Thursday, March 14, 2013

Review: The Last Days of Richard III and the Fate of his DNA

The Last Days of Richard III and the fate of his DNA: the book that inspired the dig [Kindle

by John Ashdown-Hill
192 pages
The History Press, January 31, 2013

A must read for Ricardians
In August of 2012 a team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester went digging in a social services parking lot with the idea of hopefully finding evidence of the Grey Friars Friary. Not only did they locate the friary, they found Richard III’s remains.
In 2003, before the dig was ever considered, John Ashdown-Hill started his investigation of finding a living descendent from the female line of Richard’s mother, Cecily Neville. The female line of descent is necessary because children inherit an exact copy of their mother’s mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), but only the female passes this copy to the next generation. The author describes the process of finding a living descendent of one of Richard’s sisters and of the mtDNA analysis. The mtDNA was now available for comparison to the remains’ mtDNA. As exciting as this information is (for me), this is the present day science. This book is so much more.
Ashdown-Hill paints a fresh picture of a man, who despite terrible personal tragedies—his only legitimate son had died suddenly in April of 1484 and less than a year later, his wife died after a long illness (probably tuberculosis)—looking forward to remarrying and producing an heir and to a long reign as England’s king. Although there can be no doubt that Richard genuinely grieved for his son and wife, he nevertheless was planning for the future. This refreshing image is different from what most historians and novelists have portrayed.
The reader also gets a sense of what daily life was like for Richard, what some of his duties were, and how he would execute them.
One Ricardian myth the author dispels, is the one that purports Henry Tudor antedated his reign to August 21, 1485 (the battle where Henry defeated Richard was fought August 22). Ashdown-Hill could not find any extant contemporary evidence to suggest Henry’s reign was backdated by one day. The suspicion is the myth began ca 1647 from an error translating (from Latin to English) Richard III’s Epitaph (Buck’s translation with the dating errors are presented in Appendix 6).*
I found this book to be rich in detail and informative about Richard III’s last 150 or so days and about the role of DNA in confirming the remains. Not only is “Last Days” a significant historical reference, I found it a delight to read. John Ashdown-Hill achieved what is rarely seen in such a scholarly work—a reference that can be read from beginning to end without compromising the facts. I can’t recommend this book enough.

*Note: Several on Facebook who responded to this post pointed out that the antedating is part of the Parliamentary Rolls from Henry VII’s first parliament in 1485. Per Chapter 9, footnote 10:

This interpretation is based on Crowland, pp. 194– 95. However, the relevant passage does not, in fact, say that Henry antedated his accession, and there is no evidence to support such a claim in the surviving acts of attainder against Richard III’s supporters.
[Ashdown-Hill, John (2013-01-31). The Last Days of Richard III and the fate of his DNA: The Book that Inspired the Dig (Kindle Locations 3964-3966). The History Press. Kindle Edition.]
Pronay, N. & Cox, J., The Crowland Chronicle Continuations 1459– 1486 (London, 1986).
My search of the digital edition of Parliamentary Rolls for Henry VII’s first Parliament (November 1485), shows that Henry VII antedated his reign by a day. I emailed this information to John Ashdown-Hill and he is investigating this new (to him) evidence with the intent to amend the edition to reflect this information.


  1. Was fortunate enough to review this for Hist. Nov. Soc last year, in time to do a re-edit and update my "Roan Rose." This is definitely a Ricardian "must read."

  2. Hi, Joan!
    I bought the kindle edition of the original book (the same as you are reviewing, I think) but was disappointed to find that there are a lot of photos in the print version that aren't included (or if they are, are not very good quality) in the kindle version. For that reason, I have the print version on order, and in addition, I have pre-ordered the print copy of the newly revised edition, which is due to be released in April 2013, I believe. It will include chapters on "the rest of the story," the project to find Richard's remains, the discovery, and identification of the remains. That will certainly be an essential complement to the earlier part of the story! All in all, I agree with you, JAH's books are must-haves for any serious Ricardian!

  3. Just about to start on my copy ..............

  4. Hi JL, this review is of the second edition with the DNA discussion and the dig included. The Kindle version of this edition is available now and the print version will be available April 1st according to the Amazon listing.

  5. Absolutely agree, a must read. I started the book exactly when the dig started, and it gave me such a rich background to the Greyfriars Project, and made me appreciate the unfolding of the events even more.

    1. Planta Genista, I believe you read the first edition without the additional information that is covered in the edition this review is based on because the Kindle edition was first available for purchase Jan. 31, 2013. I strongly recommend buying this edition because of the additional information. The History Press who notoriously uses tiny typeface in their paperbacks, is the publisher and the print edition that contains the new chapters and appendices is the paperback version, you might want to consider getting the digital version. You won't get the photos and illustrations, but at least you'll be able to read the text.

    2. Thank you for the hint, Joan. I'm a bit on the fence regarding print or ebook. Haven't made up my mind yet which ereader I want, very likely not a kindle. So I guess it will have to be the paper copy, or reading it on my PC, which is rather a pain. ;-)

    3. It's also available in epub format from Barnes & Noble in the US. I don't know if The History Press publishes to other booksellers such as Apple or Kobo, for example. If you have an android tablet or phone, you can load the kindle app (which is what I did since I don't have a Kindle either) and read it that way.