May 23, 2013
Last September, a team of archaeologists in the UK made a remarkable find: under a city council parking lot in Leicester, they found the remains of King Richard III. The king ruled England for just two years (from 1483 until 1485) before his violent war-time death.
In February, after comparing DNA taken from the skeleton to surviving descendants of the king and testing its age, the group officially confirmed the identity of the body. Since then, forensic analysis indicated that the king was killed by traumatic sword blows to the head—perhaps with enough force to drive his crown into his skull.
Now, the first academic paper to be published on the discovery provides more unnerving details on the circumstances of Richard III’s death. In a study to be published tomorrow in the journal Antiquity, the University of Leicester team writes that the king’s body looks like it was buried in a hurry, crammed into a hastily-prepared grave that was too small for him. Further, he was left in a strange, slightly folded position, perhaps even with its hands tied together.
Instead of a carefully-dug grave with straight walls, as was customary during the era, Richard III’s has sloping walls, with a larger size at the surface than at the bottom, as the team determined by comparing the layered patterns in the dirt abutting the grave with the unordered soil filling it and surrounding the king’s remains.
What’s more, the king’s head was left leaning against one corner of the grave, indicating that a gravedigger stood in the hole to receive his body and didn’t bother rearranging him at the center after putting him down on the ground, and there’s no evidence that a coffin or even a death shroud was used. Given the historical context of Richard III’s death, none of this is a huge surprise, although the apparent lack of care surrounding the burial of this king might exceed even what historians had previously expected.
Richard III was killed at age 32 during the Battle of Bosworth Field, close to the end of the infamously violent War of the Roses period—a 30-plus year battle for power between supporters of competing branches of the royal family for control of the throne. After he was defeated and killed in battle by the forces of rival Henry Tudor (who would become King Henry VII), the new king reportedly kept the burial location intentionally secret—he feared it would otherwise become a rallying location for his enemies—and knowledge of Richard III’s grave was lost over time.
Now we know that Richard III’s body was brought to the nearby city of Leicester, passed along to Franciscan friars and buried at what was then Grey Friars church “without any pomp or solemn funeral,” according to the contemporary historian Polydore Vergil. (Legend holds that his body was stripped naked, transported on the back of a horse and mocked by passers-by during the entire journey.) Eventually, the church was dismantled, and the site was paved over.
Apart from analyzing the unusual characteristics of the king’s grave, the new paper also provides the first peer-reviewed forensic details about his remains. As the archaeologists had previously mentioned in public statements, the body matches the physical details of Richard III as described in historical sources: a curved spine, due to childhood scoliosis, and slim features. In addition to the fierce blows to his head, there were a total of 10 wounds discovered on his body, including stabs in his buttocks and back that the researchers believe were probably made after he’d already been killed, because of their location and the fact that they couldn’t have been made while he was still wearing armor.
So, did Richard III die in violent humiliation? The new findings seem to support this idea. At the very least, he was buried in a manner that certainly didn’t befit a king. But now, a number of groups and localities are suddenly interested in giving him a proper burial. The cities of Leicester and York are dueling over the right to preserve his remains and attract the tourists that will flock to see the king who was buried in a parking lot. We can only hope this new battle doesn’t last for another 30 years.
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