A king’s final hours, told by his mortal remains

History and literature have painted England’s King Richard III as a scoundrel who met a violent death in battle and was unceremoniously buried. Now that researchers have revealed some conclusions from a fast-paced scientific investigation of a skeleton found last year under a parking lot in Leicester, England, that end seems all the more gruesome. The results announced February 4 by a team from the University of Leicester paint a picture that is remarkably consistent with both historical and fictional accounts.

The search for the king’s body began in August 2012, in the parking lot of a Leicester city council building. An excavation there uncovered walls and other structures of Grey Friars church, where Richard III was buried on August 22, 1485, the day of his ignominious death at the Battle of Bosworth. Beneath the spot where the church stood, the researchers found a skeleton stuffed into what appears to have been a hastily dug grave, too small for the body it contained.

History says Richard III’s final moments were brutal; Shakespeare portrays the king frantically calling for a horse to carry him back into battle after being knocked off his horse, only to be killed by a deserter from his ranks. Though the bones can’t tell us about his final words, 10 wounds confirm a violent and chaotic end. A gaping wound in the back of his head suggests the death blow was delivered by halberd, a bladed pole weapon favored in the 15th century. A second wound that also would have been fatal on its own penetrated the skull at the base. Carefully examining the skull’s interior revealed a mark opposite to this entry point, suggesting a blade penetrated 10.5 centimeters.

Then there are the humiliation wounds. In battles throughout history, combatants have rushed to plunge their weapons into the dead or mortally wounded bodies of enemy leaders. Cuts deep enough to penetrate bone litter the skull, marring its jaw and cheeks. Richard’s ribs bear signs of further attacks, osteoarchaeologist Jo Appleby reported. His pelvis was nicked, indicating that a knife or dagger was plunged into his right buttock. Many of these wounds would have been prevented if Richard III had been wearing protective helmet and armor, leading the team to speculate that these injuries were inflicted immediately after death.

Historical accounts report that after his death in the final major battle in the War of the Roses, Richard III’s body was tied up, thrown naked over the back of a horse and brought to Leicester for public viewing. Richard’s body was then buried unceremoniously in Grey Friars church in Leicester. The arrangement of the skeleton’s hands suggests they were still tied at burial.

“The last thing the victors wanted was to give him a nice tomb in Westminster Abbey and have people put pretty flowers on it,” says Cornell’s Paul Hyams, a specialist in conflicts and disputes of the Middle Ages.

The church was demolished sometime after 1538. In the early 17th century, a mayor of Leicester built a mansion on the site. In the 19th century, excavations for a brick outhouse appear to have severed the feet from the rest of skeleton and come close to destroying the whole grave.

While there’s minor damage from being buried for 500 years, the skeleton is well preserved, Appleby said. It shows he was a slight man whose spine curved like a question mark — characteristics consistent with historical accounts. While not “the foul bunch-backed toad” that Shakespeare made him out to be, Richard III’s skeleton indicates he had scoliosis that developed sometime after about age 10. The condition would have reduced his height, caused one shoulder to stand higher than the other and probably caused him pain. Contrary to another Shakespearean description, neither of Richard’s arms was withered.

Existing portraits Richard III depict him with a prominent chin and nose. Those same features emerged when facial reconstruction experts added layers of muscle and skin to a digital scan of the skull, says Caroline Wilkinson of the University of Dundee in Scotland, who led the reconstruction team.

Biochemical analyses suggest that he ate a lot of meat and seafood, the kind of diet few people could afford.

While the bones tell much of the story, genetic data cement the case that the skeleton is King Richard’s. The researchers examined DNA from mitochondria, cellular factories that contain genetic material, which they extracted from the skeleton’s teeth and right femur. Unlike nuclear DNA, half of which comes from each parent, mitochondrial DNA passes down only from mother to child. Previous research by historian John Ashdown-Hill had traced an all-female line through 17 generations from Anne of York, Richard’s sister, to Michael Ibsen, a cabinetmaker in Canada. He agreed to have his DNA tested. The genetic work also led to another individual in the maternal line who wanted to remain anonymous.

Ibsen’s mitochondrial DNA and that of the anonymous donor matched the DNA extracted from the skeleton, says Turi King, who led the genetic work. Unlike nuclear DNA, mitochondrial DNA is not usually unique to individuals, but it is far more prevalent in the body and more likely to be found when remains are very old, or not much is left, hence its frequent use in forensic investigations. The DNA signature shared by the skeleton, Ibsen and the third individual, called haplotype J1c2c,  is quite rare, says King, making the match a strong argument for relatedness. Only a few percent of Europeans carry it.


One thought on “A king’s final hours, told by his mortal remains

  1. More definitive will be genetic data from the Y chromosome, which passes from father to son. The researchers are analyzing it now, says King. Several male-line relatives that trace their lineage to Edward III, Richard III’s great-great-grandfather, have agreed to share their genetic data. (Richard III himself had only one legitimate son, who died as a child in 1484 without any descendants). The team will compare the skeleton’s DNA with those descendants’.

    “I’m dying to get on with it,” says King.

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