Lost English king identified

“Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of York,” so quoth Shakespeare’s King Richard III.  Richard was the last Yorkist king of England, whose death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 ended the Wars of the Roses and marked the beginning of Tudor rule. In 2012, archaeologists from the University of Leicester began excavating beneath a parking lot in Leicester, hoping to find Richard’s final resting place.

Richard has become infamous because of his usurpation of the English throne from his young nephews – the Princes in the Tower – and the subsequent disappearance of these boys.  His villainous reputation was solidified in William Shakespeare’s play “Richard III,” in which Richard is portrayed as a hunchback with a withered arm (both thought to symbolize the defects in his character). When Richard was killed at the Battle of Bosworth, his body was buried at the Franciscan friary in Leicester. The friary was destroyed by Henry VIII during the English Reformation, and Richard’s burial place was likewise destroyed. 

In the middle ages, bodies were entombed under the floor of churches and cathedrals, with the tomb effigy existing above ground.

Tomb of Edward, the Black Prince, Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury, United Kingdom

Archaeologists hoped that, while the church and any physical evidence of Richard’s tomb had been destroyed in the Reformation, the body would still remain underground where the church had stood. 

They were successful!  On February 4, 2013, it was announced that a skeleton had been identified as Richard III.  Archaeologists report that a “wealth of evidence, including radiocarbon dating, radiological evidence, DNA and bone analysis, and archaeological results, confirms identity of last Plantagenet king who died over 500 years ago. DNA from skeleton matches two of Richard III’s maternal line relatives.” (BBC News, “Richard III dig: DNA confirms bones are king’s’.

Caroline Wilkinson, professor of craniofacial identification at the University of Dundee, performed a facial reconstruction from the skull found by the archaeologists. Portraits of Richard III were not used at this stage in the reconstruction. It was only after the 3D imaging was complete, that portraits were used to reproduce the hair style and color, eye and skin color, and clothing of the plastic bust.

Portrait of Richard III (National Portrait Gallery, London); Skull of Richard III

Reconstructed Bust of Richard III (picture from the Telegraph.co.uk)

It has yet to be decided where Richard III will be reinterred. There are a number of medieval and modern traditions to consider.  As Professor Mark Ormrod from the University of York points out, “It remains to be seen whether the final decision over the king’s resting-place will actually rest on such historical precedents or on a set of modern principles that would have seemed fundamentally inappropriate and irrelevant in Richard’s own time.”

If this exciting archaeological find piques your interest, the library has a number of materials, fiction, non-fiction, and other media concerning Richard III that may interest you.[Lisa Benz St. John is the author of “Three Medieval Queens: Queenship and the Crown in Fourteenth-Century England.”]

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