His ignominious defeat in the Battle of Bosworth Field ended the turbulent Plantaganet years and ushered in the more tranquil Tudor reign in England, and ended the period known as the Middle Ages. All this was part of the Church History course work we undertook at seminary 36 years ago. (en.wikipedia.org)
After the battle, Richard's body was desecrated and buried anonymously in a small chapel called Greyfriars, which was destroyed when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in the mid 1500s.
On 11 February 2013, scientists announced that they had identified the skeleton of Richard III "beyond reasonable doubt", after having conducted a wide variety of analyses over a period of six months.
Historical investigation discovered a consecrated chapel
The first investigations were led by the University of Leisester Archaeological Services (in collaboration with others). Modern street maps were over laid upon images from archives from the C15, which gave some clues that the Greyfriars chapel might be now covered by a car park.
After careful excavations in September 2012, the researchers announced they had identified the foundations of this church, and also the location of a 17th century garden where it was known a memorial to Richard III had stood. A few days later a human skeleton was found there. (www.guardian.co.uk)
Forensic scientists now entered the investigation, to try to identify the body using a wide range of different tests.
Careful scientific/medical observation of the skeleton
The physiological examination and computer-aided visualisation of the bones showed the following: scoliosis (twisting) of the spine, if not making him a 'hunchback' as Shakespeare described, certainly giving him a lopsided appearance; eight wounds to the skull, one of which most certainly caused his death; and other injuries which were consistent with historical accounts of how his body was mistreated after his death. There were also two wounds to the face consistent with weapons used in battle at that time. This person was obviously not wearing a helmet!
How old were the bones?
The technique for radio-carbon dating relies on the fact that there are always a few radioactive atoms within any sample of any substance whatsoever, including the carbon in the foods we eat, which are metabolised into the structures in our bodies. The radioactive atoms are unstable, and decay into simpler elements at a known rate.
When a living organism dies, it stops taking in nutrients, so all the tissues – including bones and teeth – become top-heavy with normal carbon atoms as the radioactive ones decay into nitrogen and evaporate. The ratios of normal carbon and radioactive carbon can be detected in a machine called a mass spectrometer, because each has a slightly different mass.
A back-calculation, performed using the known rates of radioactive decay, can then give an approximate time when the organism stopped living. A 'range' of possible values is always reported: it is impossible to be more accurate than this. Science can only deal with probabilities, not certainties. (archserve.id.ucsb.edu)
It was shown that the person buried in Greyfriars died somewhere between 1455 and 1540, which is consistent with the time of Richard's death. (www.guardian.co.uk)
DNA analysis and comparison with living descendants
The DNA analysis of a minute amount of bone needed to be planned carefully, known descendants needed to be found to compare the DNA to. After all, the scientists could not simply find a toothbrush of King Richard's to make a direct comparison with his living DNA!
Despite what you may see on fictional TV shows, DNA analysis is not a magic overall solution to the problem of identification, but is subject to the same constraints as any other scientific experiment. In fact, it is trickier than some tests because the very tiny quantities used mean that contamination by even the smallest speck of skin cells, or someone else's hair, would be enough to ruin the results.
It is also impossible to measure the whole of the genome (all the DNA making up all our genes) in every forensic case. It would be meaningless anyway, because many of our genes that make us human are identical to every other human. What scientists have discovered is that a few known, short regions of the long DNA molecules show large variations between one person and another, so they usually isolate only 6 to 13 of these variable sections and compare those with known samples. (www.ornl.gov)
But even this procedure would not be useful in cold-case situations such as that of Richard III because, as mentioned, we cannot compare directly with his DNA.
So scientists used a different methodology here. Within our cells, most of our DNA is situated inside the nucleus, a compartment inside the cell. But our cells have lots of other compartments too (organelles, meaning 'little organs'), including mitochondria which are responsible for continually making the energy needed every minute of every day.
These have their own small genome. We inherit our mictochondria only from our mothers because the fathers' mitochondria are in the tails of the sperm, which fall off after fertilisation of the egg and are therefore not passed on to the baby. (www.dnasolutions.com.au)
The mitochondrial DNA was isolated from the skeleton, enzymes used to increase its amount following tried and true procedures, and the sequence of 'bases' along the DNA strand was analysed – the blueprints for proteins. This sequence was compared with 2 known living descendants of Richard III' sister. This cannot 'prove' a complete match, but it did show that the results were consistent with the skeleton having some of the same female relatives as the people who were tested.
Although it is just another piece of evidence, not sufficient on its own, this did point in the same direction as all the other clues. The scientists investigating this case intend to do some more sophisticated DNA analyses, and check the genes on the Y chromosome through the male line, but these will take more time and they don't expect to come up with any different result, given that many other pieces of the puzzle seem to be forming a coherent picture. (www.smh.com.au)
Watch this space for more evidence
Tomorrow, I will talk about the role of artists and scientists collaborating to show how more evidence points to the same conclusion, and I will also discuss the portrayal of science on fictional TV programs such as CSI.
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-tronson.html