As Richard III's bones are laid to rest, museums explore king's DNA and reputation

By Richard Moss | 26 March 2015

Science Museum looks at forensics and Yorkshire Museum explores myths as Richard III sealed in tomb in Leicester

a photo of a sliver pendant in the shape of a boar
A boar pendant worn by Richard III's supporters © York Museums Trust
As the much=prodded and investigated bones of Richard III are laid to rest in Leicester Cathedral, a brace of new exhibitions are exploring two aspects of the medieval monarch that have intrigued people since his dramatic discovery in 2012; his forensic clues and his reputation.

The Science Museum in London takes up the story of his bones – and the genetic evidence that has left historians and experts pondering everything from his diet to this lineage. The Yorkshire Museum makes a bold and resolutely Yorkist attempt to rehabilitate the king’s reputation.

The town that lays claim to the last Plantagenet king will hold their own ceremonies of remembrance later today, and at Yorkshire Museum a new exhibition will explore the myths and what it describes as the “distorted truths” that have shaped modern perceptions of Richard III.

Using the museum’s nationally-significant collections, together with loans from across Yorkshire, Richard III: Man & Myth (opening March 27) considers the life, times and legacy of the much-maligned monarch in a show that promises to reveal the “historical facts” of his life and reign to reveal a king much loved by at least some of his subjects.

Backing up the premise is an impressive array of artefacts including loaned documents from the City of York Council Archives that reveal fascinating information about Richard’s relationship with York, such as the first gift the city gave to Richard, when he was only 16 years old, a list of his friends and allies, how the city prepared for his visit and how they reacted to his death.

The museum’s own impressive collection of objects adds context to the documents with the 15th century pendant, the Middleham Jewel, also on display together with a gilded spur, the Ryther Hoard (817 medieval coins, many of which were struck in York) and a number of boar badges worn by supporters of the king.

a photo of a golden locket with a blue stone
The Middleham Jewel© York Museums Trust

Benevolent king

Joining them from other collections is a skeleton from the Battle of Towton, the brutal War of the Roses clash of arms which led to the crowning of Richard III’s brother, Edward IV, as the first Yorkist King, together with weaponry of the period loaned from York Castle Museum.

“King Richard III’s reign only lasted three years but he has probably received more attention than any other British monarch,” says Natalie McCaul, the museum’s curator of archaeology.

“A number of accounts written after Richard’s death portrayed him as a tyrannical murderer. Yet for many, especially in Yorkshire, the image of a fair, benevolent figure, much maligned, endures.

“In this new exhibition we look at the perception of him today and whether much of this is based on facts or myth. We hope people will come and form their own opinions on Richard, his relationship with York and his short reign as king.” 

The exhibition also includes details of a feast in 1448, on loan from the Merchant Adventurers' Hall, which would have been similar to that eaten when Richard was a guest of York. The list of supplies includes six dozen sparrows, six pigs, seven lots of animal feet, more than 21 gallons of wine and four dozen and four gallons of ale.

A display depicting this royal repast is presented with tableware from the period and taxidermy from the natural history collections.

a table with a skeleton laid out on it
A 3-d print Richard III's skeleton on display at the Science Museum© Science Museum

Richard III's DNA

In London, the DNA and genetic footprint of Richard III comes under the spotlight in a Science Museum display called King Richard III: Life, Death and DNA. 

Richard III is the first historical figure in the world to have his full genome sequenced. The display returns to the pioneering work of Dr Turi King, Lecturer in Genetics at the University of Leicester, who has already uncovered a break in Richard’s Y chromosome line.

Effectively raising a spectre of false paternity or paternities (where the father is not the recorded father), Dr King’s work questions the family tree and royal bloodline of the Lancastrian and Yorkist Plantagenet kings and, indirectly, the Tudors.

Her latest research shows how Richard’s Y chromosome type doesn’t match the latest bloodlines to be tested - those of living ‘relatives’ Patrice de Warren, who can trace his male line to Richard through Geoffrey, the Count of Anjou, and Henry Somerset, 5th Duke of Beaufort, who is separated from Richard by 19 generations. So the search continues.

Visitors can learn more about this fascinating historical genetic detective work and see the king’s 3D printed skeleton to learn more about his life and death. A reproduction halberd, the weapon that inflicted several of Richard III’s wounds, will be on display together with footage of the investigation and details from the forensic report.

  • King Richard III: Life, Death and DNA is at the Science Museum until June 25 2015.
  • Richard III: Man and Myth opens at the Yorkshire Museum, York on March 27 2015, running until October 2.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More from Culture24's coverage of Richard III:

From car park to royal tomb: Ten stories from the discovery of Richard III

Benedict Cumberbatch revealed as Richard III's second cousin as actor prepares to read at reinterment ceremony
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