My father taught me the line when I was a child: “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”
Those were the words William Shakespeare put into the mouth of King Richard III when he was knocked off his horse in the midst of the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Richard was killed, ending the rule of the Plantagenet royalty in England and ushering in the time of the Tudors.
Shakespeare famously depicted Richard III as a hunchbacked villain who murdered members of his own family to cement his claim to the throne. Later historians have not all painted such a grim picture of Richard as Shakespeare did, but it’s fair to say that no one has made him out to be a quiet pacifist.
Richard made news in his day and now is again stirring up interest in the media. That’s because his bones have been discovered under a parking lot in the English city of Leicester.
Part of the evidence that the bones really are Richard’s depends on what’s called mitochondrial DNA. That’s the form of DNA that’s passed down through maternal lines, not mixed 50-50 with paternal DNA. Lazy souls like me sometimes call mitochondrial DNA “mama DNA” because mitochondrial is quite a mouthful.
There are two known living descendants of Richard III. One is a furniture maker named Michael Ibsen. He is a descendant of Richard’s sister, Anne of York, and thus he carries the “mama DNA” in question. Results of DNA analysis just completed show a high degree of match in the “mama-DNA” of the bones and that of Ibsen.
Ibsen evidently has quite a bit to adjust to these days.
“I never thought I’d be a match,” he said as reported by CNN.
There is other evidence that the bones are really those of Richard III. The remains show wounds consistent with the battle blows thought to have ended Richard’s life. Archeologists who examined the bones found a total of 10 wounds, eight of them to the head. And the remains were found at what once had been Greyfriars friary. The exact location of the grave had been lost to history, but it makes sense the body would have been buried on ground belonging at the time to the church.
Consistent with the fact that he was killed in battle and his enemies immediately came to power, Richard III didn’t get a lot of respect after his death. Jo Appleby, one of the experts on the exhumation team, said that there are signs Richard’s body was mistreated after he died, including evidence of “humiliation injuries.” Beyond that one can note that the body was wedged into a small hole without a coffin.
Before the DNA work was completed several other lines of evidence were followed up. According to The New York Times, radiocarbon dating of two rib bones from the skeleton were indicative they belonged to an individual who had died between 1455 and 1540. That fits with the historical date of Richard’s death in August of 1485.
It’s clear many Brits have a lot of respect for monarchy, even long-ago kings who may have murdered people around them. No cameras were permitted when reporters were allowed to look at the mortal remains of Richard III. And as The New York Times noted, the bones were laid out inside a glass case and on a velvet cushion. Beyond that, two staff chaplains sat beside Richard’s remains as reporters walked by. The paper says the production had an air of “solemnity and reverence,” which is impressive for any gathering involving a lot of reporters.
The media were shown photographs taken by researchers of the bones when they were discovered. They give the appearance of a body pushed into a small grave, and they show a pronounced spinal curvature that must have affected Richard.
Lots of lines of evidence fit with the idea that the bones discovered under the parking lot are those of King Richard III. But it’s the “mama-DNA” that clinches the case.
Let’s hear it for mothers everywhere. They do so much for us, including giving us “mama-DNA.”
Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.