King Richard III's secrets laid bare

Analysis of King Richard III's DNA could provide historians with a remarkable insight.

What a treat for medieval historians. More than 500 years after he was killed, the skeleton of Richard III is giving them much more reliable biographical information than they acquired over the previous half a millennium.

Henry VII, his successor, and opponent at Bosworth, encouraged his court historians to produce a warped picture of Richard.

Thank God, then, for the miraculous discovery of his body in a Leicester car park last year, and the undeniable truths it provided. Analysis of his skeleton showed the king didn't have a hunchback exactly; he suffered from scoliosis of the spine, meaning his vertebrae were bent sideways and his right shoulder was higher than his left. His skull had a big hole at its base where, it's thought, it was hacked away by a halberd (a combined spear and battle axe); on the right side of his head, a blade had apparently thrust through the bone to a depth of more than four inches. Tudor soldiers were nothing if not thorough.

Richard's DNA has already been analysed, confirming that the battered body in the car park was indeed his. But his genome will tell us even more from beyond the grave. "The original discovery only told us so much about Richard himself - he had scoliosis, he ate seafood, he died violently," says the historian David Horspool, who is writing Richard III's biography for Bloomsbury. "Anything that increases our knowledge would be interesting. The waxwork made of him guessed that he had black hair and very bushy eyebrows; perhaps the genome will tell us something different."

That genome, encoded in the DNA, will give the complete breakdown of the king's hereditary information. It will provide a more detailed picture of his DNA. You can't quite call it living history because it's derived from a corpse. But DNA and genome analysis is a new primary source of history - like boarding a time machine to the late 15th century and gathering real facts on the ground.

Other ancient bodies have had their genomes sequenced, including Otzi the Iceman, Neanderthal specimens, a Greenlandic Inuit and a hunter gatherer from Spain. But Richard III will be the first named, identifiable historical figure to undergo the process.


In time, genome sequencing is bound to become the norm for skeletons of well-known people. Alfred the Great - whose pelvic bone, buried in Winchester, is thought to have been identified last month - must be a candidate for the treatment. And what about the remains of the last Tsar and Tsarina of Russia, murdered in 1918? Thanks to DNA tests - including samples taken from the last Tsarina's great-nephew, Prince Philip - the bodies were proved to be authentic in 2008. Who knows what further secrets full genome sequencing would produce?

The University of Leicester, which is carrying out Richard's analysis, says the new data will give insights into his genetic make-up, including his susceptibility to certain diseases, his hair and eye colour. They also expect to discover new material about his genetic ancestry and his relationship to modern human populations.

Genome sequencing is still in its infancy, and the body of the last king of England to die in battle may well produce completely original findings. When scientists sequenced the genome of Otzi, the Alpine iceman from 3300 BC, they discovered that he was the first known human to suffer from Lyme disease. By comparing Richard's genes with one of his living relations, Michael Ibsen, scientists will also see what other segments of DNA have passed down the royal bloodline.

And it's royal blood that makes this project so exciting. It's blood that defines the monarchy; blood - and blood connections - that have divided and created British kings and queens for more than a 1000 years. We like to think we're more democratic these days, and less in thrall to hereditary power, than in 1485. But in fact we're more obsessed with royal blood now: the throne has now passed to the closest direct heir for 300 years, ever since George I succeeded in 1714.

Before then, the succession was a perilous game of snakes and ladders, thwarted by Catholic blood, revolution and invasion. Henry VII's claim to succeed Richard III after Bosworth was staggeringly tenuous. His mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, was the great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the fourth son of Edward III. On that basis, we're all close to becoming the next monarch.

The succession is much clearer these days. Tragedy aside, we have already met the boy who will be king 70 years from now - Prince George. The English obsession with, and devotion to, future kings is as intense as it's ever been. So it's thrilling to keep on discovering fresh news about their ancestors.

Harry Mount is the author of How England Made the English.

Telegraph, London