Richard III: lost and found

On Monday, February 4, 2013, a team of archaeologists and scientists announced the bones found last September under a Leicester parking lot were those of Richard III.

Richard, Duke of Gloucester, ruled England from 1482 to 1485, having deposed his 12 year-old nephew, Edward V, whose guardian he was. He was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field at the age of 32 by Henry,  Duke of Richmond, who succeeded Richard as Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch.

The story was that Richard’s naked body flung over a horse was hurriedly taken to the Greyfriars Monastery for an ignominious burial, but the monastery had long since ceased to exist and the Richard’s last resting place was lost to memory. Members of the Richard III society researched the location of the monastery and came up with its location in the council car park in Leicester. Excavation revealed two bodies, one in a cramped grave showed signs of severe scoliosis and a fatal wound at the base of the skull. Richard III was known to have suffered a spinal deformity, which caused him to be hunch-backed and so, excitement grew.

Carbon dating of 2 ribs indicated that the bones were roughly 500 years old and further examination that they were of a man in his late 20s or early 30’s. Richard died at 32. A tooth was extracted for DNA testing and proved to have a rare mitochondrial DNA sequence, found in a very small percentage of people. Painstakingly, the chromosome sequence was restructured and eventually tested against 2 of Richard’s relatives, one of them a Canadian 17th-great nephew.  The results identified the bones as being Richard’s.

More of the story emerged as the week went on, somewhat to the discredit of Henry or possibly of his ill-controlled soldiers. A halberd, a long pike-like weapon with a spear-like point and an axe below it, had sliced through the base of his skull. (source National Post, Thu. Feb 7, 2013) There was a dent in his skull, probably resulting from a fall while wearing his helmet. A smaller cut at the base of his skull, also a fatal blow, was caused by a sword. There was a knife cut on his lower jaw, possibly caused when his helmet was lost. (He had, famously, already lost his horse: “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse”.) A small hole in the top of his head was probably caused by an arrow. There was a knife wound on his cheekbone. A cut mark on a rib may have been caused by a knife post mortem. He seems to have been stabbed in the right buttock, an insult injury after his armour was removed.  His hands were crossed suggesting that they had been tied. The feet bones were missing possibly because a 19th century outhouse had been built close to the grave and almost destroyed it. There was no evidence of a shroud or other covering.

The article in the National Post cited above speculates that the spinal deformity may have originated at puberty. My Encyclopedia of World History (Ed. Wm. Langer) describes Richard as able, a good soldier and skilled at winning public support. Evidently, he was also good at losing it if the pile-on at his death is any evidence.

There are 2 views of Richard. Shakespeare gives us one, painting him as an assassin and manipulator who killed Edward and his younger brother in the Tower of London. Had them killed, that is as well as his own brother Clarence who stood between him and the throne. A more positive view is presented by Josephine Tey in The Daughter of Time. I will consider these 2 views in an upcoming post.

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