Leicester Cathedral

The Search for Richard III’s DNA: Looking for Richard with John Ashdown-Hill

John Ashdown Hill carrying Richard III's remains by Riikka Nikko
John Ashdown Hill carrying Richard III’s remains by Riikka Nikko. © Riikka Nikko.

In The King in the Car Park documentary, the world watched as the skeleton discovered on the very first day of the Greyfriars project was packed carefully into bags and then into a cardboard box. An emotional Philippa Langley, insisted that the bones, yet to be identified, were indeed that of King Richard III. She placed a copy of Richard III’s royal banner over the cardboard box and asked Dr. Jo Appleby, the osteological analysist from Leicester University if she would like the honour of carrying the remains. Appleby, uncomfortable, refused. The University team seemed bemused by Philippa’s emotional reaction. Then Philippa realised that Dr. John Ashdown-Hill, the historian who traced the DNA of the York family and found a living descendant of Richard III, should have the honour. Philippa was the driving force behind the Looking for Richard project, but John Ashdown Hill’s book, The Last Days of Richard III and the fate of his DNA had been crucial to her, for once she read the book she knew they finally had the means to not only find his grave, but to identify him.

John carefully placed the banner over the box and carried Richard III’s remains while the University team looked on, some detached, some uncomfortable, one member growing angry that they were treating the remains with such reverence when they had yet to be identified. It was an interesting display of the disparity between the two teams, and while the University was still clearly reserved, the Looking for Richard team had the right of it. And after years of hard work they had made one of the most incredible discoveries in history.

John Ashdown-Hill joined us to discuss his years of research, the Greyfriars dig and the controversy over the remains of King Richard III.

You began to research Richard III’s DNA in 2003. Can you tell us about why you decided to research this particular aspect of him?

Margaret of York
Margaret of York

Actually, the immediate impetus was nothing to do with Richard III. In 2003 I attended a conference in Belgium, organised by the Centre Européen d’Etudes Bourguignonnes (of which I am a member). The conference was in honour of Richard III’s sister, Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy, and was to commemorate the 500th anniversary of her death. One of the papers presented concerned three female skeletons of about the right age, which had been found in the former church where Margaret had been buried – and the problem of trying to identify them. My Belgian colleagues asked me what they could do and I said ‘DNA’ – so they asked me to try to discover a mitochondrial DNA sequence for Margaret (and all her brothers and sisters).
However, the idea of looking for a DNA sequence for both Richard III and his nephews, the so-called ‘princes in the Tower’ was already in the back of my mind before I went to Belgium, because I thought historians had spent 500 years going over and over the same material about Richard III. To my mind the way forward for all historians is to try to find NEW evidence – of whatever kind. In the case of Richard III, in 2003, DNA evidence would certainly be something new!

You managed to trace Richards genes from his grandmother Catherine Swynford (née de Roet), all the way to his Joy Ibsen 16th-generation great-niece (née Brown). How did Joy react when you contacted her with the news?

I think she was very surprised to get a phone call from the UK, from someone she didn’t know. And I was very nervous about phoning her, in case she thought I was a crack-pot and just put the phone down on me! But fortunately she had an enquiring mind, and wanted to hear what I had to tell her. She also had an interest in her family history, and had done some research on her male lines of ancestry. But she knew nothing about her female-line descent from medieval royalty. She was fascinated to discover that. But she asked for a few days to think about the DNA sample request and its implications. After that she came back to me, and said YES. But initially I didn’t have permission to publish her DNA results. She only gave me that permission in 2005 – after the comparison had been made with DNA from the Belgian bones. Thus I announced the DNA sequence in England in 2006 (in which year I also gave a presentation on what had been found before HRH the Duke of Gloucester), and I published the full results in Belgium in 2007. Unfortunately the DNA from two sets of the Belgian bones didn’t match Joy Ibsen’s, so those remains weren’t Margaret of York. The third set of Belgian remains I am still working on, because their DNA results were contaminated and therefore rather confusing.

Artist Impression of South East Leicester during 15th Century © Leicester Council
University of Leicester 2011 publication of their reconstruction of the Greyfriars site

When you published the first edition of your book “The Last Days of Richard III and the Fate of his DNA” did you imagine you would see an attempt to recover Richard III’s remains in your lifetime?

Yes, I did. I was already working with Philippa Langley – who was very determined to get something done, despite the apparent lack of interest in Leicester. In fact, at Philippa’s suggestion, I had put a plan to excavate the Leicester Greyfriars site to the UK TV programme Time Team in 2005, and interestingly, the photograph I showed them of the part of the Greyfriars site where I thought we should dig in (which I also published in my book, later) showed Richard III’s actual grave site! (Of course, at the time, although I was sure I had photographed the site of the lost church, I didn’t know that I had Richard’s actual grave site in my picture.) But sadly Time Team thought the chances of finding something were too slim for one of their 3-day projects. That was a pity, as things turned out, because in the end, when the digging started, Richard III’s remains were found on the FIRST day.

Plaque on Bow Bridge in Leicester, after the local traditioan that Richard III's remains were thrown in the river Soar.
Plaque on Bow Bridge in Leicester, after the local tradition that Richard III’s remains were thrown in the river Soar.

You were involved with the dig along with Philippa Langley, who spearheaded the project, and the University of Leicester. Footage from The King in the Car Park documentary made it obvious some of the University team still had doubts about the project, did you feel that the project would be successful?

The ULAS archaeologists made it clear to both of us all along that
a) they were not looking for Richard III – but investigating the Greyfriars site, and
b) despite the evidence I had produced to the contrary, they thought Richard III had probably been thrown into the river Soar at the Dissolution. (Even their exhumation order request makes this very clear.)
As for me, I was certain we would find the Greyfriars church. But we only had TWO WEEKS – so I thought probably we wouldn’t find Richard III’s grave in that time, and that at the end of the two weeks we would probably need to have a meeting and discuss trying to put together more funding for a further excavation the following year. You see, once we had found the church we would have had a clearer idea of its layout, and we could then have planned further excavations in what seemed the most likely grave locations.

Most of the publicity around the Grey Friars dig has been geared towards the University of Leicester and not the Looking for Richard project, at least after the discovery of Richard III’s remains. Has the relationship between the two groups become strained?

Michael Ibsen, a descendant of of King Richard III, poses for photographers as the face of the king is unveiled to the media at the Society of Antiquaries, London.
Michael Ibsen, a descendant of of King Richard III, poses for photographers as the face of the king is unveiled to the media at the Society of Antiquaries, London.

Well, things have been sorted out to some extent now. But, to be honest, yes there have been considerable difficulties between key members of the Looking for Richard team and the University of Leicester. I’m afraid there have also been problems with Leicester City Council since the discovery, because, up to now, the City Council’s exhibition, in the Leicester Guildhall, has contained absolutely no mention of either me and my work, or of Philippa Langley and her work. I understand that the Guildhall exhibition is now being rectified – but this has taken a jolly long time (more than six months).
As for relations with the university, I was deeply shocked to be excluded from the private announcement of the DNA results on 3 February, when I had discovered the living DNA link! I was also distressed by the way in which the university seemed to be largely ignoring me and my key research which had made the discovery possible. However, as a result of help from various quarters – including my MP, the mayor of Leicester, and some media – communications do seem to have been better recently, and the university does now seem to have amended its website to include more mention of me and my work.
I think the real problem is that, since the discovery Leicester as a whole (the university, the city and the cathedral) seems to feel as if it needs to claim total ownership of Richard III, and there is no doubt that this has caused difficulties and stress – and that in some areas it is still doing so. In some ways it has felt a bit like dealing with the Tudors! You know that the Tudor regime rewrote history to make Richard III a villain after he had been defeated and killed. Well, Leicester (both the City Council – in the Guildhall exhibition, and the university) seem to have been rewriting history to claim that Richard III was discovered by Leicester.

Richard III memorial plaque placed in the area where Greyfriars Friary once stood in 1990

I’m afraid the truth is he wasn’t discovered by Leicester. He had been buried in Leicester for more than 500 years, but without the work of the Looking for Richard team  –  which persuaded Leicester City Council to allow the digging, and which employed Leicester University archaeologists to do the excavation – nothing would have happened. Of course the university people did a great job, once they were involved – and of course, once the discovery had been made, Leicester University produced more funding so that the dig could go on for another week. But without Philippa Langley’s persistence, and my research, nothing would have happened.

While it may have been possible to locate Richard III’s remain without your research there was no way of identifying them. How does it feel to have made such a contribution to history?

I think it isn’t quite that simple. First, my contribution was much more than just the DNA discovery. As I said, people in Leicester (including the University archaeologists) thought that Richard III had been dug up and thrown into the river. But I was commissioned by the BBC to research that story in 2004, and I disproved it. Also, in the 1990s some historians had argued that Richard hadn’t been buried at the Greyfriars at all – but I had found new evidence to prove that he really was buried there.
As for the mitochondrial DNA, that can’t, by itself, prove identity over a 500 year time gap – though it can DISPROVE it, as it did with two sets of the Belgian bones. All the DNA can show is whether the person belongs to the right family line. You then have to combine that evidence with the other evidence to establish the identity. In this case it all came together. A male body, of the right age and social class, who died at the right time, and who died a violent death, and who had been buried in the right place – AND who had the right DNA sequence. Moreover, the mtDNA sequence in this case was a relatively uncommon one.
As for how I feel about it, when I originally found the DNA and when I made the announcement, in 2006, I was very excited. But to my amazement most of the British media simply ignored it! The BBC, the Daily Mail and other national papers didn’t really pay any attention – though I was asked to do a radio interview in Canada. The problem is I’m a freelance historian, with no press office behind me. My experience in 2006 – and again in 2012-13 has proved conclusively to me that it doesn’t really matter so much WHAT you achieve – what really matters is whether you have a publicity department to back you up. So it’s all been a very strange experience, and in some ways rather sad and stressful.

How do you feel about the controversy regarding where Richard III’s remains will be re-interred? It does not look like we will be seeing a decision until next year at least.

Leicester Cathedral
Leicester Cathedral

Originally the Looking for Richard team, led by Philippa Langley, and of which I am a member, planned a reburial at Leicester Cathedral, and the then Dean of Leicester was very co-operative and helpful. Personally I had some reservations, however, because as it happens, like Richard III, I’m a Catholic – and I couldn’t quite see why a king who wasn’t an Anglican should be buried in an Anglican church!
Later, it seems to me, Leicester Cathedral shot itself in the foot rather, by suggesting that Richard should be reburied under just a grave stone. I think he should be buried IN a tomb – and even the latest tomb design from Leicester Cathedral shows – by its very deep-cut cross – that they intend to bury him not IN it but UNDER it.
Meanwhile the Plantagenet Alliance – descendants of Richard III’s brothers and sisters – argued that they, as family members should be consulted. This argument was rather rubbished in Leicester, but actually I think the Plantagenet Alliance have a valid point about being consulted.
And personally I think the authorities in Leicester are not being very sensitive in their conduct. For example the recent announcement of their tomb design – at a time when the legal case is still sub judice – seemed all wrong to me. I’m afraid that I can’t help feeling that, when the chips are down, Leicester is really more concerned about the tourist trade than about Richard III’s repose and the good of his soul. That’s not something new, either. Back in the eighteenth-century, Leicester had a (fake) ‘Richard III’ stone coffin on display for tourists to come and see!
Meanwhile, MY part in the reburial is planning, making and presenting a crown to be carried on Richard III’s coffin, whenever and wherever he is finally re-interred. In handling the funeral crown project I’ve tried to be careful how I do things. I’ve show the crown design both to Leicester and to the Plantagenet Alliance. I’ve also sent it to members of the present Royal Family – who are also relatives of Richard III – and who probably have more expertise than I have on the subject of crown designs!

Souvenirs available at Leicester University
Souvenirs available at Leicester University

Once they have decided where Richard III will be finally reinterred, we can obviously expect his tomb and the town to attract a lot of tourists. Do you think the aspect of souvenirs and Richard III-themed pubs is going to have a positive or negative aspect on his memory?

Well, it will certainly make Richard III even more well-know than he was before. But some of the results are a bit odd already. Richard III chocolate, for example, and Richard III sunglasses, can apparently now be obtained in Leicester!
Hopefully wider interest in Richard will help to make people more interested in getting at the truth about him. However, the involvement I have had in plans for the new Richard III Centre in Leicester has shown me how wary one has to be, because publicity experts are not necessarily historians.

grgclOne of your next projects is book on Richard III’s brother, George Duke of Clarence. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

When I first discovered Richard III’s mtDNA, in 2004, I was contacted by people from Tewkesbury Abbey, in Gloucestershire, where the burial vault of Richard III’s brother, the Duke of Clarence, is located. There are some bones still in the vault, but it has been disputed whether they are the remains of the Duke of Clarence, and the people at Tewkesbury were interested in exploring whether my DNA discovery could help to clarify things. At that time I advised against this, because at that point the DNA sequence had not been confirmed. But now it has. So, following the announcement from Leicester in February, Tewkesbury Abbey and I discussed things again. As a result I visited the vault, together with an osteologist, and we re-examined the vault and the bones. That work, together with my wider research on George, Duke of Clarence, has produced some very interesting results, which figure in my new book (*out in spring 2014). I hope the book will give a better picture of Clarence as a real person, and will give a better idea of what he might have looked like, of why he was killed by his brother, Edward IV, and what might have happened to his remains.

Thank you for your time John. Is there anything else you would like to add?

For me nothing is ever finished! I’d love to see the Y-chromosome of the Plantagenet dynasty established. With this in mind I put Dr Philippa Charlier – a French expert who has been examining the remains of Plantagenets buried in France – in contact with Dr Turi King at Leicester. I also gave Turi details of living male line Plantagenet descendents known to me. I hope one way or another, something will eventually come out of this. I’m also still working on the third set of the Belgian remains that prompted my initial DNA work.
Also, my work on the Duke of Clarence produced some fascinating new evidence about him, which I’ve included in my Clarence book – but which has also now led me on to further exciting research. I hope this new work may finally clear up a key point about late fifteenth-century history, about which in my opinion English historians have been saying and writing the wrong thing for the past 500 years! But all that will be in a new book – which I’m still working on, and which still needs a publisher!

Read John Ashdown Hill’s article The Fate of Richard III’s Body

Read more Richard III week articles in History.


Dr. John Ashdown Hill

I am a freelance historian; historical researcher; writer and lecturer. My doctoral research was centred upon the client network of John Howard Duke of Norfolk in North Essex and South Suffolk. Since 1997 I have regularly given historical talks, and published historical research, achieving a certain reputation in aspects of late medieval history. I was the leader of genealogical research and historical adviser on the ‘Looking for Richard‘ project, which led to the rediscovery of the remains of Richard III in August 2012. My Richard III work demonstrates, I believe, that I have a special interest in controversial topics, and a talent for taking a fresh approach, which can sometimes lead to significant new discoveries.
I have currently had five history books and numerous historical research articles published. My sixth book – a study of George, Duke of Clarence, is due out in March 2014, and The History Press recently commissioned me to write a short popular history of the ‘Wars of the Roses’ – also due out in 2014. My latest book Royal Marriage Secrets recently received an excellent review in The Spectator. As a result of my work on the Richard III project I participated in British, Continental and Canadian TV documentaries on the search for Richard III. Subsequently I have also participated in a general historical documentary on the life of Richard III for the USA, and interest has been expressed in the possibility of further TV work based on two of my books.

the-last-days-of-richard-iii-and-the-fate-of-his-dnaBuy The Last Days of Richard III and the fate of his DNA: the Book that Inspired the Dig by John Ashdown-Hill, published by The History Press 2013

The Last Days of Richard III contains a new and uniquely detailed exploration of Richard’s last 150 days. By deliberately avoiding the hindsight knowledge that he will lose the Battle of Bosworth Field, we discover a new Richard: no passive victim, awaiting defeat and death, but a king actively pursuing his own agenda. It also re-examines the aftermath of Bosworth: the treatment of Richard’s body; his burial; and the construction of his tomb. And there is the fascinating story of why, and how, Richard III’s family tree was traced until a relative was found, alive and well, in Canada. Now, with the discovery of Richard’s skeleton at the Greyfrairs Priory in Leicester, England, John Ashdown-Hill explains how his book inspired the dig and completes Richard III’s fascinating story, giving details of how Richard died, and how the DNA link to a living relative of the king allowed the royal body to be identified.

John Ashdown Hill’s books published by The History Press