Richard III’s scarred skeleton becomes a battlefield for academics
As in 1485, once the death of the king was confirmed, the arguments started. Was the search for the man in the car park a stunt and a media circus, or a classic piece of research archaeology based on sound science, which opens a window on a period of history fogged by Tudor propaganda?
The debate will certainly last longer than Richard’s two-year reign. Before the identification had even been formally confirmed, the redoubtable historian Mary Beard had waded in on Twitter: “Gt fun & a mystery solved that we’ve found Richard 3. But does it have any HISTORICAL significance? (Uni of Leics overpromoting itself?))”
Meanwhile, the bones that have just been confirmed as those of Richard III – the last Plantagenet king, the last monarch to die on a battlefield, whose death ushered in the upstart Tudors – lay quietly in a calm room on the second floor of the Leicester University library, unknown to many of the students bustling in and out of the building.
Inevitably, the press conference in another building – with 140 registered journalists and camera crews from seven countries – was controlled mayhem, but the university had gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the actual remains were treated with respect.
The press conference had revealed the appalling nature of the injuries inflicted in the last moments of Richard’s life and, perhaps even more gruesomely, in the hours afterwards.
But in the quiet room with the blinds drawn there were no banners, no university logos – still less those of the Channel 4 camera crew, which has been following the hunt from the start – just the bones, stained a reddish brown by their centuries in the clay, laid out on a black velvet cloth on four library tables pushed together, protected by a glass case. Journalists were invited to “bear witness”. All visitors, including university staff, had to sign a declaration that they would make no attempt to photograph or record anything, and that they would remain silent in the room where he lay, watched over by a security guard and two university chaplains.
The feet were missing, probably chopped off when a Victorian outhouse was built on the site of the long-lost Greyfriars church, missing the main skeleton by inches. The hands lay by his side, but as found suggested that he was buried with arms still bound, just as he was lugged from the battlefield. The skull lay with the largely undamaged face up – itself a significant and sinister point, according to the experts, hiding the savage blow to the base from a halberd, a fearsome medieval pike-like weapon, which sliced through bone and into the brain and would have killed him in seconds.
The shock was the spine, bent like an aerial view of the river Thames – it was not, after all, simply Tudor propaganda, which had portrayed the king as a twisted psychopath.
Jo Appleby, the bones expert who excavated the skeleton and has worked on it for months, said it was contorted by scoliosis, which set in some time after he was 10, from an unknown cause. She said it would have made Richard’s breathing increasingly more difficult, and taken inches off what would have been his full height of 5′ 8″ (172cm), a reasonably tall man for medieval times.
There was another sword slash to the skull, which would also have penetrated to the brain and proved fatal in moments, but the others came after death, and were described – in an image still resonant from many battlegrounds today – as “humiliation injuries”. They could not have happened to a man protected by armour, and are consistent with the accounts of his body being stripped on the battlefield, and brought back to Leicester naked, slung over the pommel of a horse. That, almost certainly, was when the thrusting injury through the right buttock and into the pelvis happened.
Professor Lin Foxhall, head of the university’s archaeology department, and Bob Savage, an expert on medieval weapons from the Royal Armouries, pointed out that Richard’s face was relatively undamaged.
“They’d killed the king and they needed to keep him recognisable,” Savage said. “To me, the injuries are fully consistent with the accounts of his dying in a melee, and [being] unhorsed – I believe he was dead within minutes of coming off his horse. But they took care not to bash the face about too much.”
“It’s the Gaddafi effect,” Foxhall said. “We saw just this in the horrible mobile-phone footage of Gaddafi being found, and you can hear the voices shouting ‘not the face, don’t touch the face’. It’s one of those dreadful lessons from history which we never learn.”
The grumbles that this was all show business, not history, went on throughout the day. Neville Morley, professor of ancient history at the University of Bristol, muttered on his Bristol Classics blog: “Whoop-de-doo … Why is it that a skeleton is interesting only if it’s that of a famous person?”
On her History Matters blog, Catherine Fletcher, lecturer in public history at Sheffield University, wrote: “Imagine that the Leicester archaeologists had uncovered not a royal grave, but a grave of some peasant farmers, results from which completely changed the picture of what we know about human nutrition in the 15th century. Not so glamorous, but just as important in understanding the past – perhaps more so. They wouldn’t have the media pull of ‘England’s lost king’. Traditional ‘kings and queens’ history, so criticised over the decades by historians, still plays very well on TV.”
Foxhall, whose own field is the more ancient battlefields of Greece and Rome, said that to identify any named individual from such a remote period was “fantastically rare – and valuable. It’s the fact that he was a king that lets us get to the identification.”
Richard Buckley, the lead archaeologist on the project, pointed out that – apart from disentangling Richard’s last day on earth from the fog of Tudor propaganda, led by its most brilliant exponent, William Shakespeare – the story of the king from the car park is also another lost strand in the history of Leicester, wreathed in rumour, until now very short on fact.
Turi King, the researcher who confirmed the match of mitochondrial DNA – genetic material passed down through the mother’s line – between the skeleton and the Canadian-born Michael Ibsen, who is descended from Richard’s sister Anne of York, and with another newly identified but anonymous descendant, says the work continues. This phase was only completed on Saturday night, she said, but will be published in full in a peer-reviewed journal.
The city is wasting no time profiting from its day in the international media spotlight. A temporary exhibition opens this week in the Guildhall, near the site, and next year a permanent new visitor centre will open, possibly on the same day that the russet bones are re-interred in a newly designed tomb in the cathedral. Expect a few of the camera crews to return.
Meanwhile, Ibsen, the man whose spit proved the vital link across almost six centuries, grew more quiet and subdued as the day wore on. “My head is no clearer now than when I first heard the news,” he said.
“Many, many hundreds of people died on that field that day. He was a king, but just one of the dead. He lived in very violent times, and these deaths would not have been pretty – or quick.”
[Image via the University of Leicester]