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Two leading medieval scholars are casting doubt that the body found in Leicester in 2012 is that of King Richard III, but those involved in the discovery are defending their findings.
Michael Hicks, head of history at the University of Winchester and one of the leading scholars on the Wars of the Roses, and Martin Biddle, an archaeologist who has made major discoveries over the fifty years, were interviewed by BBC History Magazine. Hicks explains that the body found in the Grey Friars Church could belong to anybody, adding “lots of other people who suffered similar wounds could have been buried in the choir of the church where the bones were found.”
He also casts doubt on the DNA findings. He says: “the 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.
“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. Similarly, while the curved spine suggests the skeleton is Richard’s, the presence of scoliosis does not represent conclusive proof. Indeed, it is very hard to prove that the skeleton belongs to a specific person. The Leicester team themselves acknowledge that it’s extremely rare for archaeologists to find a known individual, let alone a king.”
Meanwhile, Martin Biddle has reservations based on how the archaeological dig was carried out. For example, he says “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.”
Biddle is calling for the University of Leicester to release more information related to the archaeological dig and that an official body such as a coroner’s court to weigh in on the evidence.
In response the University of Leicester issued a statement: “The identification was made by combining different lines of evidence, including:
- The location of the grave matches the information provided by John Rous, a contemporary and one-time friend of Richard III’s.
- The nature of the skeleton – including the age of the man, his general build, the injuries inflicted around the time of death and the scoliosis (spinal condition) – are also in agreement with historical accounts.
- The radiocarbon dating places the date of the skeleton to the period of Richard III’s death.
- Preliminary isotope analysis suggests an individual with a high-quality diet.
- The nature of his burial /grave is also highly unusual for Leicester at the time, but fits with the known facts around Richard’s burial.
- Two direct female-line descendants of Richard’s sister, Anne, were found to share a rare mitochondrial DNA type with the skeletal remains.
“The strength of the identification is that different kinds of evidence all point to the same result.”
Professor Lin Foxhall from the University of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History added, “The identification of Richard III is not based solely on the DNA, radiocarbon and scoliosis evidence, but on a combination of many different lines of evidence, which analysed and evaluated together, all point in the same direction. Most of the possibilities raised by Professor Hicks have been considered and eliminated, and the radiocarbon dating is sufficiently precise to ascertain that the burial is not one belonging to a much earlier period in the life of the friary.
“Much of the evidence for the identification is already freely available on our website in a basic form here. However, meticulous research and proper, peer-reviewed publication takes time, and we are still in the process of publishing the results of our research in academic venues. Papers on the DNA and on other aspects of the investigation are in the pipeline, and will be appearing in journals over the next few months. We anticipate that these will address the issues raised by Professor Hicks and Professor Biddle, and if not they are, of course, at liberty to write academic papers presenting the evidence to support their views – that, after all is the purpose of academic debate, and how knowledge moves forward! We will make as much of the data as possible openly available in due course, but, as is normal academic practice, not until our research is fully published.”
Philippa Langley, who led the search for Richard III, also responded to the claims by Michael Hicks:
“Taking a sceptical view is good for vigorous debate, but to say it cannot be claimed ‘with any confidence’ that this is Richard is quite puzzling. Given the totality of the evidence, it can surely be said with considerable confidence.
“Hicks says that there may have been ‘lots of people with similar wounds’: perhaps he could name one who fits the bill?”