Identifying Richard III
History tells how following his defeat at the Battle of Bosworth, the body of King Richard III was taken to the town of Leicester and put on public display. Later, monks quietly buried his body in the town’s Greyfriars Friary With the dissolution of the Monasteries, Greyfriars was dismantled, and the king’s grave lost under a succession of buildings. In 2012, archaeologists unearthed a skeleton from beneath a Leicester car park. The body was near the spot identified as before the high altar of the friary church- the same place where King Richard was supposedly buried. It also a spinal deformity as did the King. But was it Richard?
To prove the skeleton’s identity, archaeological scientists subjected it to a barrage of tests. Firstly, scientists compared it’s mitochondrial DNA with to two separate descendants of King Richard’s sisters. These proved to be a match. However, the skeleton also revealed a great deal more information about its identity. Isotope analysis indicated that when alive it belonged to an individual who enjoyed a protein-rich diet, especially in the last two years of his life, suggesting high status. That individual had also grown up in Northamptonshire- the childhood home of the last Plantagenet King.
The matches between the skeleton and the life of King Richard did not end there. CT scans showed that the skeleton was the same age as Richard when he died, and radiocarbon dating helped establish its date of death between 1455-and 1540- making it contemporary with the Battle of Bosworth. Then there were the wounds on the body. The head wounds on the skeleton matched the reported manner of Richard’s death. In all, the skeleton had eight injuries to the skull- two of which could have been fatal. These were at the base of the head where the skull showed signs of a halberd blow and a smaller injury that penetrated the skull.
The body also showed signs of postmortem injuries on the skeleton’s face and buttocks. These appear to have been caused by daggers thrust into the body after death. Dr. Jo Appleby of the University of Leicester identified these, as ‘humiliation wounds’; deliberate injuries inflicted on the bodies of the fallen during the medieval period.
DNA aside, the Greyfriars skeleton had revealed that he belonged to a high-status individual. That individual was contemporary with Richard III. They grew up in the same county, were the same age and died at the same time- also in a battle. Finally, their body had been abused and then buried with anonymous honor before the high altar of the same church. It would be fair to say it would be amazing if the skeleton were anyone else but the lost King.
King Richard III’s skeleton isn’t the only one that can be linked to historical events.