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Image of the week: King Richard III

5 Dec, 2014

Richard IIIThis week’s image is of one of the oldest surviving portraits of King Richard III. It’s also the most accurate. How do we know? Because, after almost two years of cloak-and-dagger secrecy, a research team from the University of Leicester have published their work on the identification of the skeleton discovered in a car park in 2012. It’s definitely him, by the way. Based on all the available evidence – DNA, carbon dating, evidence of scoliosis – the team are able to identify him with 99.999 – 99.99999% certainty.

Back in February, we announced that we would be supporting the team, via a Research Resources grant, as they embarked on sequencing Richard’s entire genome. Part of this has involved isolating the markers used to identify hair and eye colour, finding that he almost certainly had blue eyes, and would probably have been blond haired as a child. Though his hair would have darkened with age, this is a far cry from the many paintings and actors that have portrayed him with pitch black locks: a Shakespearian villain.

This raises interesting questions about the versions of history painted by the victorious, and the use of darkness and light. It’s probably worth mentioning that Shakespeare was writing over 100 years after Richard’s death, under a Tudor monarch, and so would have been well-versed in anti-Richard sentiment.

There are no existing portraits of Richard from the time he was alive. This one, hanging in the Society of Antiquaries in London, is probably the earliest version of a lost prototype made during his lifetime. With its blue eyes and mid-brown hair, we can now say that it’s the closest likeness.

The work on sequencing Richard’s genome continues, and once complete will be made accessible to all, creating a resource for scientists, historians and the public alike. Adding this to all the existing material about him, we’ll be learning more about this former king of England for many years to come.

Image: Richard III (arched-topped portrait), artist or workshop unknown, probably English, c. 1510-1540, oil on oak panel (h. 400 x w. 280mm). Bequeathed by Rev. Thomas Kerrich, FSA (1748-1828). [LDSAL321] © Society of Antiquaries of London

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