The Last Days of Richard III and the Fate of His DNA

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The book that inspired the dig!

As part of the Summer Reading Challenge I recently finished The Last Days of Richard III and the Fate of His DNA by John Ashdown-Hill. This combination of history, science and Genealogy was a fun read.

This book covers Richard’s last months, his defeat in the Battle of Bosworth, the fate of his body after the battle, and the location of his grave. That grave was seemingly lost to history after King Henry VIII tore down Catholic churches and residences as he was establishing the Church of England. The first edition of this book identified errors by earlier historians and led to archaeologists last year to finding Richard’s bones under a parking lot.

If you know about King Richard III from Shakespeare, you don’t really know anything about him. Shakespeare was writing to please the ruling royal family, who were the ancestors of the guy who fought and defeated Richard III in battle in 1485. Here, with copious supporting footnotes, is the real poop.

Ashdown-Hill says that most historians who write about Richard III spend most of their time talking about his rival, the future King Henry VII and the coming inevitable defeat. Ashdown-Hill says that this foreshadowing distorts the story. He drops us into the king’s life a few months before his final battle. Richard’s wife just died, his only (legitimate) son was dead, and he was in the market for a new (fertile) wife with vast tracts of land. The king’s representatives had suitable princesses from Spain and Portugal on the line.

Before the king could follow up with his marriage plans, he had to go and dispose of Henry Tudor, an illegitimate nephew coming ashore in Wales with a smaller army than the one the king had ready to ride. Was King Richard too cocky? You bet. Quickly defeated? Ooops.

With King Richard safely dead, Ashdown-Hill takes the time to discuss the fate of Richard’s body, partially since it was rumored that it was stripped, dragged around the town, and dumped into a river. The author finds that only the first of these was true. As a bonus he described the place where the king’s tomb was located.

Having been responsible for pinpointing the location of Richard’s grave, Ashdown-Hill went one better. He followed through with genealogical work to trace Richard’s matriarchal line down to a woman living in Canada in the 21st century.

This woman’s son provided a DNA sample that allowed scientists to check the skeleton under the parking lot to see if it matched up. It did, and so scientists can now safely say that this was definitely Richard III.

So there you go – part History Channel, part Nova, part Game of Thrones, and part Who Do You Think You Are.

For a BBC documentary on the find: look here on Youtube.

4 Comments

  1. Joe, that is fascinating. And I always thought parking lots were boring places. BTW don’t they call them car parks or something similar in jolly old?

  2. I just had a article show up on my feed that they are having a grand re-burial for him.

    http://www.livescience.com/38271-richard-iii-reburial-leicester.html

  3. Interesting and fascinating. Enjoyed your retelling so much I shared it on Facebook. Thanks Joe!

  4. Do check out the TV program I linked at the end. The presenter is Simon Farnaby from Horrible Histories, so the program is informative, dramatic, and a bit “cheeky”. Here’s Simon doing his usual thing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJoG1svld9g

    Car parks? Yes, they do there, but we don’t here.

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