A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!
Such were Richard the III’s last words according to Shakespeare – recorded in Act V scene iv of The Life and Death of Richard the Third, a play that largely contributed to the infamous image of the monarch after his death.
Now the recent discovery by Leicester University of archaeologists of what could be Richard III’s mortal remains could add a more human dimension to this story.
The skeleton of an adult male with a deformed spine has been found beneath the choir of Greyfriars church, a Franciscan friary demolished in the 16th century and, according to historical documents, the place where Richard III was buried.
Tentatively identified as ‘a prime candidate’ for the last Plantagenet king ahead of DNA testing, the bones hold clues as to how the man may have died.
Richard was famously killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, after being unhorsed and outnumbered while vying with Henry Tudor for the crown of England – an event recorded in the final scenes of Shakespeare’s play. As well as being considered the last monarch of the Medieval period, Richard III was also the last king of England to die in battle.
While initial conservation had revealed two wounds to the king’s remains, today the team announced that they had identified ten — 8 inflicted on his skull, and two more to his rib and pelvis. The corroded iron object initially interpreted as an arrowhead has now been discounted as a Roman nail that had intruded into the grave.
Team osteologist Jo Appleby described the injuries.
‘They are all characteristic of perimortem wounds, meaning that they were caused at or just after the time of death,’ she said. ‘They are consistent with battle injuries, and some would have been fatal.’
A small penetrating wound to the top of the skull is thought to have been caused by a direct blow from a weapon rather than a projectile, and would not have been fatal. There was a more severe wound to the back of the head, however, where a sword or halberd had sliced away a large piece of bone. Another nearby blow had cut 10cm into the skull.
‘Both of these would have caused immediate unconsciousness with death following shortly,’ said Jo Appleby. ‘Three more shallow wounds to the surface of the skull had shaved off small areas of bone, but these are not likely to have been fatal, unless blood loss was left untreated.’
This concentration of injuries to the head suggests that Richard had lost his helmet at some point during the battle, Jo added. The other wounds, however, could be interpreted as evidence that the body had been mistreated after death.
A small cut to the cheekbone, consistent with a dagger, and a cut to the lower jaw, were very shallow to have been battle injuries, Jo suggested.
‘While we cannot say this definitely, they are much less severe than injuries you tend to see on victims of Medieval warfare, and I wonder if they were inflicted on the King’s remains after his death as a final humiliation,’ she said.
The other two wounds seem to support this theory — a cut to his rib, inflicted from the back, and another to his pelvis, from a blow thrust through the right buttock, should not have been able to penetrate his armour, the team say. Historical sources describe how the king’s body was stripped naked and thrown over a horse to take back to Leicester. It is possible that the wounds were inflicted to his vulnerable remains at this time. Analysis of the king’s grave also points to an unceremonious end.
DNA analysis will be carried out to shed further light on the man’s identity. Click here to read more about how this will work.
How was the burial discovered?
How did archaeologists identify Greyfriar’s church?
Read more about the skeleton’s possible battle wounds.
You can read the full story in CA 272