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Boning Richard III
By Ari Friedlander
Upstart: A Journal of English Renaissance Studies (Special Issue: Finding Richard: A Forum Art, Archeology, Disability, and Temporality) (2013)
Introduction: I want to use this space to think about what Richard’s bones tell us about evidence, affect, and history, both in our own scholarly practice and the culture in which this practice circulates. First, however, it might be prudent to ask: what, exactly, did we find in the recent discovery of a skeleton with a curved spine under the Leicester City Council parking lot? There seems to be a consensus in the archaeological world that the skeleton is that of Richard III. How do they know the skeleton is Richard’s? They cite radiocarbon analysis, which gives a 95.4% probability that the skeleton’s owner died between 1456–1530 (Richard died in 1485), and which also indicates that the person in question consumed an expensive diet of seafood, which is consistent with someone of Richard’s social standing. Other physical characteristics tie the skeleton to Richard: its age upon death was between late 20s and late 30s (Richard died at 32); its wounds are consistent with the kind of fighting in which Richard died; and it seems to have been mistreated after death, an indication of an ignominious defeat. DNA, the modern guarantor of identity par excellence, also testifies on Richard’s behalf: two living matrilineal descendants of Richard’s share parts of their mitochondrial DNA with the skeleton. And of course, there is the curved spine, as stark in death as it was said to be in life.
Many of these pieces of evidence are, of course, merely suggestive rather than conclusive. It would be impossible to disprove, for example, that the skeleton belongs to an aristocrat of about the same age as Richard, perhaps even a relative, from around the same time, who had a similar physical appearance. Even the DNA match is not as conclusive as it sounds. The kind of match the archaeologists describe is not the exact match found in crime serials on television, those with staggering levels of probability. In fact, Turi King, the lead geneticist on the project, has been reported as commenting that as much as two percent of European people has this kind of genetic material, making the odds the skeleton would match Richard’s descendants a more pedestrian 1-in-50, not quite the guarantee of identity some have claimed for it (Lawless). As for the scoliosis, recent studies suggest that scoliosis is sometimes caused by genetics, making it something that could occur just as easily to a relative of Richard’s as to Richard himself. Was there, perhaps, a cousin to Richard, a sufferer of scoliosis, lost to history, now unearthed yet unrecognized? Maybe he was named Robert Gloucester, widely renowned during life as a lover of seafood, and savagely murdered by a fishmonger over a debt. Is this whom the Leicester archaeologists unwittingly unearthed?
Alas, this Woolfian conceit, entertaining though it is, remains unlikely. Not, however, because of the scientific evidence adduced above, but because of seemingly more prosaic evidence from the historical record. John Rous, the Tudor historian, writing a year after Richard’s death, reported that Richard III was buried in the choir of the Greyfriars church in Leicester. Simply put: that is where they dug, and that is what they found. Without this historical record, not only would the skeleton not be identifiable as Richard III, it would never even have been discovered.