LEICESTER, England — He was king of England, but for centuries he lay without shroud or coffin in an unknown grave, and his name became a byword for villainy.
On Monday, scientists announced they had rescued the remains of Richard III from anonymity – and the monarch’s fans hope a revival of his reputation will soon follow.
In a dramatically orchestrated news conference, a team of archaeologists, geneticists, genealogists and other scientists from the University of Leicester announced that tests had proven what they scarcely dared to hope – a scarred and broken skeleton unearthed under a drab municipal parking lot was that of the 15th-century king, the last English monarch to die in battle.
Lead archaeologist Richard Butler said that a battery of tests proved “beyond reasonable doubt” that the remains were the king’s.
Few monarchs have seen their reputations decline as much after death as Richard III. His brief reign saw liberal reforms, including the introduction of the right to bail and the lifting of restrictions on books and printing presses.
But his rule was challenged, and he was defeated and killed by the army of Henry Tudor, who took the throne as King Henry VII and ended the Plantagenet line. Britain’s current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is distantly related to Richard, but is not a descendant.
DNA from the skeleton matched a sample taken from Michael Ibsen, a distant living relative of Richard’s sister. The project’s lead geneticist, Turi King, said Ibsen, a Canadian carpenter living in London, shares with the skeleton a rare strain of mitochondrial DNA. The same DNA group also matches a second living descendant, who wants to remain anonymous.
King said that between 1 and 2 percent of the population belongs to this genetic sub-group, so the DNA evidence is not definitive proof in itself of the skeleton’s identity. But combined with the archaeological evidence, it left little doubt the skeleton belonged to Richard.
Ibsen, a 17th great-grand-nephew of Richard’s older sister, said he was “stunned” by the discovery.
“It’s difficult to digest,” he said.
Some scientists felt qualms about the haste with which the Leicester team announced its results. The findings have not been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, though the university said they soon would be.
“It’s a bizarre way of going about things,” said Mark Horton, a professor of archaeology at the University of Bristol -- although he said “overwhelming circumstantial evidence” identified the skeleton as Richard’s.
Archaeologist Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology magazine, also said he found the evidence persuasive.
“I don’t think there is any question. It is Richard III,” said Pitts, who was not affiliated with the research team.
The discovery is a boon for the city of Leicester, which has bought a building next to the parking lot to serve as a visitor center and museum.
On Monday, the king’s skeleton lay in a glass box in a meeting room within the university library. It was a browned, fragile-looking thing, its skull pocked with injuries, missing its feet -- which scientists say were disturbed sometime after burial -- and with a pronounced s-shape to the spine.
Soon the remains will be moved to an undisclosed secure location, and next year Richard will, at last, get a king’s burial, interred with pomp and ceremony in Leicester Cathedral.
It is a day Langley, of the Richard III Society, has dreamed of seeing.
“We have searched for him, we have found him -- it is now time to honor him,” she said.
The Search for Richard III: http://www2.le.ac.uk/projects/greyfriars
Richard III Society: http://www.richardiii.net/
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless
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