Carbon Dating of the CF2 bones - are they the remains of Eleanor Talbot?

As published in this month's Ricardian Bulletin.

Thanks to the help of Annmarie Hayek and the Norfolk Branch of the Richard III Society, who helped me to amass the required funding, I recently commissioned Beta Analytic to carry out carbon dating of four samples from the CF2 bones in Norwich. In 1996, based on other evidence (including age at death, social status, and burial location), I had put forward the idea that the bones in question might possibly be the remains of Edward IV’s partner, Lady Eleanor Talbot. I therefore hoped that carbon dating might support my belief that the CF2 remains belonged to Eleanor, by confirming that the owner of the bones in question had indeed died in 1468. However, carbon dating is not always absolutely conclusive in terms of what it reveals, and various issues can affect the results.

As they were initially sent to me (and to the Castle Museum in Norwich) the Beta Analytic test results appeared to suggest that the CF2 bones might date from the fourteenth century - an earlier period than Eleanor Talbot’s death date. I am not a scientific expert in respect of carbon dating. However, I am aware that ingestion of carbon from marine sources can increase the radiocarbon age measured in bones and tissues. This is due to the incorporation of old carbon from ancient limestone sources present in sea water. The same effect can occur in freshwater carbon sources when those waters are exposed to limestone bedrock or fed by old water from springs.

Thus, because seafood contains high levels of carbon, the eating of seafood can cause confusion in respect of the carbon dating of human remains, making the date of death appear to have been somewhat earlier than it actually was. A notable value also provided by Beta Analytic, called Delta-15N (aka d15N, δ15N), can be used to qualitatively assess for the presence of a significant marine diet component. The values measured in the CF2 samples were indeed consistent with a significant marine diet component, providing some evidence that the ages offered by the carbon dating may be older than the time of death.

Actually I had encountered this problem in respect of the carbon dating of human remains on a previous occasion. The carbon dating of the Richard III bones found by the Looking For Richard Project in Leicester in 2012 was initially reported to indicate that those bones also dated from an earlier period than Richard’s death date. But on that occasion it subsequently emerged that - probably because he was a religious man - Richard III had consumed much more seafood than carbon daters perceive as the norm.

Of course, in the pre-Reformation period, all the inhabitants of England probably ate fish every Friday, and also throughout the weeks of Lent, because on those days meat was ruled out by the church.[1] However, the evidence of some household accounts shows that the more religious also regularly ate fish on other days – for example, on Wednesdays and Saturdays.[2] In that context it is significant that Eleanor Talbot was a very religious lady. Indeed, towards the end of her short life she became linked as a lay woman to the Carmelite Order in Norwich – where her body was buried in 1468, and where the CF2 bones were found in the 1950s.

Therefore, after receiving the initial carbon dating results as they presented them, I sent to Beta Analytic fifteenth-century evidence from the household accounts of Eleanor’s parents. For example, I showed Beta that in the year 1417-1418 the Talbot household consumed more than 55,581 items of fish food, but only 271 items of meat! [3] That and all the other evidence I sent them revealed clearly that Eleanor’s family had always consumed a large quantity of seafood.

I then received this response from Beta Analytic:

Very interesting that you have detailed dietary information.

The aquatic food chain can contain old carbon which can be passed on up the line.  The δ15N [nitrogen level] is interpreted to represent the protein diet of the individual.  The values for the 4 samples are indicative of a marine diet component according to the attached graph [see below for my summary of the contents of the graph].  Note that the graph is not necessarily universally applicable. We see many results (as with your 4) where the δ13C value associated with the high δ15N value is not represented on the graph.  Nonetheless, with what you know and the general acceptance of this data, I think it’s reasonable to interpret a marine diet component being represented in the results.

This would suggest the ages [i.e. initial carbon dating results offered by Beta] are older than the time of death.  Unfortunately there is no way to apply an absolute age correction without having other material in association with the bones dated, and then using the difference as the correction factor.  If you had any associated seeds, berries, textiles or twigs to date it would perhaps provide for some correction values.

The graph I was sent indicates the presence of a marine diet component if a sample reveals a δ15N value greater than 11 (i.e. 11 per mil, 11 o/oo). In the case of all four CF2 samples the δ15N values were between 13.8 and 14.4. It therefore seems that in the case of CF2 seafood was regularly consumed. Thus the carbon dates revealed by the tests may be older than the true time of death.

So, in summary, based on the information I sent Beta in respect of Talbot seafood consumption, and given Beta Analytic’s acceptance of the notion that ‘it’s reasonable to interpret a marine diet component being represented in the [CF2] results’, the carbon dating neither confirms nor refutes the CF2 individual to be of Eleanor Talbot’s death date.  However, there is a strong inference that she could be.

One way to try to help confirm this hypothesis might now be to attempt carbon dating the wood from CF2’s coffin. Of course the age of the timber could also be older than 1468.  However, if carbon dates on the timber were younger than the carbon dates on the bones, that would provide evidence that the carbon dates on the bones are older than the time of death of the individual, which would better support the possibility that CF2 was Eleanor Talbot.

 I am very grateful to all those who helped me set up the carbon dating of the CF2 samples. I am also very grateful to Darden Hood of Beta Analytic, and to my old friend David Perry, who both helped me write this report!

Left: The skull and some bones of CF2 during their recent re-examination in Norwich.

Right: Facial reconstruction of the CF2 skull which appears to confirm resemblance to Eleanor Talbot’s relatives, but from which costume of any specific period is omitted. Commissioned by the author from Caroline Erolin, Medical and Forensic Artist, Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, University of Dundee.

[1] J. Ashdown-Hill, Richard III’s ‘Beloved Cousyn’, Stroud 2009, p. 119.

[2] M.K. Dale & V.B. Redstone, eds., The Household Book of Dame Alice de Bryene of Acton Hall, Suffolk, September 1412 – September 1413, Ipswich 1931, reprinted Bungay 1984, pp. 18-28.

[3] B. Ross, ed., Accounts of the Stewards of the Talbot Household at Blakemere 1392-1425, Keele 2003.

The problems of Richard III’s Y chromosome

The problems of Richard III’s Y chromosome; the problems relating to the burials at Clare Priory, and the problems of working with Historic England

In 2004, following the request of colleagues in Belgium, I discovered the mtDNA sequence of King Richard III and his siblings. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited only in the all-female line. In that same year I was commissioned by the BBC to research the ‘body in the river’ story which was then widely recounted in Leicester regarding the fate of Richard III’s remains. As a result of my research on that story, in 2005, with the help of the Richard III Society East Midland (Leicester) Branch, I persuaded Leicester City Council to allow the erection of a new plaque next to the Victorian plaque near Bow Bridge, which commemorates the ‘body in the river’ myth. My new plaque stated that the nineteenth-century inscription of the Victorian memorial was untrue.

Read more

Article on Richard III by Dr. John Ashdown-Hill

The last member of the house of York to sit upon the throne of England, in his lifetime Richard III seems to have been chiefly famous for his loyalty and good service to his elder brother, King Edward IV. However, after his own government was overthrown by a usurper with French support, but no valid claim to the English crown, Richard became famous chiefly for his heavily blackened reputation. This was by no means a unique event. Rewriting of history has occurred on other occasions in the wake of a violent change of regime.

Read the full article here:

New evidence: The bones of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ show no relationship to Richard III

Press Release for The Secret Queen by The History Press

Dr Ashdown-Hill, a leading expert on Richard III and the Wars of the Roses, and a key member of Philippa Langley’s Looking For Richard Project that discovered Richard III in a car park in Leicester, has today revealed that the ‘bones in the urn’ in Westminster Abbey, believed for centuries by traditional historians to be those of the ‘Princes in the Tower’, apparently have no blood relationship to King Richard III.

This discovery, which throws into question the identity of the ‘bones in the urn’, is revealed for the first-time in Dr Ashdown-Hill’s highly acclaimed work, The Secret Queen: Eleanor Talbot, the Woman Who Put Richard III on the Throne, in a new and updated paperback edition published in July by The History Press.

The ‘Princes in the Tower’ were the nephews of King Richard III
(1483-85) who vanished during his reign.

With no evidence of any murder, their disappearance ignited one of our greatest unsolved historical mysteries.

The remarkable finding is part of Dr Ashdown-Hill’s continuing investigation into the mythology surrounding Richard III and came about through his analysis of the medieval monarch’s dental record. 

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     X-ray evidence of skull from Norwich (possibly Talbot) with congenital missing tooth

X-ray evidence of skull from Norwich (possibly Talbot) with congenital missing tooth

The dental record reveals that Richard III had no congenitally missing teeth, in sharp contrast to the ‘bones in the urn’, where both skulls are said to present this genetic anomaly.

Previously it has been argued that this feature provided strong evidence of the royal identity of the ‘bones in the urn’.

It was claimed that the ‘Princes’ inherited their missing teeth from their grandmother, Cecily, Duchess of York.

But Dr Ashdown-Hill’s latest discovery strongly suggests that the ‘bones in the urn’ are not related to Cecily’s son, Richard III, who was a first degree relative of the ‘Princes’. 

Scientific studies of hypodontia (congenitally missing teeth) have further suggested that the anomaly is relatively rare, being present in less than 5% of the population, and is slightly more prevalent in the female population.

This discovery adds further weight to the many questions now surrounding the identity of the ‘bones in the urn’, and raises the possibility that the remains may even be those of as yet unidentified females.

In 1674, the bones were discovered at the Tower of London by workmen digging ten feet below the stairs that led from the Royal Apartments to the White Tower.

Four years later, they were reburied in the urn in Westminster Abbey by Charles II who had been persuaded to accept that the remains were the ‘Princes in the Tower’.

The story of a stair burial for the ‘Princes’ had been proposed in the 16th century by Thomas More. However, in his account, now generally discredited by academia as a dramatic narrative, More went on to say that the bodies were removed from the stair burial and taken elsewhere.

What caused the four-year delay in the reburial of the bones in Westminster during the reign of Charles II, where the bones were kept during this time, and if they are indeed the same bones that were discovered in 1674 by the workmen, is also not known.

Dr Ashdown-Hill states,

This newly-revealed dental evidence is another remarkable discovery from the results of the Looking For Richard Project. Modern scientific analysis applied to the flawed 1933 investigation of the ‘bones in the urn’ has revealed that the sex and historical period of death of the remains is unknown. My latest discovery now casts doubts on the dental claims put forward in 1934, 1965 and 1987. Nor can we be sure that there are just two sets of bones within the urn. It used to be thought that there were two sets of bones in the Clarence vault at Tewkesbury Abbey, where Richard III’s brother was buried. But when I had those remains re-examined in 2013 it emerged that there were three or possibly four individuals present – information published by The History Press in my book The Third Plantagenet. The only way we will ever truly be able to answer all the questions about the ‘bones in the urn’ is, of course, either by further archival discoveries, or scientific analysis.

He also states,

I’m very excited about this new, updated edition of my work on Eleanor Talbot, published by The History Press. The book includes a remarkable new facial reconstruction of Eleanor’s putative remains, produced by experts at the University of Dundee. It also contains important new dental evidence in respect of Eleanor’s putative remains, provides evidence of when and where she could have married Edward IV, and offers two new theories for what may have caused her early demise.  

Philippa Langley of the Looking For Richard Project states,

By discovering Richard III, the Looking For Richard Project succeeded in demolishing so many of the myths surrounding this much maligned monarch. We dared to question where others merely repeated. Indeed, by questioning the age-old story of the ‘bones in the river’ we succeeded in finding the king. Now it’s been revealed that the remains we found in Leicester question the received wisdom and dogma surrounding the disappearance of the sons of Edward IV. This exciting new discovery by Dr Ashdown-Hill is another step forward in our quest for knowledge, so that one day we may be able to uncover the truth about one of our most enduring historical mysteries. The search continues.

John Ashdown-Hill is a freelance historian and a bestselling author with a PhD in history. He regularly presents his research, and has achieved an excellent reputation in late medieval history. A Channel Four TV documentary was partially based upon Ashdown-Hill’s DNA research in The Last Days of Richard III. In 2015, Philippa Langley and Dr Ashdown-Hill were awarded MBEs by HM The Queen for their work in the discovery and identification of Richard III.

Published Works

  • The Secret Queen: Eleanor, the Woman Who Put Richard III on the Throne (The History Press, 2009, 2010, updated new edition in2016)
  • The Dublin King: The True Story of Edward, Earl of Warwick, Lambert Simnel, and the ‘Princes in the Tower’ (The History Press, 2015)
  • The Mythology of Richard III (Amberley, 2015)
  • The Wars of the Roses (Amberley, 2015)
  • The Third Plantagenet: George, Duke of Clarence, Richard III’s Brother  (The History Press, 2014)
  • The Last Days of Richard III (The History Press, 2010, 2011, second updated edition 2013)
  • Royal Marriage Secrets: Consorts & Concubines, Bigamists & Bastards (The History Press, 2013)
  • Richard III’s ‘Beloved Cousyn’: John Howard and the House of York (The History Press, 2009)
  • Mediaeval Colchester’s Lost Landmarks (Breedon Books, 2009)