Finding Richard III

4 mins read

Richard III's remains in situ - copyright University of LeicesterAt a Leicester press conference on 4 February, experts announced that the human remains found beneath a city centre carpark last August are ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ those of Richard III.

Addressing over 100 journalists from all over the world, the panel reported that the skeleton was that of an adult male, aged in his late 20s or early 30s when he died. Richard III was 32 when he was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Two radiocarbon dates obtained from the remains also pointed towards the skeleton being that of England’s last Medieval king, giving a range of AD 1455-1540.

The crucial detail, however, was whether the researchers had been able to extract DNA from the 500-year-old remains, and whether these had shown a link with Michael Ibsen, a known descendant of Richard III’s sister, Anne of York.

Prof Kevin Schurer and Dr Turi King, who have worked on this aspect of the research, explained that they had in fact been able to identify two descendants along the maternal line, both of whom had provided a sample, enabling the experts to triangulate their results, comparing both to a sample taken from the Medieval individual’s tooth. Analysis of mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down the female line, provided a conclusive match.

‘Our academic conclusion,beyond reasonable doubt, is that this individual is indeed Richard III,’ said Richard Buckley, who led the initial excavation.

Identifying the king’s remains has enabled the team to rewrite our understanding of how the monarch died, and how his body was treated after his death.

Richard's skull, showing some of his severe injuries, copyright University of LeicesterWhile initial conservation had revealed two wounds to the king’s remains, today the team announced that they had identified ten – 8 inflicted on his skull, and two more to his rib and pelvis. The corroded iron object initially interpreted as an arrowhead has now been discounted as a Roman nail that had intruded into the grave.

Team osteologist Jo Appleby described the injuries.

‘They are all characteristic of perimortem wounds, meaning that they were caused at or just after the time of death,’ she said. ‘They are consistent with battle injuries, and some would have been fatal.’

A small penetrating wound to the top of the skull is thought to have been caused by a direct blow from a weapon rather than a projectile, and would not have been fatal. There was a more severe wound to the back of the head, however, where a sword or halberd had sliced away a large piece of bone. Another nearby blow had cut 10cm into the skull.

‘Both of these would have caused immediate unconsciousness with death following shortly,’ said Jo Appleby. ‘Three more shallow wounds to the surface of the skull had shaved off small areas of bone, but these are not likely to have been fatal, unless blood loss was left untreated.’

This concentration of injuries to the head suggests that Richard had lost his helmet at some point during the battle, Jo added. The other wounds, however, could be interpreted as evidence that the body had been mistreated after death.

A small cut to the cheekbone, consistent with a dagger, and a cut to the lower jaw, were very shallow to have been battle injuries, Jo suggested.

‘While we cannot say this definitely, they are much less severe than injuries you tend to see on victims of Medieval warfare, and I wonder if they were inflicted on the King’s remains after his death as a final humiliation,’ she said.

The other two wounds seem to support this theory – a cut to hisMistreated after death? A cut to Richard's pelvis suggests his corpse may have been attacked. Copyright - University of Leicester rib, inflicted from the back, and another to his pelvis, from a blow thrust through the right buttock, should not have been able to penetrate his armour, the team say. Historical sources describe how the king’s body was stripped naked and thrown over a horse to take back to Leicester. It is possible that the wounds were inflicted to his vulnerable remains at this time. Analysis of the king’s grave also  points to an unceremonious end.

‘The grave was very irregular, with sloping sides and a concave base,’ said Richard Buckley. ‘It seemed to have been hastily dug – it was too short for the individual interred in it.’

Richard’s remains seem to have been dumped unceremoniously into the grave cut; his legs were lower than the rest of the body, suggesting they had gone in first, and his torso was twisted, with his head propped up by a corner of the grave. Unusually for Medieval burials, his arms were not extended at his sides, but crossed at the wrists over his pelvis. While no trace of any binding survives, the team have speculated that this might suggest that his hands had been tied when he was buried. No evidence of clothing, a shroud, a coffin, or personal effects were found with him.

But while much of the research has revealed a rather ignominious end for England’s last Plantagenet king, the team were also able to lay to rest some myths about Richard III’s appearance – while he did suffer from severe scoliosis, he did not have the withered arm popularised by Shakespeare.

The full skeleton, with no sign of a withered arm - copyright University of Leicester‘He was unusually slender, with an almost feminine build that was unusual for men of this period but consistent with historical descriptions of Richard,’ said Jo Appleby. ‘Both his arms were the same size and had been used normally during his life – there is no evidence that one was withered.

‘He did suffer from severe scoliosis, however. It is ideopathic adolescent onset scoliosis, which means he wasn’t born with a crooked spine, but would have started to develop scoliosis when he was around 10. With a straight spine he would have been about 5’8″ tall – above average for the time – but this twisted spine would have made him significantly shorter.

‘This condition could have put pressure on his heart and lungs, and perhaps caused pain, but we cannot know for sure.’

ichard's twisted spine. Copyright University of Leicester

As the conference closed, it was announced that Richard III’s remains will be buried in Leicester Cathedral.

‘It is best archaeological practice to bury human remains as close to where they were found as possible, and Leicester Cathedral is the nearest consecrated ground,’ said Richard Taylor.

The exhumation licence obtained from the Ministry of Justice requires the team to bury Richard III by August 2014 but it is expected that his interment will take place later this year.

The Richard III Society have raised funds for a grave marker which will be unveiled in the coming weeks.

‘We have found him – now it is time to honour him,’ said Philippa Langley, who first launched the project.







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