We now know that it was for want of a helmet, not a horse, that Richard III’s kingdom was lost. Tradition has it that, as battle raged across fields near Bosworth on the 22 August 1485, Richard saw Henry Tudor and his escort detach themselves from the rest of their army. Sensing an opportunity to decide the battle – and secure his throne – Richard charged. Whether it was overconfidence from an impetuous warrior king or a last roll of the dice from a man with nothing left to lose is impossible to say. But whatever provoked this final act of Plantagenet generalship, it proved a gamble too far.
At first Richard’s personal intervention looked to be a masterstroke. His band of knights scythed through Tudor’s bodyguards, and Richard himself is credited with slaying Henry’s standard-bearer. But just when victory seemed to be within Richard’s grasp, he was betrayed. Lord Stanley, who was watching from a nearby hilltop, ordered his men to the aid of Henry rather than their king. Suddenly it was Richard who was exposed too far from the rest of his force. Outnumbered and then cut off, England’s last Medieval king went down fighting.
Even the notoriously antagonistic Tudor chroniclers respected Richard’s bearing during that bitter last stand. John Rous, writing around 1490, is on record claiming that Richard was ‘retained within his mother’s womb for two years, emerging with teeth and hair to his shoulders.’ Despite peddling such shameless innuendo, Rous does not attempt to sully the nature of Richard’s end, writing that ‘if I may say the truth to his credit, though small in body and feeble of limb, he bore himself like a gallant knight and acted with distinction as his own champion until his last breath, shouting oftentimes that he was betrayed and crying “Treason! Treason! Treason!”.’ Now, confirmation that the human skeleton unearthed in the former Grey Friars church is that of Richard III has provided a graphic insight into the brutal passing of the last Plantagenet king, and the nature of Medieval battlefield justice.
The king is dead
Horrific carnage was a staple of Medieval conflict, with the vicious hand-to-hand mêlées inflicting shocking skeletal trauma (see CA 171). Having seen action at Barnet, Tewksbury, and during the 1480s conflict with Scotland, Richard was no stranger to such warfare. During his final moments, he was not spared its full fury. Careful study of Richard’s skeleton by Jo Appleby, an osteologist at the University of Leicester, revealed 10 perimortem wounds – that is, injuries occurring at or around the time of death. Eight were to his head, of which only two had been found when CA last reported on Richard (CA 272). As none of these wounds intersect, it is impossible to be certain about the order in which they were sustained. It is unlikely, though, that any occurred while Richard was either wearing his helmet or riding a horse.
There is a strong chance, then, that these injuries provide a window into Richard’s last stand: cut off from his army, fighting on foot, his helmet lost, and his comrades falling around him. If so, three sword or halberd thrusts found Richard’s unprotected scalp, slicing through the skin to shave slivers of bone off the vault of his skull. A fourth blade successfully punctured the top of his skull. Painful but not fatal, the king appears to have fought on, bleeding profusely. Contrary to what was previously thought, his injuries were not compounded by an arrow – what appeared to be the tip of such a projectile lodged in his spine has subsequently proven to be a corroded Roman nail.
Taken at face value, Richard’s wounds seem to suggest a horrifying end: surrounded by foes, while hacking and stabbing blows from swords and halberds rained down on all sides. Deliverance, when it came, took the form of two blows to the back of Richard’s head. One tore through to the inner surface of his skull, a full 10.5cm from its entry point. The other was administered with such force that it cleaved away a chunk of skull and exposed the brain. A portion of the severed bone was left dangling on a flap of skin, carrying it to the Grey Friars grave. Consistent with injuries caused by a power- ful halberd strike, if the blade had penetrated 7cm into Richard’s brain death would have been instant. Even if it did not, rapid loss of consciousness would have spared him any more suffering. And there was more to come.
Two further wounds to Richard’s face were probably caused by daggers. One cut a rectangular hole through his cheekbone, the other nicked his lower jaw. Both are less severe than the injuries you would expect to find on a Medieval battlefield casualty, prompting Jo Appleby to speculate that these were inflicted after death, as an extra humiliation for the slain king. If so, further mutilation of his face was prevented, possibly because Henry Tudor needed this proof of a decisive victory to be recognisable. Two final injuries suggest that this need did not, though, extend to ensuring the rest of Richard’s body remained unspoilt.
Blades that scored a rib and sliced Richard’s right pelvis should have been turned by his armour during combat. Historical sources, however, indicate the perfect opportunity for such injuries to occur. After death, Richard’s corpse was stripped naked and slung over a horse like a saddlebag for its inglorious ride back to Leicester. A detailed 3D reconstruction of the pelvis has revealed the angle from which the wound was received. It would be consistent with one onlooker taking this opportunity to affirm their allegiance to the new royal line in a manner that was as crude as it was unambiguous. Drawing a dagger, they thrust its blade upward into Richard’s right buttock with enough force to penetrate the underlying bone.
Lying in a state
Once in Leicester, it is recorded that Richard’s torn carcase ‘was laid openly, that every man might see and look upon him’. With Richard’s death beyond doubt, Henry’s prize had served its purpose. Thanks to the University of Leicester Archaeological Services excavations, we now know that following this public spectacle Richard’s remains were delivered to Leicester Grey Friars for burial. Despite occupying a prestigious location in the order’s church choir – as befitted a crowned Christian monarch – Richard’s interment was a far cry from the pomp of a state funeral. Most charitably attributable to haste, the nature of the last Plantagenet king’s burial displays at best a lack of care, at worst a final slight.
In contrast to the neat grave shafts encountered elsewhere at Grey Friars and in Medieval Leicester, Richard’s was roughly cut with sloping sides, a concave base, and an irregular shape. Despite the reduced stature brought on by his spinal condition, the grave was still too small to accommodate Richard’s corpse comfortably. Rather than being laid flat, the body appears to have been bundled in legs first, with the head propped up against a corner of the shaft, its mandible lolling vacantly.
An absence of iron nails and copper pins indicates that the deceased was dignified with neither coffin nor shroud. There was no evidence for clothing or grave goods either. The position of Richard’s arms does, though, suggest that one accessory accompanied him to the grave. In a Medieval burial, the body’s arms are normally arranged to run neatly parallel to the sides, but Richard’s reached untidily across his body, with his hands cupped over the pelvis. Crossed right over left at the wrists, his arms bear all the hallmarks of being bound when he was buried. If so, it seems that his corpse was committed to posterity as the captive Richard refused to be in life.
A life less ordinary
So what can the Grey Friars skeleton tell us about the man whose life ended so ignominiously? It is now well known that Richard III suffered from severe scoliosis – a sideways curvature of the spine. This condition would have significantly shortened his height while standing. Analysis of the skeleton suggests that Richard’s natural height was around 5’8”. This is above average for the period, but unsurprising given that his brother, Edward IV, was also unusually tall. Measuring 6’4”, Edward still holds the record as England’s tallest monarch. Although it is impossible to be certain how many inches the scoliosis cost Richard, the difference could well have been as much as a foot. His right shoulder would have been raised higher than his left.
Meticulous study by Piers Mitchell at Cambridge University and Bruno Morgan at Leicester has also established that the specific condition afflicting Richard was adolescent onset scoliosis. This means that contrary to the Tudor fantasy of a monstrous baby, Richard would have been a normal child. It was only sometime after the age of 10 that his spine began to curve and he was robbed of his natural height advantage. What triggered the scoliosis is uncertain, but it would have placed greater strain on his heart and lungs, and may have caused pain.
Another conspicuous feature of the skeleton is the gracile nature of its bones, indicating that Richard had a slender, feminine build. This matches historical accounts of the king, with the Silesian nobleman Nicolaus von Poppelau commenting that ‘he had delicate arms and legs, also a great heart’. While Richard’s skeleton shows no trace of a withered hand or the talon-like fingers clawing at each other in some portraits, his feminine frame and the severity of his spinal condition tally with Tudor accounts of his physique to a surprising degree. It seems that the more lurid allegations colouring the Tudor propaganda are exaggerations flowing from a wellspring of truth, rather than the entirely unfounded lies some suspected. Whether the same is true of his character is for historians, not archaeologists, to divine.
Proof of identity
So how can we be sure the remains are those of Richard? While a strong case for the skeleton being the king’s could be made on the strength of its location, its treatment, the curvature of its spine, and the clear signs of a battlefield death, further scientific tests were also carried out. Two samples of bone from the ribs were sent to radiocarbon-dating labs at the Universities of Oxford and Glasgow. As well as revealing that the individual enjoyed an unusually high-protein diet – including large quantities of seafood – for the period, as would befit a prince of the realm, the samples furnished dates that were in close agreement. Once calibrated, and taking into account the tendency for a high seafood diet to return an older radiocarbon date, they indicate a range of AD 1455-1540, entirely consistent with death in 1485.
The project also undertook high-profile DNA testing (see ‘DNA detective work’ at the end). Turi King, a University of Leicester geneticist, successfully secured a DNA sample from the skeleton’s tooth. This was compared to two direct descendents on the maternal side through Richard’s sister, Anne of York. One was Michael Ibsen, the other a distant cousin who wished to remain anonymous. Analysis of these three sets of mitochondrial DNA allowed Turi King to conclude that ‘there is a DNA match between the maternal DNA from the family of Richard III and the skeletal remains we found at the Grey Friars dig.’ Although, as Turi King points out, DNA evidence cannot prove that the skeleton is Richard III, taken alongside all the other evidence it provides a strong case for these being the remains of the Britain’s last Medieval king. Further work examining the DNA of the paternal line through John of Gaunt is currently under way.
Unusually, then, for an archaeological project, all the evidence points in the same direction: that the skeleton is indeed Richard III. While some reservations remain, particularly among the academic community, it is hard to fault Richard Buckley’s belief that the strength of the evidence would land you a conviction in any court in the land. It certainly seems sufficient to shift the burden of proof and oblige the doubters to establish that the remains are not Richard’s. In the meantime, Britain unexpectedly has a new monarch to bury. With Leicester cathedral the front-runner to take in the controversial king, it is certain that his second burial will be a more dignified affair than the first. Perhaps this time it will precipitate a rather more sober assessment of his character.
DNA detective work
Following questions about the validity of using a genetic sample from a modern-day relative of Richard III to help identify his remains, Dr Turi King of the University of Leicester (right) guides us through the process she used.
I’m afraid I must start with a quick DNA primer. I promise to keep it short. Our DNA can be divided into two different sorts: nuclear DNA (so-called because it is found in the nucleus of our cells) which is made up of 23 pairs of chromosomes, and mitochondrial DNA (which is found outside the nucleus of the cell).
The DNA being used in this analysis is primarily (more about this later!) mitochondrial DNA. Indeed, this is the DNA of choice for two reasons. The first reason is that after death the usual mechanisms that keep our DNA molecules long and healthy (and easy to analyse) no longer work. Our DNA begins to break down into tiny fragments, and it becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to retrieve any DNA to analyse. While there is only one copy of our nuclear DNA in each cell, there are many hundreds of copies of our mitochondrial DNA. If any DNA has survived in sufficient quantity to be analysed, it will be mtDNA. The other reason that mitochondrial DNA is so useful in this case is because it is passed down the female line: from mothers to their children – but only daughters pass it on. Richard III would have inherited his mitochondrial DNA from his mother (as would any of his siblings), and his sisters would have passed it on too, down through the generations to any of their female-line descendents.
We are fortunate to have a female-line relative of Richard III in the form of Michael Ibsen. The family trees of Richard III’s relative were published over a century ago, and historian John Ashdown-Hill used these to trace an unbroken female line from Anne of York to Joy Ibsen – Michael’s mother. Within weeks of the remains being found, Professor Kevin Schürer, Pro Vice Chancellor for Research at the University and also an expert on surnames and genealogy, managed to find another female-line relative of Richard III, who wishes to remain anonymous. Anne of York and Richard will both have inherited their mtDNA from their mum Anne, who passed her mtDNA type down through the maternal line to Michael and this second lineage. So essentially I was able to compare the mitochondrial DNA from the skeletal remains with that of his two female-line relatives and see if there was a match consistent with them being related – which there was.
Now, I said earlier that primarily mitochondrial DNA was being used, as there is one of our chromosomes (found in the nucleus) which could be used to help identify the remains as well. Our 23rd pair of chromosomes is our sex chromosome pair. Women have two copies of the X chromosome (XX) and men have an X chromosome but also a Y chromosome (XY). As the Y chromosome has on it the gene for maleness, it can only be passed down the male line. As part of this project, genealogical evidence has been used to identify putative modern-day male-line-only relatives, a number of whom have been kind enough to take part in our study. Should it be possible to retrieve Y chromosome DNA from the skeletal remains, this will be analysed and compared with the modern relatives to see if there is a match down the male line as well.
ALL IMAGES: courtesy of the University of Leicester, unless otherwise stated.