Richard III: How we know it is him and how he died

by Scott Manning on February 6, 2013

The recent announcement that we finally found the body of English King Richard III (r. 1483-1485) has brought loads of press coverage to the medieval period and to warfare. Here is quick primer on Richard, how we are certain it was his body, and how he died.

Richard III skull

Who was Richard III?

The best context that Americans may have for Richard was he was a direct descendant of Edward I (r. 1272-1307), known to most as Edward Longshanks from his appearance in Braveheart (1995). Richard only lived to age 32 and reigned as king for the last two years of his life. Before that, he spent much of his twenties fighting wars, seeing action throughout modern-day France and Scotland.1 With successful military actions comes fame and glory, and Richard received similar attention to modern-day Prince Harry fighting in Afghanistan.

However, during his brief reign, Richard lost much of his support through his political actions, as he executed other heirs to the throne. This sparked a rebellion, resulting in Henry Tudor defeating Richard at the Battle of Bosworth (1485). The scene was dramatic, featuring betrayal by one of Richard’s allies in the heat of the battle. The king died charging toward Henry for a final confrontation.2 Shakespeare immortalized the moment before Richard charged his opponent, yelling, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”

How are we sure this was Richard III?

After Richard died, he received an unceremonious burial and for hundreds of years, we have lived with the version of the fallen king depicted by his usurpers, giving us the image of a murderous, hunchback king that England was better off with dead. This version of history may be disputable, but the point is that most vanquished leaders receive less than glorious burials. Richard received his burial at Greyfiars friary, which had since become a modern-day parking lot. However, until recently, the exact location was lost to history.

Archaeologists uncovered the body last summer and they theorized it might be Richard based on battle scars and signs of scoliosis, features of the battle-hardened king often depicted as a hunchback. However, the real evidence came after the conclusion of a DNA test with Canadian Michael Ibsen, direct descendant of Richard’s sister. Yes, someone had to make that phone call.

How did Richard die?

The body had multiple wounds, but archaeologists believe that two blows to the head are what killed Richard. The weapons of death appear to be a sword and a halberd, a 6 ft spear with an ax at the end. Rising to popularity in Switzerland, the weapon migrated throughout Europe and eventually to England. It was suitable for thrusting and swinging.3

halbred

If Richard did perform his famous charge, a halberd would have been ideal for bringing down the mounted king by a mere infantryman. The other option is for another cavalryman to chase down the king, using a sword to bring him down.

There are also multiple wounds all over the body, which suggest postmortem mutilation. The medieval record tells us that usurpers did drag the body around and put it on display.

In terms of archaeological discoveries, this is a remarkable one, as the vanquished king has remained buried for over half a millennium.

Footnotes

  1. Sean McGlynn, “Richard III,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Technology, edited by Clifford J. Rogers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 3:175-176. []
  2. Ibid., 3:176. []
  3. Description and image comes from Kelly DeVries and Robert Douglas Smith, Medieval Military Technology, 2nd ed. (North York: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 29. []

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