Although not a saint, he was not the monster that William Shakespeare (a Tudor and then a Stuart propagandist) portrayed him to be in his play Richard III.
by John F. Burns and Alan Cowell
LEICESTER, England — In one of Britain’s most dramatic modern archaeological finds, researchers here announced on Monday that skeletal remains found under a parking lot in this English Midlands city were those of King Richard III, for centuries the most widely reviled of English monarchs, paving the way for a possible reassessment of his brief but violent reign.
Richard Buckley, the lead archaeologist on a project to identify the bones, told reporters that tests and research since the remains were discovered last September proved “beyond reasonable doubt” that the “individual exhumed” from a makeshift grave under the parking lot was “indeed Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England.”
Richard Taylor, the University of Leicester registrar who coordinated the team of archaeologists, historians, genealogists and geneticists who worked to make the identification after the skeleton was found buried six feet below a corner of a municipal parking lot, said that the last piece of the scientific puzzle fell into place with DNA findings that became available on Sunday, five months after the skeletal remains were uncovered.
At that point, he said, members of the team knew that they had achieved something historic.
“We knew then, beyond reasonable doubt, that this was Richard III,” he said. “We’re certain now, as certain as you can be of anything in life.”
The geneticist Turi King told a news conference held by the University of Leicester research team that DNA samples taken from two modern-day descendants of Richard III’s family matched those from the bones found at the site. One of the descendants, Michael Ibsen, is the son of a 16th-generation niece of King Richard’s. The second wished to remain anonymous, the researchers said.
The skeleton, moreover, had a gaping hole in the skull consistent with contemporary accounts of the battlefield blow that killed the monarch more than 500 years ago.
Before the DNA findings came in, Mr. Taylor and other team members said, the university team had assembled a mounting catalog of evidence that pointed conclusively at the remains being those of the king. These included confirmation that the body was that of a man in his late 20s or early 30s, and that his high-protein diet had been rich in meat and fish, characteristic of a privileged life in the 15th century.
Still more indicative, they said radiocarbon dating of two rib bones had indicated that they were those of somebody who died between the years 1455 and 1540. Richard III died in the Battle of Bosworth Field, 20 miles from Leicester, in August 1485.
Equally conclusive was the evidence available at the time the bones were unearthed — that they were found exactly where a 16th-century Tudor historian, John Rouse, had identified as the burial place, in a corner of the chapel in the Greyfriars priory, and with a distinctive spinal curvature that pointed to the remains being that of a sufferer from scoliosis, a disease that causes the hunchback appearance that has come down through history as Richard III’s most pronounced physical feature.
The sense of an important watershed in Britain’s royal story was underscored when reporters were escorted to a viewing of the skeletal remains, laid out in a locked room on the third floor of the university’s library, lying on a black velvet cushion inside a glass case.
No cameras were permitted, in accordance with an agreement reached with Britain’s Justice Ministry when it issued a permit for the skeleton’s exhumation, and, university officials said, with the dignity due to a king. Two members of the university chaplaincy’s staff, one of them in the black-and-red robes of a Roman Catholic priest, sat beside the remains as reporters filed by, adding to the air of solemnity and reverence. Researchers showed photographs of the skeleton as they found it, stuffed into a grave without a coffin, clearly displaying the spinal curvature.
In addition, team members said, the remains showed an array of injuries consistent with historical accounts of the fatal blows Richard III suffered on the battlefield, and other blows he was likely to have sustained from vengeful soldiers of the army of Henry Tudor, the Bosworth victor who succeeded Richard on the throne as King Henry VII, as the slain king’s body was carried on horseback into Leicester, including dagger thrusts to the cheek, jawbone and lower back. The skeleton displayed evidence of 10 wounds, 8 of them in the skull and some likely to have caused death, possibly by a blow from a halberd, a kind of medieval weapon with an axlike head on a long pole.
Since at least the late 18th century, scholars have debated whether Richard was the victim of a campaign of denigration by the Tudor monarchs who succeeded him. His supporters argue that he was a decent king, harsh in the ways of his time, but a proponent of groundbreaking measures to help the poor, extend protections to suspected criminals and ease bans on the printing and selling of books.
But his detractors cast Richard’s 26 months on the throne as one of England’s grimmest periods, its excesses captured in his alleged role in the murder in the Tower of London of two young princes — his own nephews — to rid himself of potential rivals.
Shakespeare told the king’s story in “Richard III,” depicting him as an evil, scheming hunchback whose death at 32 ended the War of the Roses and more than three centuries of Plantagenet rule, bookended England’s Middle Ages, and proved a prelude to the triumphs of the Tudors and Elizabethans.
In Shakespeare’s account, Richard was killed after being unhorsed on the battlefield, crying: “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.”
Officials of the University of Leicester said plans were now in hand to bury the bones in Leicester’s Anglican cathedral, barely 100 yards from where the bones were found. A spokesman for the cathedral said that reburial would probably take place early next year as part of a memorial service honoring Richard as an English king.
The bones were first located when archaeologists used ground-penetrating radar on the site of the former priory and discovered that it was not underneath a 19th-century bank where it was presumed to be, but under a parking lot across the street. The remains were located within days of the start of digging.