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Medieval Mystery Solved: What Became of King Richard III’s Remains

February 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Next, the big archaeological find that appears to have solved a 500-year mystery: Whatever happened to the remains of Richard III?

Shakespeare, as well as history texts have portrayed him as one of medieval history’s great villains. But some scholars have spent years attempting to prove otherwise, starting with a search for his grave.

We begin with a report from Asha Tanna of Independent Television News.

ASHA TANNA, Independent Television News: When archaeologists began searching this Leicester car park, they described the dig as a long shot. But just weeks into the excavation, they made the most extraordinary discovery, a body. Today, the identity of that skeleton was made official.

RICHARD BUCKLEY, University of Leicester: Beyond reasonable doubt, the individual exhumed at Greyfriars in September 2012 is indeed Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England.

ASHA TANNA: The exact location of the Greyfriars Church, thought to be the last known resting place of the king, had been forgotten over the centuries, until the dig.

It was this woman, Philippa Langley, who was writing a screenplay about the king who initially funded the project and instigated the search.

PHILIPPA LANGLEY, Richard III Society: The first time I walked the car park, I just had the feeling. But then I came back a year later. And there was the letter R. right where I had the feeling that Richard’s grave was. And, believe me, I know how mad that sounds. But it — but, for me, that just gave me the push.

ASHA TANNA: It’s taken months of analysis by a huge team of academics to scientifically prove beyond all reasonable doubt that this is Richard III. A tooth from the remains was used to match DNA from a living day descendent, 17th generation from the female line.

MICHAEL IBSEN, Descendent of Richard III: To know that there’s some small part of you that is part of a king of England of Richard’s status, it’s difficult to digest, I think.

ASHA TANNA: The hunchback monarch is accused of killing his own nephew, the princes in the tower, to claim the throne. His reign formed part of the dynastic struggle known as the War of the Roses.

For centuries, it was widely believed his remains were thrown into the River Soar. But this is where he was discovered. His well-preserved skeleton was buried without a coffin or shroud. A combination of markings on the bones and genetic analysis proved what the experts had hoped for.

History records that Richard suffered a bloody death on the battlefield and a C.T. scan reveals there were 10 wounds to the skeleton and potentially fatal injuries to his head. His naked body was hastily buried without pomp and ceremony. Next year, he will be reentered at Leicester Cathedral in a burial his supporters say he’s been waiting hundreds of years for.