identity? We might not be able to relate some of the details about the way the body lay in the grave. But that would not affect the collective evidence that the remains were indeed the king’s. Biddle, too, misses the bigger picture.
Let’s consider an analogous situation. Statistically, there are suggestions that in the UK the nonpaternity rate (the incidence of people whose true fathers are not correctly identified) is around 2% – though higher figures are often quoted (see, for example, “Founders, drift, & infidelity: the relationship between Y chromosome diversity and patrilineal surnames”, by Turi King & Mark Jobling, in Molecular Biology & Evolution 26 (2009), 1093–1102).
That is not, I suggest, a degree of error that the Leicester team would have accepted as allowing the identity of the car park skeleton to have been proved “beyond reasonable doubt”. We would surely all be unhappy were we to imagine that there was a one in 50 chance that our Dad was not who we thought he was. But of course, none of us relies on a single statistic to judge the likelihood that we know our own father. We are surrounded by pretty obvious stuff, there are all sorts of evidence to support our belief. We see the bigger picture.
It’s useful to compare the Leicester skeleton with other human remains excavated by archaeologists, and recently claimed to have been identified as those of a historic monarch. In a press conference in January this year – staged in remarkably similar circumstances to the Leicester conference the preceding February – archaeologists and historians announced that they had probably found a bit of King Alfred.
A fragmentary hip bone was “most likely to be from King Alfred the Great or his eldest son, Edward the Elder”, said the university press office. Nick Thorpe, Head of the Department of Archaeology, called the link “plausible”, and went on with apparent greater certainty to say, “We also believe that we are thereby helping the city to right a historical wrong done to the remains of these great kings”. The Times considered it “likely” that the hip was Alfred’s. Neil Oliver claimed the evidence would “stand up in a court of law”.
Among those offering supportive noises was Martin Biddle – for this was a Winchester University event. Hicks appears to have kept quiet, but in a press statement, Biddle said, “nothing can be certain, [but were further excavation to take place] it seems highly probable that major discoveries can be expected. The excavation itself and the subsequent scientific work will be expensive, but the possible results and the honour owed to Alfred and his dynasty are ample justification.”
Biddle, I suggest, was rightly being cautious, but supported the claim that the remains might have been Alfred’s, and thus warranted further substantial research. The site where the bone was found is in some ways like that of Leicester’s skeleton – both were religious houses destroyed by Henry VIII in the Dissolution, there is historical evidence that the kings’ remains were buried in the churches, and both graves had been lost. After that, however, the stories are quite different. The comparison makes clear the strength of Leicester’s case for saying their skeleton is Richard III’s. (Most of the details below about Alfred are taken from my news piece in British Archaeology Mar/Apr 2014, issue 135).
Fragment of right pelvis. Probably male, older adult aged 26–45.
More or less complete skeleton, apart from lower legs and feet removed before the 20th century, probably by the excavation of a wall foundation. Male, late 20s to late 30s.
Location of grave
Historical records say he was first buried in the cathedral church of Winchester (the Old Minster). In AD901 Edward moved his father’s remains to the New Minster, nearby. Later, Edward, his sons, Aethelweard and Elfward, his mother Ealhswith and other members of the royal family were buried in the same tomb or close by.
When the New Minster was demolished in 1110, monks carried their sacred relics – among them the bones of a Breton hermit called St Judoc (600–68) – and the remains of Alfred, Ealhswith and Edward, and quite possibly others not documented, out of the city to the new Hyde Abbey, where they were buried in front of the high altar.
Excavation at Hyde Abbey has revealed human remains, but any evidence for a possible grave has probably been destroyed without record (see below).
Historical records say he was buried in the choir of the church of Greyfriars friary, Leicester, where archaeological evidence revealed the relevant grave to have been. A memorial marking Richard III’s grave had been erected nearby around 1600–1610.
Nature of grave
Nothing is known about the grave.
Most of the grave pit, including the foot end, had apparently been removed by later disturbances, so that little more than its base remained. There was no apparent sign of a coffin. The head was raised above the rest of the body, suggesting the latter had been squeezed into a grave that was a little too short.
There is no historical description of the grave, but the evidence is consistent with a record that says Richard III was buried without grand ceremony. Henry VII returned to Leicester some time later to build a tomb for Richard, about which we know little – but that can have no bearing on the nature of the original grave, except to imply that it was, in the then king’s opinion, inadequately marked.
One sample, 895–1020 (95% probability): spans the death of Alfred (899), his son Edward (924) and seven further kings and descendants, up to Edmund II (died 1016). This date seems to be the best evidence for the bone being from Alfred or Edward, given the knowledge that they were buried in the abbey church.
Two samples, 1455–1540 (95% probability): spans the death of Henry VI (1471), Edward IV, Edward V, Richard III (1485), Henry VII and, at a pinch, Henry VIII (1547). Of these, apart from Richard III’s, only the grave of Edward V is unknown; he died a teenager.
None available (or likely to be), and nothing of relevance known to which it could be compared were it to become so.
Mitochondrial DNA successfully extracted and precisely matched, in a relatively rare group, to that of two living descendants with fully documented hereditary links to Richard III. Work continues on attempts to compare the skeleton’s Y-chromosome DNA with that of proven living relatives of Richard III.
Pathology and anatomy
Scoliosis of the spine resulting in a raised shoulder, and slender build all consistent with historical descriptions and portraits of Richard III. Facial reconstruction similar to face in historic portraits.
Fatal and other wounds consistent with death in battle of a higher status man, and with a specific text that says Rhys ap Thomas killed Richard III by “shaving his head”.
Excavation techniques and records
The abbey was rebuilt after a destructive fire in the 12th century, and almost entirely removed at the Dissolution. Thomas Cromwell’s men told him they planned to “sweep away all the rotten bones that be called relics”.
In 1788, when a gaol was built on the site, it was reported that three coffins and remains said to be part of the high altar were broken up and reburied, and bones “thrown about”.
A local antiquarian excavated skeletons at the site in 1866, and reburied them elsewhere, claiming they were the remains of the Alfredian royal family. Exhumation of the “unmarked grave” in 2012, and carbon dating in 2013, established that none of these was old enough to be Alfred’s. There was a further antiquarian excavation at the supposed site of the high altar in 1897.
An as yet unpublished excavation in the 1990s seems to record all three antiquarian pits, which cut through each other; no sign of a grave appeared to have survived. The pelvis fragment was in the most recent cut, so had been buried in the 1897 backfill: it could have been exhumed and thrown back at least three times.
The excavation by ULAS in 2012 appears to have been the first archaeological intervention on the site. It was described at the time in an excavation blog, filmed for Channel 4 and later summarised in a peer-reviewed journal article. Full publication is awaited, but expected within the coming year or so.
The Guardian published a blog about this by David Shariatmadari. He’s a deputy editor on the comment desk, so perhaps he set out to provoke. He certainly took an odd line – whether or not the remains are those of Richard III, he wrote, “doesn’t really matter”. The bones would still be scientifically interesting regardless of whether or not they are Richard’s. But outside the narrow world of academia, he suggested, “what is at stake is not historical truth”, but myth – “And myth captures the imagination far more effectively than the reality of most archaeological work.”
I believe it really does matter, both to academics, and importantly to everyone else – it’s patronising to suggest otherwise, even if – perhaps especially because –some people out there do get things seriously wrong (I’m thinking, for example, of some Plantagenet Alliance supporters). So what about these bones?
To be either Alfred or his son Edward, the pelvis fragment has to have survived at least three reburials, and episodes of on-site demolition and destruction. It also needs not to have moved across the site, as the location by the high altar is critical: otherwise it might also have belonged to other contemporary individuals and relics whose remains were moved from the New Minster, named and possibly unnamed, or even an individual from an as yet unrecognised Anglo-Saxon cemetery that could have been on the site or in the immediate neighbourhood before Hyde Abbey was built.
Yet the signs are suggestive of Anglo-Saxon royalty. There can be no doubt that the site of Hyde Abbey merits further research and excavation, as Biddle has said. The Winchester story is complex, with no immediately clear answers – but there are things that new work could tell us. It is in many ways the sort of story archaeologists are used to.
Which is where it parts company with Leicester’s. The evidence that the Greyfriars skeleton is Richard III’s is really very strong (there is more to the case that I have summarised here; see also Leicester University’s statement, and a good piece by battlefield archaeologist Iain Banks). And not just that evidence, but the way it had survived, the way it was found and the way the scientific and historical research progressed, all were quite out of the ordinary. Hicks and Biddle have every right to be sceptical, for Leicester’s story is almost incredible. That does not, however, make it wrong. And it does, I hope, make for a good read!
BOOKS ON RICHARD III
Here are some recent titles with links to the Leicester dig:
The Last Days of Richard III and the fate of his DNA: the Book that Inspired the Dig, by John Ashdown-Hill (History Press February 2013)
The King’s Grave: The Search for Richard III, by Michael Jones & Philippa Langley (John Murray October 2013, paperback July 2014)
Richard III: The King Under the Car Park: The Story of the Search for England’s Last Plantagenet King, by Mathew Morris & Richard Buckley (ULAS November 2013)
Richard III: The Road to Leicester, by Amy Licence (Amberley January 2014)
King Richard’s Bones: A royal ghost story featuring Richard III, by Elizabeth Aston (Belsyre Books March 2014)
The Man Who Killed Richard III: Who Dealt the Fatal Blow at Bosworth? by Susan Fern (Amberley May 28)
And of course not forgetting:
Digging for Richard III: How Archaeology Found the King, by Mike Pitts (Thames & Hudson April 28 – books arrived early, so the launch date’s been brought forward a bit)
Added April 6. On the subject of books, Michael Joseph has just announced Stormbird, the first in a series by Conn Iggulden about the Wars of the Roses. Alex Clarke, Michael Joseph’s publishing director, said, “With the discovery of Richard III’s remains, the interest in this period is at an all-time high… This is a complete change… for Conn, having previously done Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan”. MJ plans a “spectacular piece of branded marketing” for the autumn. Hmmm.