Found: Richard III. Not found: Hump

Michael Ibsen, a Canadian descendant of Richard III from whom DNA was taken, at a news conference in Leicester, England.
Michael Ibsen, a Canadian descendant of Richard III from whom DNA was taken, at a news conference in Leicester, England. (RUI VIEIRA / Press Association)

Royal bones from parking lot take a new strut upon life's stage.

Posted: February 06, 2013

He never got that horse.

Richard III, that is. In Act 5, Scene 4, of Shakespeare's Tragedy of King Richard the Third, it's all going south for the hunchback murderer-king, but he defies fate to the last. "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse," he cries.

Turns out he probably did die on his feet, no helmet, cut down by various medieval weapons.

Archaeologists, historians, and other experts at the University of Leicester told the world Monday: The bones of Richard III, last Plantagenet king, last English king to die in battle, and delectably admirable Shakespearean villain-hero  , have been found.

Richard Buckley, head of the anthropological team, calls the identification "beyond reasonable doubt." The remains were discovered in a trench by a small municipal parking lot in September.

For fans of Shakespeare, history, forensics, even biology, all this is -.

"Totally awesome," says Bonnie J. Monte, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison. "Very cool."

But what difference does it make? Really?

For historians, not so much, says David Grummitt, lecturer in history at the University of Kent and author of A Short History of the Wars of the Roses.

Richard, he says, "was regarded by most of his contemporaries, especially during the 1470s and early '80s, as a paragon of chivalric virtue and an accomplished soldier. . . . In death, Richard was doing nothing more than he had done for most of his life."

But in the theater, this stuff is golden.

"As a director, I would apply this new knowledge to an actor's body language," says Carmen Khan, artistic/executive director of the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre. "He had a badly curved spine and he had a lot of battle scars - he may have been in pain all the time. That does something to your personality."

Lawrence Venuti, professor of English at Temple University, reminds us that "the image of Richard as a really bad man came to Shakespeare from histories written as propaganda for the winning side."

That would be the Tudors, who defeated Richard at Bosworth, ending the Wars of the Roses in 1485. Winner: Henry of Richmond, from the Tudor line, which gave us Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

As Venuti notes, the Tudors, having won, got to write the history, in which Richard's "moral degeneracy is attached to his physical deformity, his twisted back, his hump, his withered hand." (In reality, we now know, no withered hand. No hump.)

Robert Fallon, professor emeritus of English literature at La Salle University, says Shakespeare had no proof of Richard's appearance, so he "went on tradition and hewed to the Tudor line."

Katherine Ramsland, professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa., says, "These very old cold cases offer an exciting opportunity to refine our methods of identification. Our success with them gives us hope for closing long-unsolved murders and missing persons cases."

Richard's demise was brutal and gory. One devastating hack, to the base of the skull, ended consciousness. The suggested weapon is a halberd, a fearsome toothed battle-ax. The angle of strike suggests he was standing, not on horseback. Another blow dented the skull. A metal arrowhead was found among his vertebrae. Other wounds suggest that the corpse was stripped and laid over a horse's back, the better to desecrate as it passed by. One wound pierced a thigh and penetrated the pelvis.

We now know he wasn't thrown in the river by an angry mob but indeed was buried. In fact, next year, Richard is to be reburied in Leicester Cathedral, in a multi-faith service; a new tomb is under construction.

Interest in the discovery bridges the humanities and the sciences. Rob J. Kulathinal, professor of biology at Temple, says, "It's really exciting that the team used modern genomic technologies to solve a long-standing historic question."

With great difficulty, scientists extracted DNA from the Ricardian bones (the Guardian impishly called them "the skeleton that would be king") and compared it with DNA from a Canadian furniture maker named Michael Ibsen. He is thought to be a direct descendant of Anne of York, Richard's sister, on their mother's side. The Leicester team compared Ibsen's and Richard's mitochondrial DNA - genetic material from the mitochondria, tiny organelles that help generate the cell's energy.

The Leicester team announced that about 30 clips of Richard's DNA lined up with Ibsen's. "Such DNA is ideal for these studies," Kulathinal says. "Mitochondrial DNA is easier to analyze, and it preserves familial links and markers that are very powerful. It's not often we have such a clear hypothesis - are Ibsen and Richard related? - we can test this way."

Many scientists, with professional caution, await the published paper. The DNA evidence is not open and shut but helps make a persuasive case.

"Maybe this will create more hubbub about Shakespeare's portrayal vs. historical fact," Monte says. "From many accounts, Richard wasn't a bad king, but quite an effective ruler with real leadership skills. Audiences and casts can discuss that picture vs. the one Shakespeare gives us."

Hold on. Does Richard somehow win? Yes, he lost at Bosworth, and winners write history. But all the world knows Richard, while . . . who the heck knows from Henry of Richmond?

Venuti chuckles. "That may be Shakespeare's play. It's an early play, and it creaks to some extent, but the poetry is excellent, and Richard is this strong, rich character. The bodies accumulate and the plots work away. We have the devilish fun of watching him carry out his devices."

Monte says, "The payoff for Richard is that the world continues to talk about you centuries later. Your rediscovery is as Shakespearean as your tragedy.

"It's sad," she says, "he had to suffer the indignity of having a parking lot paved over him."

On Twitter, one Jonny Durgan tweeted that the daily rate in the car park is 181/2 British pounds, or about $29.

Parked there since 1485, Durgan calculated, Richard "owes £3,564,006.50," or about $5.6 million, "in parking fees."


Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or jt@phillynews.com, or on Twitter, @jtimpane.

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