Drawing links with King Richard III 'discovery'

Posted on 07/02/2013

The news that a skeleton found beneath a Leicester car park has been identified as that of King Richard III created quite a stir this week. He had one of the shortest reigns in history, but over 500 years later Richard is still one of the most talked about monarchs, and fuelled by the recent discovery of his remains, the speculation about this intriguing medieval king looks set to continue for years to come.

But not everyone is convinced by the "beyond a reasonable doubt" conclusion of Leicester University's researchers that the bones are Richard's, pointing out that the paper has yet to be peer reviewed, and that the methodology used may not stand the scrutiny from DNA experts. Indeed, the critical contention is the claim being made of a successful match of Richard's DNA to a living ancestor, the Canadian Michael Ibsen. Among the experts with a bone to pick with the researchers, our own Dr Ian Barnes, Reader in Molecular Palaeobiology in the School of Biological Sciences  is quoted in a report in the leading scientific journal, New Scientist.

“Mitochondrial DNA is passed down the maternal line and has 16,000 base pairs in total. Typically, you might expect to get 50 to 150 fragments from a 500-year-old skeleton, says Ian Barnes, who was not involved in the research. "You'd want to get sequences from lots of those fragments," he says. "There's a possibility of mitochondrial mutations arising in the line from Richard III."

There have also been numerous reactions to the story from an historical perspective, including one from Nigel Saul, Professor of Medieval History in the Department of History, and author of the book The Three Richards: Richard I, Richard II and Richard III (2005 Hambledon and London). Professor Saul does not subscribe to the view espoused by members of the Richard III Society that their hero was a misunderstood do-gooder, rather than a fatally flawed individual.

In a commentary on “The tragedy of Richard III and Chris Huhne”, published on Politics.co.uk. Professor Saul draws a connection from the timing of the announcement of Richard III's discovery with the sensational conclusion to disgraced MP, Chris Huhne's driving case on the same day.

“There is one mighty and very obvious connection between Huhne and Richard III which stands out, and which any student of history would recognise. It's the classic Greek story of hubris and nemesis, ambition and comeuppance, of pride coming before the fall. Both men were men in a hurry, eager for power, willing to cut corners, ruthless in elbowing others aside, happy to trample on those in their way – and both, in the end, were brought down by weaknesses that were mirror images of the strengths that had helped them up.”

Throughout the week media coverage including special TV programmes about the discovery has featured one of the most famous paintings in Royal Holloway’s picture collection, ‘The Princes in the Tower’ by Sir John Everett Millais. The painting is a poignant depiction of King Edward V aged 13 and his brother Richard, Duke of York, aged 10, the sons of King Edward IV who died in 1483 in the same year that their uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester imprisoned them in the Tower of London, taking the throne for himself as Richard III, and from where the royal children disappeared and are believed to have died in captivity.

Visitors will have an opportunity to see the original painting for themselves this Sunday 10 February when Royal Holloway hosts an Open Day from 1 – 4.30pm as part of the BBC - Your Paintings week of events to celebrate the Public Catalogue Foundation’s (PCF) digitisation of the nation’s pictures. Free and open to all, members of the public will be able to explore the Royal Holloway Collection with a tour led by the Curator Laura MacCulloch. 


Royal Holloway, University of London logo