AFTER more than 500 years, archaeologists have solved the mystery of what happened to the body of one of the most reviled kings in English history.
Forensic experts have revealed a skeleton dug up from a car park in Leicester are the remains of Richard III, the 15th-century monarch made infamous by William Shakespeare. He had suffered at least two fatal head wounds and his body had been brutally hacked at after death.
Richard is recorded as having ordered the murder of his two young nephews, the “Princes in the Tower”, and Shakespeare portrayed him as a weak hunchback.
The Leicester University research team who examined the skeleton found evidence of curvature of the spine and a slender, almost feminine frame.
After extensive tests, dig project leader Richard Buckley said: “It is the academic conclusion that, beyond reasonable doubt, the individual exhumed at Grey Friars in September 2011 is King Richard III – the last Plantagenet king of England.”
Philippa Langley, a Scottish screenwriter and member of the Richard III Society, who helped launch the search for the king, said she could scarcely believe her quest had paid off.
The former sponsorship manager at The Scotsman said: “Everyone thought that I was mad. It’s not the easiest pitch in the world, to look for a king under a council car park.”
She added: “A wind of change is blowing, one that will seek out the truth about the real Richard.”
He had one of the shortest reigns in British history, of just 26 months, during the War of the Roses. He was the last English king to die in battle, killed by the troops of the future Henry VII in 1485, in what was seen as one of the last acts of the medieval era.
For centuries, the location of Richard’s body was unknown. Records said he was buried by the Franciscan monks of Grey Friars at their church in Leicester. The church was closed and dismantled after Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1538, and its location was then largely forgotten.
His final resting place would have remained unknown were it not for the tenacity of Ms Langley, who visited Leicester in August 2009 while researching a screenplay.
Walking across the car park used by Leicester social services, which was believed by historians to be the site of the abbey, she felt a shiver and became convinced she was walking over his grave. She returned to Edinburgh and, with the assistance of the Richard III Society, set about raising the £30,000 needed for an archeological dig.
Last summer, archaeologists from Leicester University discovered the skeleton, which was not believed to have been buried in either a shroud or a coffin, as would have been the custom. That tallied with historical accounts stating he was “irreverently buried” by Henry’s forces.
In September, the university confirmed there was “strong evidence” it was the lost king. The remains have since been subjected to a range of tests, including DNA, carbon-dating and environmental analysis in an effort to confirm the identification.
Bone specialist Jo Appleby said study of the remains provided “a highly convincing case for identification of Richard III”.
She said ten injuries to the body had been inflicted by weapons such as swords, daggers and halberds and were consistent with accounts of the king being struck down in battle, his helmet knocked from his head, before his body was stripped naked and flung over the back of a horse.
Some scars, including a knife wound to the buttock, bore the hallmarks of “humiliation injuries” inflicted after death.
DNA from the skeleton matched a sample taken from a distant living relative of Richard’s sister. Geneticist Turi King said Michael Ibsen, a Canadian carpenter living in London, shared with the skeleton a rare strain of mitochondrial DNA. She said that, combined with the archaeological evidence, it left little doubt the remains belonged to Richard.
Mr Ibsen said he was “stunned” to discover he was related to the king – he is a 17th great-grand-nephew of Richard’s older sister – and added: “It’s difficult to digest.”
The skull was passed on to experts in facial reconstruction at Dundee University and the image of the king was revealed in a Channel 4 documentary last night.
Shakespeare helped to make Richard notorious as one of the English language’s most memorable villains. While he remains for many historians the prime suspect in the deaths of his nephews, the skeleton’s discovery has provided a golden opportunity for those seeking to restore his reputation.
Ms Langley said: “The men who knew him said he was ‘the most famous prince of best memory’. When he fell, he was stripped naked and his scoliosis [curved spine] became known and was used to denigrate him. We now know he didn’t have a hunchback or a withered arm and he probably didn’t walk with a limp. This was all propaganda and there is strong evidence that he didn’t kill his nephews. I think it’s time to reassess Richard III.”
Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology magazine, who was not affiliated with the research team, said he found the evidence persuasive. “I don’t think there is any question – it is Richard III,” he said.
The skeleton of Richard III will be re-interred early next year in Leicester Cathedral, which is opening a visitor centre that will tell the king’s story.
The Plantagenets were a royal dynasty whose strong-tempered rulers conquered Wales, battled France and helped transform England into a thriving medieval kingdom.
Although Shakespeare cast him as a great villain, prior to his claiming of the throne, Richard, then Duke of Gloucester, had a reputation in the north as a just ruler who suppressed illegal fish traps, cancelled taxes during times of need and, according to chronicles from the time, “dispensed good and indifferent (ie, impartial) justice to all who sought it, were they rich or poor, gentle or simple”.
OTHER RULERS WHOSE BODIES HAD LESS THAN PEACEFUL RESTING PLACES
ALFRED THE GREAT (849-899) Buried in the Old Minster in Winchester, Hampshire, and later moved to Hyde Abbey. When Henry VIII disbanded the monasteries in 1538, Hyde was dismantled. Alfred’s grave was left but was ransacked in 1788.
HAROLD II (1022-1066) William the Conqueror ordered him to be buried in secret to prevent his resting place becoming a shrine.
HENRY I (1068-1135) After he died in Normandy, his body was taken to Reading and buried in the abbey he founded. His tomb did not survive Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.
STEPHEN (1096-1154) Buried in Faversham Abbey in Kent, but it was demolished on the orders of Henry VIII.
OLIVER CROMWELL (1599-1658) When Charles II came to the throne in 1660, his supporters exhumed Cromwell’s body from Westminster Abbey and hung it on the scaffold at Tyburn, near modern-day Marble Arch. It was cut down, beheaded and probably dumped in a nearby pit.
JAMES VII/II (1633-1701) Forced to abandon the throne in 1688, he lived in exile in Paris until his death. As he refused burial in France, he was dissected and parts of him passed to different churches that were raided during the French Revolution.