Reconstructing Richard III: the man behind the myth

5 mins read

Credit - University of LeicesterOn Monday 4th February the results of tests on a skeleton found beneath a Leicester carpark were announced to a global media audience. Lead archaeologist Richard Buckley stated ‘our academic conclusion, beyond reasonable doubt, is that the individual exhumed at Greyfriars in September 2012 is indeed Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England.’ Matthew Symonds and Carly Hilts look at what this momentous announcement tells us about Richard, and why the Leicester team are so confident they have got their man.

We now know that it was for want of a helmet, not a horse, that Richard III’s kingdom was lost. Tradition has it that as battle raged across fields near Bosworth on the 22nd August 1485, Richard saw Henry Tudor and his escort detach themselves from the rest of their army. Sensing an opportunity to decide the battle — and secure his throne — Richard charged. Whether it was overconfidence from an impetuous warrior king or a last roll of the dice from a man with nothing left to lose is impossible to say. But whatever provoked this final act of Plantagenet generalship, it proved a gamble too far. Outnumbered and then cut off, England’s last Medieval king went down fighting.

The king is dead
Two wounds to the back of Richard's head, cleaving away large chunks of skull, would have killed the king almost instantly. Credit - University of LeicesterCareful study of Richard’s skeleton by Jo Appleby, an osteologist at the University of Leicester, revealed 10 perimortem wounds — that is, injuries occurring at or around the time of death. Eight were to his head, of which only two had been found when CA last reported on Richard (CA 272). As none of these wounds intersect it is impossible to be certain about the order in which they were sustained. It is unlikely, though, that any occurred while Richard was either wearing his helmet or riding a horse.

There is a strong chance, then, that these injuries provide a window into Richard’s last stand: cut off from his army, fighting on foot, his helmet lost, and his comrades falling around him. Three sword or halberd thrusts found Richard’s unprotected scalp, slicing through the skin to shave slivers of bone off the vault of his skull. A fourth blade successfully punctured the top of his skull. Painful but not fatal, the king appears to have fought on, bleeding profusely.

Taken at face value, Richard’s wounds seem to suggest a horrifying end: surrounded by foes while hacking and stabbing blows from swords and halberds rained down on all sides. Deliverance, when it came, took the form of two blows to the back of Richard’s head. One tore through to the inner surface of his skull a full 10.5cm from its entry point. The other was administered with such force that it cleaved away a chunk of skull and exposed the brain. A portion of the severed bone was left dangling on a flap of skin, carrying it to the Greyfriars grave. Consistent with injuries caused by a powerful halberd strike, if the blade had penetrated 7cm into Richard’s brain death would have been instant. Even if it did not, rapid loss of consciousness would have spared him any more. And there was more to come.

Blades that scored a rib and sliced Richard’s right pelvis should have been turned by his armour during combat. Historical sources, however, indicate the perfect opportunity for such injuries to occur. After death Richard’s corpse was stripped naked and slung over a horse like a saddlebag for its inglorious ride back to Leicester. It suggests that one onlooker took this opportunity to affirm their allegiance to the new royal line in a manner that was as crude as it was unambiguous. Drawing a dagger, they thrust its blade upward into Richard’s right buttock with enough force to penetrate the underlying bone.

Lying in a state
A reconstruction of Grey Friars church, where Richard III was buried. Credit - Jill Atherton/University of LeicesterThanks to the University of Leicester Archaeological Services excavations we now know that following this public spectacle Richard’s remains were delivered to Leicester Greyfriars for burial. Despite occupying a prestigious location in the order’s church choir – as befitted a crowned Christian monarch — Richard’s interment was a far cry from the pomp of a state funeral.

In contrast to the neat grave shafts encountered elsewhere at Greyfriars and in Medieval Leicester, Richard’s was shallow — lying just 0.68m below modern ground level — and roughly cut with sloping sides, a concave base and an irregular shape. Rather than being laid flat, the body appears to have been bundled into the too-short cut legs first, with the head propped up against a corner of the shaft, its mandible lolling vacantly.

An absence of iron nails and copper pins indicates that the deceased was dignified with neither a coffin nor shroud. The position of Richard’s arms does, though, suggest that one accessory accompanied him to the grave. In a Medieval burial the body’s arms normally run neatly parallel to the side, but Richard’s reached untidily across his body, with his hands cupped over the pelvis. Crossed right over left at the wrists, his arms bear all the hallmarks of being bound when he was buried. If so, it seems that his corpse was committed to posterity as the captive Richard refused to be in life.

 A life less ordinary
Richard's remains. The sideways curve of his spine - evidence of severe scoliosis - can be claerly seen. Credit - University of LeicesterSo what can the Greyfriars skeleton tell us about the man whose life ended so ignominiously? It is now well known that Richard III suffered from severe scoliosis — a sideways curvature of the spine. This condition would have significantly shortened his height while standing. Analysis of the skeleton suggests that Richard’s natural height was around 5’8”. This is above average for the period, but unsurprising given that his brother, Edward IV, was also unusually tall. Measuring 6’4”, Edward still holds the record as England’s tallest monarch. Although it is impossible to be certain how many inches the scoliosis cost Richard, the difference could well have been as much as a foot. His right shoulder would have been raised higher than his left.

Another conspicuous feature of the skeleton is the gracile nature of its bones, indicating that Richard had a slender, feminine build. This matches historical accounts of the king, suggesting that the more lurid allegations colouring the Tudor propaganda are exaggerations flowing from a wellspring of truth, rather than the entirely unfounded lies some suspected. Whether the same is true of his character is for historians, not archaeologists, to divine.

Proof of identity
So how can we be sure the remains are those of Richard? While a strong case for the skeleton being the king’s could be made on the strength of its location, its treatment, the curvature of its spine and the clear signs of a battlefield death, further scientific tests were also carried out. Two samples of bone from the ribs were sent to radiocarbon dating labs at the Universities of Oxford and Glasgow. As well as revealing that the individual enjoyed an unusually high protein diet — including large quantities of seafood — for the period, as would befit a prince of the realm, the samples furnished dates that were in close agreement. Once calibrated, and taking into account the tendency for a high seafood diet to return an older radiocarbon date, they indicate a range of AD 1455-1540, entirely consistent with death in 1485.

The project also undertook high profile DNA testing. Turi King, a University of Leicester geneticist, successfully secured a DNA sample from the skeleton’s tooth. This was compared to two direct descendents on the maternal side through Richard’s sister, Anne of York. One was Michel Ibsen, the other was a distant cousin who wished to remain anonymous. Analysis of these three sets of mitochondrial DNA allowed Turi King to conclude that ‘there is a DNA match between the maternal DNA from the family of Richard III and the skeletal remains we found at the Grey Friars dig.’

This is an extract, but the full feature can be seen in CA 277

For more information about the search for Richard III, see our coverage here.


  1. Excellent and very detailed article. The wounds to Richard’s skull are consistent with the reports that he had indeed lost his helmet which was later found discarded on the battlefield, away from his body. The number of blows to the skull and jaw suggest that he had lost it for some moments before he was finally forced to desperately fight bravely for his life. The team at Leicester have done remarkable work on the bones and with the DNA to identify Richard beyond all doubt. Again, a great article and fantastic achievement. Congratualtions!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.