Richard III was the last Plantagenet king of England. In Shakespeare’s telling, in the play of that name, Richard was a hunchbacked villain, who murdered his way to the crown, had the child princes in the Tower of London killed, and met his rightful death at the Battle of Bosworth Field at the hands of Henry Tudor, the founder of the dynasty that would culminate in Shakespeare’s Queen.
Archaeologists have dug in the place where King Richard was supposed to have been buried. They found the bones of a hunchbacked man, shot with an arrow, whose head had been sliced with a sword.
The body of an adult male has been excavated from what is believed to be ruins of the choir area of the Grey Friars church in Leicester. It’s now a car park in the city centre, but was used as a church in the late 15th century. Some records suggest that Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England, was buried here.
So how do we know it’s him? Has the body got a hunched back?
We don’t know it’s him – yet – but yes, the skeleton does show signs of spinal curvature. Contemporary accounts, reinforced later by Shakespeare, described Richard III as being “hunchbacked”. The newly found body appears to have scoliosis, a form of spinal curvature that would have made the man’s right shoulder appear higher than the left shoulder. The classic “hunchback” is caused by kyphosis but there is no evidence of this in the Leicester skeleton.
Any other evidence?
Yes. The man who became this skeleton took a beating. He has a small penetrating wound to the top of the head, and a much larger wound where a slice has been cut off the skull at the side and back – consistent with the swing of a blade. On 22 August 1485, Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field by blows that some accounts describe as being so violent they drove his helmet into his head.
The Leicester skeleton also has a barbed iron arrowhead stuck in its upper back. But the middle ages were violent times, so again this is only supporting evidence.
Can DNA testing determine if the body is Richard III?
Perhaps. The Richard III Society says it has located someone – Londoner Michael Ibsen – who is apparently the 17th great grand-nephew of Richard III, in the female line. Ibsen’s late mother Joy Ibsen is purportedly a direct descendent of the King’s eldest sister, Anne. Richard’s male relatives were executed.
Leicester University geneticists hope to extract mitochondrial DNA taken from the skeleton’s teeth and compare it with DNA from Ibsen. Mitochondrial DNA is transmitted only through the female line, so if Ibsen really is a direct descendent, his mtDNA can be compared with that from the skeleton.
For more details and pictures, read this. Here is a photo of the excavation site, with the location of the body, wrapped in a shroud, circled. (Read what I just linked for why this is thought to have been Richard’s burial site.)