The Mystery of King Richard’s Remains

Last week, several of us Edvotekers spent a wonderful few days soaking up English culture, pub ale, and some cool rainy mist. After several days in the Manchester area, we hopped on the train for two days in York, a historic and beautiful little city. Well-known for ghost walks, Roman ruins, and tea, York also offered a huge cathedral. York Minster, in the heart of the old town center, is the largest gothic cathedral in northern Europe and was constructed between 1220 and 1472. Several years after completion, the vile King Richard III endowed a college of 100 chantry priests to York Minster, a substantial patronage.

The main entrance of York Minster.
York Minster. Photo ©Brian Ell, 2014.

King Richard III, ruling for just two years (1483-1485) before his slightly gore-tastic death at the Battle of Bosworth Field at the hands of Henry Tudor’s forces, was the last king of the House of York. With his familial ties to both the area and York Minster itself, many have argued that York Minster is where he wanted to be remembered and buried. And herein lies the controversy.

York Minster. ©Brian Ell 2014.
York Minster. ©Brian Ell 2014.
The earliest surviving portrait of King Richard III.
The earliest surviving portrait of King Richard III.

In 2011, King Richard’s remains were discovered in the English city of Leicester, beneath a very unglamorous parking lot. DNA testing confirmed the fragments as the royal remains of Richard, to whom history has not at all been kind. Portrayed as a villainous tyrant in Shakespeare’s famous play and blamed for the murders of his nephews, the famous Princes in the Tower, Richard is not a warm and fuzzy historical figure. But despite all that, now that he has been found, where would he be re-buried? Both York Minster and the city of Leicester staked a claim to him, but Leicester ultimately won out on May 23rd following a ruling by the High Court.

While his fate was being decided in the courts, scientists began to the exciting process of sequencing his entire genome with the goal of defining what Richard looked like. Sequencing the DNA might give us clues about his hair and eye color, and will uncover any genetic markers for diseases that he either already suffered from or was pre-disposed to. Indeed, scientists hypothesize that he had a twisted spine due to scoliosis, rather than the hunchback that Shakespeare led many to believe. As the first known historical figure to have his genome sequenced, Richard will get to add a little bit more to his legacy…this time on his own terms.

For more information on how forensic scientists can use DNA to determine the identity of individuals, check out or recent post on DNA fingerprinting!