TORONTO — The answer to one of history’s great puzzles may be lying in a British university lab, but it’s evidence from a Canadian family that will ultimately close the case.
Researchers at the University of Leicester are currently analyzing bones discovered during a recent archaeological dig to determine if they are the remains of King Richard III, a 15th-century ruler whose historical legacy has been dwarfed by his pop culture depiction as a hunch-backed tyrant.
Archaeologists had long sought the monarch’s grave, which had been the subject of speculation for centuries.
The recent discovery of a skeleton showing signs of Richard’s famed spinal curvature and bearing signs of fatal battle wounds, however, isn’t enough to solve the mystery.
A Canadian family who can name the king as one of their direct ancestors is providing the DNA evidence that will conclusively prove whether the remains belong to the late monarch.
Jeff Ibsen said his family contains a direct genetic link to the king whose defeat marked the end of the War of the Roses.
Ibsen’s mother was a direct descendant of Anne of York, Richard’s eldest sister.
When British historians established the ancestral connection nearly a decade ago, Ibsen said the family was warned that they may be pressed into service if the king’s burying place was ever discovered.
“Mitochondrial DNA is passed through the female line, and all the sons and daughters of the mother inherit her mitochondrial DNA. So that meant that if the remains of Richard were ever found, they could use our DNA to confirm that it really was him,” Ibsen said in a telephone interview.
One of Ibsen’s siblings provided a DNA sample after researchers discovered the remains, he said. The bones were found beneath the site of the Grey Friars church in Leicester, central England, where contemporary accounts say Richard was buried following his death in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.
Ibsen said results are not expected for at least 12 weeks, but university officials are already optimistic about their discovery.
“We are not saying today that we have found King Richard III,” Richard Taylor, the university’s director of corporate affairs, told a news conference. “(But) this skeleton certainly has characteristics that warrant extensive, further detailed examination.”
Taylor said the skeleton displayed spinal abnormalities consistent with contemporary accounts of Richard’s appearance.
“We believe that the individual would have had severe scoliosis, which is a form of spinal curvature. This would have made his right shoulder appear visibly higher than his left shoulder,” Taylor said.
He said the skeleton was apparently of an adult male in good condition.
There were signs of trauma to the skull shortly before death, perhaps from a bladed instrument, and a barbed metal arrowhead was found between vertebrae of the upper back.
Richard’s apparent physical deformity has loomed large in his pop culture legacy, eclipsed only by his reputation as a devious murderer.
In his eponymous play written more than a century after the king’s death, William Shakespeare described the monarch as a deformed monster as warped in conscience as he was in appearance.
The play depicts Richard as a schemer who killed his nephews in order to secure the throne, an account that historians question.
The official royal website says the young princes “disappeared” while under Richard’s protection, and the king’s modern-day descendant has his doubts.
“History is written by the victors, so when the Tudors defeated him in battle, I think they started spreading slanderous rumours about Richard III and how awful he was,” Ibsen said.
Nonetheless, Richard’s two-year reign was marked by turmoil. He assumed the throne only after the former king’s sons were declared illegitimate, and rivals staged two major rebellions during his time on the throne.
Richard, the last English king to die in battle, was buried “without any pomp or solemn funeral” by the Franciscan monks of Grey Friars.
There is a record that King Henry VII, the victor at Bosworth Field, commissioned a memorial for Richard’s grave — in the choir, or eastern portion of the Grey Friars church — about 1495.
Although the records pointed to a grave in Leicester, 160 kilometres north of London, the church was suppressed in 1538 after King Henry VIII abolished the monasteries and its location was long forgotten.
Christopher Wren, the architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, visited the area in 1612 and saw a stone pillar erected in a garden on the site which was inscribed “Here lies the body of Richard III.”
There were tales, still repeated on the British royal site, that Richard’s bones were dug up and scattered during the Reformation.
University of Leicester researchers identified a possible location of the grave through map regression analysis, starting with a current map and analyzing previous versions to discover what had changed.
They used ground penetrating radar to find the best places to start digging.
The team began excavating in a parking lot last month. Within a week they located thick walls and the remains of tiled floors.
Ibsen said the entire family is keen to hear the results of the DNA comparisons, adding he hopes the remains prove to be those of the controversial king.
If they are, he said his entire family of royal watchers and amateur historians would welcome a chance to be on hand if the monarch is finally given an official funeral.
“I hope that if it does turn out to be Richard we’ll be invited to the funeral,” he said. “Maybe we’ll meet the Queen and the royal family. It would be fun.”