King Richard III: The Uncomfortable Truth

Here I am during this morning’s press conference

Today the University of Leicester announced to the world that beyond all reasonable doubt, the remains of King Richard III have been excavated in Leicester. 

I blogged about the discovery in September 2012, when the skeleton had just been discovered and analysis was just beginning. Now the most up to date knowledge has been released to the public and the identity of the remains has been confirmed. I feel like I could write a whole dissertation about this discovery, but I’ll try to keep it relatively concise!!

How did we know Richard III was buried in Leicester?

After his death at the Battle of Bosworth, 22nd August 1485, Richard’s body was slung over a horse and returned to Leicester. At Henry VII’s insistence, it was displayed for three days in the Newarke. After this, the body was given a sombre burial without pomp by the Grey Friars. The Chronicler, John Rous is one of the sources for this, saying the body ‘at last was buried in the choir of the Friars Minor at Leicester’.

Trench 1 is cut. This is exactly where the skeleton was discovered.

So the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) knew roughly what they needed to find in order to find King Richard’s remains. Using old maps of Leicester, including Speed’s map of 1612 they were able to pinpoint the likely position of the Friary and they used a system of three long trenches to identify the buildings and plot its plan. It was only after some fortnight’s digging that they realised that the skeleton, uncovered within mere hours of the excavation beginning, was actually in the choir of the church – exactly where they wanted to look.

How do we know this is the skeleton of King Richard III?

There are many reasons that we can state, beyond all reasonable doubt, that the skeleton found under the Greyfriars car park in Leicester is that of Richard III. Basically, all of the evidence on the skeleton matches up with the contemporary historical sources. This is then backed up by the skeleton’s DNA being matched with living relatives of Richard III through the matrilineal line of Anne of York, Richard’s sister. Here are some of the reasons:


The skeleton has a severe S shaped curved in the spine, caused by a condition called scoliosis. This is idiopathic adolescent onset scoliosis, meaning that the condition came on after the age of 10, he was not born with it, and we do not know what caused the condition. 

The clear S shaped curve in the spine

The idea of Richard III as having some kind of spinal deformity is of course enshrined in his portrayal as the murderous hunchback by Shakespeare, over a century after the monarch’s death, but we find that the contemporary sources provide a much more sympathetic and accurate representation of the King’s condition. John Rous, who was a Chantry Priest in Warwick and may well have seen Richard during visits to Warwick described him as ‘small of stature, with a short face and unequal shoulders, the right higher and the left lower.’ This is exactly what Osteologists interpret the condition would do to the shoulders and, interestingly, the overall skeleton is very slight and gracile – almost feminine in its proportions, which would be consistent with Richard appeared ‘small of stature’.

Weapons Trauma

For me, the most interesting evidence is the battle trauma endured by the skeleton. I personally find this to be the most compelling evidence that this skeleton belongs to Richard III. There have been 10 wounds in total identified on the skeleton, 8 on the skull and 2 elsewhere on the body. They are consistent with the individual having died in battle and also suffering the indignity of post-mortem mutiltation – a way of insulting the deposed monarch?

The wound is the large hole, on the right

Frenchman Jean Molinet wrote that ‘One of the Welshmen then came after him, and struck him dead with a halberd’. Dating to around 1490, this is one of the few near contemporary accounts that mentions the weapon used to kill Richard. The Ballad of Lady Bessy, also a near contemporary source, also clearly states that Richard suffered head injuries during the battle; ‘they struck his bascinet to his head until his brains came out with blood.’

The most serious trauma suffered by the skeleton clearly bears out these contemporary sources. This is where a large bladed weapon, like a halberd has cleaved off a section of the skull. Sickeningly, a small piece of skull was found associated with this injury, presumably where the blade has not totally removed the soft tissue and this was left attached, during the return of Richard’s corpse to Leicester and all three days exposure on the Newarke. Eep.

There are other wounds to the skull, including a ‘shaving’ wound where a very sharp weapon has shaved off a small slice of bone, which would have caused a great loss of blood if he was still alive at the time. The wound on the maxilla (a puncture wound to the cheek) and the mandible (a cut mark) are possibly ‘insult-injuries’ inflicted as deliberate mutilation after death, just like the cut mark on the right rib is thought to represent. Interestingly, all of the injuries to the skull are unlikely to have been inflicted in the same way if Richard was wearing a helmet. This means that his helmet was lost or destroyed at some point during the battle.

The two non-skull injuries are also likely to be deliberate acts of despoilment of the body. There is a cut mark on the right rib, where a bladed weapon has been used against the back of the King, perhaps consistent with what we know of the body being laid naked over a horse when being brought back into Leicester. Similarly is the cut mark on the right pelvis. This mark runs internally from back to front, meaning that the bladed weapon was thrust into the right buttock, presumably aiming for the anus. There was some force behind the blow as it left its mark on the skeleton, terminating in a slight penetration. 

Clear cut mark on the pelvis

Again, you can imagine that this was an insult to the dead body of the deposed king, naked and defenceless when slung over that horse. A sword up the arse suggests that Richard III was not popular with the forces of the newly crowned Henry VII. And this is why I call the blog post the  Uncomfortable Truth.

Scientific Analysis

The last results to come in were the DNA. Mitochondrial DNA from two lines of female relatives of Richard III’s family were tested against the skeleton and both came back with a positive match.There are also four living relatives through the male line that have been identified, although it is still early days with this analysis so no conclusions have been drawn yet. All of this analysis is incredibly new and will be checked and peer-reviewed over the coming months.

Excavating under controlled conditions to avoid contamination

Other scientific analysis has helped to confirm the identity of the remains. The Carbon 14 analysis came back with a plausible date of between 1450 and 1538 (the cut off date being the Dissolution, after which time the body could not possibly have been buried under the floor of Greyfriars, because Greyfriars didn’t exist anymore!). This meant that the remains dated to the correct period. This analysis also flagged up that Richard’s diet was rich in marine protein – he ate a lot of seafish and oysters. This is the sort of detail about Richard’s life that will be revealed in the future through further analysis. For example, the calculus deposits on his teeth are being analysed under the microscope as calculus can trap fragments of food, or anything in the environment. This can tell us more about diet and lifestyle. Once 11th century Leicester lady who has been analysed, for example, had tiny fibres in her calculus suggested she spun thread or weaved as a profession.

There is more to say and we will learn more as future analysis takes place – happily this is a story that is only just beginning!

Will Richard get a state funeral?

No. In keeping with good practice in the treatment of human remains, Richard will be reburied in Leicester Cathedral – the nearest consecrated ground to where he was originally buried. He would have received the appropriate rites when he was buried by the Grey Friars, so he has already had a funeral. Instead, he will receive a respectful re-interrment, with all the due solemnity and honour to his memory. Personally, I think this is entirely appropriate.

Is this rewriting history?

Not really! I think what is so great about this excavation is that it confirms what we suspected and backs up what the primary evidence told us. The sources said that Richard III was buried in the choir of the church of the Grey Friars, and hey presto, that’s where his remains were uncovered.  We hear from someone likely to actually have seen the king that his right shoulder was higher than his left and the skeleton’s scoliosis is likely to have had just this effect. The weapons trauma is consistent with the accounts we have, and so on.

I think this is a great discovery, because the physical remains are giving us that extra bit of detail that is missing from the written accounts. We hear that Richard’s body was badly treated and despoiled, but now we have the interpretation of the insult injuries that give us vivid detail as to exactly what those injuries were. This is being compared with the battle wounds and mutilation found on the burials from the Battle of Towton to learn even more.

This excavation gives us a new set of data against which to compare the historical sources. It helps us to corroborate their evidence, to test the reliability of historic authors whose bias we may not always fully understand. I think it’s incredibly exciting and I must admit that I was deeply saddened to see my former lecturer, Mary Beard’s slightly derisive tweets about the lack of historical value in this discovery today. Surely she, above anyone, understands the research potential that the remains unlock and can forgive the University of Leicester for capitilising on the absolutely stirling work that their multi disciplinary team has undertaken? Ah well, I will continue to fan worship her from afar, she’s done too much awesome work on the Classical world. Maybe this is too medieval for her tastes…. For the purposes of Dicky Three, I will put all my Newnham love (my former college) on to the wonderful Dr Jo Appleby, Bioarchaeologist extraordinaire who was at Newnham during my first year and we will leave lovely Beard out of it.

And on that note, I would also like to state my opinion that I think the University have handled this incredibly well. They have not sold out, far from it. They have solely funded the post-excavation work which has not been cheap. In the main, the expertise for the analysis of the skeleton has come from their own academics. Of course they wanted their logo shouted out in the background of today’s press conference. Richard Buckley is one of ULAS’s co-directors and he chose where to put the trenches, essentially finding Richard III straight off the bat. They are the University that discovered DNA fingerprinting, allowing the remains to be compared to the DNA of living relatives, over 500 years later. For these reasons and more they deserve to be celebrated and it ought to be recognised that they have spent significantly more than they have so far gained. I hope they get a tonne of successful grant applications off the back of this.

Very sneaky peek at the Guildhall exhibition

Oh and of course now you’ve seen and heard all this, you’ll want to visit a free exhibition that explains all the results, shows you finds from the Grey Friars site and gives you all the inside info on medieval Leicester. It just so happens that such an exhibition will be opening at Leicester Guildhall on 8th February 2013. But as that exhibition’s curator, I think it will be up to other bloggers to review it. Any Leicester bloggers want to do me a guest post?


Bestselling author and freelance drinks writer. Champion of pubs and breweries. Occasional printmaker.

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