February 4th, 2013

The big dig: Richard III

After careful sleuthing and authentication, it seems that a skeleton found in a Leicester car park in Britain is really the remains of King Richard III. Quite extraordinary; the site of the burial place had been lost, although researchers followed the clues and their efforts have been rewarded:

• 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. Leicester genealogist verifies living relatives of Richard III’s family

• Individual likely to have been killed by one of two fatal injuries to the skull – one possibly from a sword and one possibly from a halberd

• Ten wounds discovered on skeleton – Richard III killed by trauma to the back of the head. Part of the skull sliced off

• Radiocarbon dating reveals individual had a high protein diet – including significant amounts of seafood – meaning he was likely to be of high status

• Radiocarbon dating reveals individual died in the second half of the 15th or in the early 16th Century – consistent with Richard’s death in 1485

• Skeleton reveals severe scoliosis – onset believed to have occurred at the time of puberty

• Although about 5ft 8in tall (1.7m), the condition meant King Richard III would have stood significantly shorter and his right shoulder may have been higher than the left

Although the scoliosis was present there was no withered arm, unlike customary dramatic portrayals of the king.

18 Responses to “The big dig: Richard III”

  1. OlderandWheezier Says:

    I’m curious as to how carbon dating is used to determine the dietary habits of the person or animal whose remains are tested. Anyone?

  2. blert Says:

    His condition made holding a shield, properly, quite impossible.

    The larger world took that to mean that his left was atrophied.

    His affliction would also mean that he’d need help mounting a horse, too.

    Richard III managed to ‘charm’ all with the same nasty result as Charles I — termination with extreme prejudice.

    Considering the history — it makes Charles I look all the more obtuse.

  3. vanderleun Says:

    Ah, just in time. A man for our season:

    Now is the winter of our discontent
    Made glorious summer by this son of Kenya;
    And all the clouds that low’r’d upon our house
    In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

  4. vanderleun Says:

    And lest we forget how it is done….


  5. sergey Says:

    Dietary habits are revealed not by radiocarbon dating, which can establish only time of death, but microscopic analysis of dental calculus. It contains plant fibers, pollen, and many other items which allow to reconstruct the diet. And chemistry of the calculus depends on the type of food, so sea food leaves another mineral composition than meat or plant foods.

  6. sergey Says:

    Even fossilized starch grains can be recovered and examined under scanning electron microscope. They have different morphology for different cereals – wheat, barley, rice and so on can be identified as the kind of staple food.

  7. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    This caught my attention and so I did a bit of historical research on Richard III of England

    Death at the Battle of Bosworth Field

    “On 22 August 1485, Richard met the outnumbered forces of Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Richard was riding a white courser.[33] The size of Richard’s army has been estimated at 8,000, Henry’s at 5,000, but exact numbers cannot be known. The traditional view of the cause of the King’s famous cries of “Treason!”[34] before falling has been that during the battle Richard was abandoned by Baron Stanley (made Earl of Derby in October), Sir William Stanley, and Henry Percy, 4th Earl of Northumberland. However, the role of Northumberland is not clear; his position was with the reserve — behind the King’s line — and could therefore not easily have moved forward without a general royal advance, which did not take place. Despite his apparent affiliation with Richard, Baron Stanley’s wife, Lady Margaret Beaufort, was Henry Tudor’s mother. The switching of sides by the Stanleys severely depleted the strength of Richard’s army and had a material effect on the outcome of the battle. Also the death of John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, his close companion, appears to have had a demoralising effect on Richard and his men. Perhaps in realisation of the implications of this, Richard then appears to have led an impromptu cavalry charge deep into the enemy ranks in an attempt to end the battle quickly by striking at Henry Tudor himself. Accounts note that Richard fought bravely and ably during this manoeuvre, unhorsing Sir John Cheney, a well-known jousting champion, killing Henry’s standard bearer Sir William Brandon and coming within a sword’s length of Henry himself before being finally surrounded by Sir William Stanley’s men and killed. The Burgundian chronicler Jean Molinet says that a Welshman struck the death-blow with a halberd while Richard’s horse was stuck in the marshy ground.[35] It was said that the blows were so violent that the king’s helmet was driven into his skull.[36] The contemporary Welsh poet Guto’r Glyn implies that the leading Welsh Lancastrian Rhys ap Thomas, or one of his men, killed the king, writing that he “killed the boar, shaved his head”

    The circumstantial evidence that Henry Tudor raised Baron Stanley to an Earl just two months after the battle and that Baron Stanley’s wife, Lady Margaret Beaufort, was Henry Tudor’s mother is IMO fairly persuasive that Richard III was in fact betrayed.

    I also find it of ironic interest that Sir William Stanley’s men, whose liege lord had betrayed Richard III by abandoning him in a critical battle were the ones who surrounded and actually killed Richard. Given that they were traitors and what the punishment for such was, I imagine that they felt they had no other recourse.

    Murders and traitors, I wonder if any of them lost even a moments sleep or felt any shame whatsoever?

    The parallels to the movie Braveheart and Wallace’s betrayal are perhaps noteworthy as well.

    As for Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard III’s murder of his brother Edward IV, Shakespeare may have engaged in some artistic license, as most historian’s disagree with him as to the certainty of Richard murdering Edward.

    In late 1482 “Edward’s health began to fail, and he became subject to an increasing number of ailments. He fell fatally ill at Easter 1483, but lingered on long enough to add some codicils to his will, the most important being his naming of his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as Protector after his death. He died on 9 April 1483 and is buried in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. He was succeeded by his twelve-year-old son, Edward V of England.

    It is not known what actually caused Edward’s death. Pneumonia and typhoid have both been conjectured, as well as poison. Some attributed his death to an unhealthy lifestyle, as he had become stout and inactive in the years before his death.”

    History is filled with examples of both the Royals and the Nobility acting in the most unprincipled of ways. One more example of “Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne.”

  8. vanderleun Says:

    Damn but this is an interesting story. The History Blog “live blogs” the announcement and, for once, this form works:


  9. bobbl Says:

    Richard III has been maligned by history because of two Tudor -favorable accounts. Thomas More’s history and Shakespeare’s play, both written to please their Tudor rulers; Henry VIII re More and Elizabeth I regarding the Bard. Richard has been falsely and unfairly accused of killing his two nephews and, separately, their Father, Edward IV. Nothing could be further from the truth. As regards his brother Edward IV, Richard was a devoted and true advocate. Nor did he kill Edward V and his brother, the “Princes in the Tower”. Henry Tudor, who killed Richard at Bosworth on August 22, 1485, and became Henry VII and his son, Henry VIII have truly spun History in their favor by having his “Historians” re-write the truth so he would look to be the savior of a England by disposing of a “Bad King”, the truly honorable Richard III, the last Plantagenet.

  10. carl in atlanta Says:

    This story is fascinating. Has anyone heard anything about how-why the skeleton was so well preserved?

  11. rickl Says:


    The skeleton is only 528 years old, which is pretty young by archaeological standards. Bone lasts a long time under almost any conditions.

    Much rarer are remains with soft tissue preserved, like “Ötzi the Iceman” who died more than 5000 years before his remains was found.

  12. Brian Swisher Says:

    It’s not so much that his burial site was lost as it was destroyed. He was interred in (IIRR) the Whitefriars monastery in Leicester. During the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the place was looted and his tomb broken open. It had been assumed that his body had been thrown into the River Soar, but obviously that turned out not to be the case…

  13. rickl Says:

    Also, it’s not so much that the remains were preserved, but that they were positively identified as a specific individual; or at least beyond a reasonable doubt.

    The scoliosis helped, I’m sure. What are the odds that another individual with the same deformity who suffered trauma consistent with battle wounds was buried in the vicinity?

  14. vanderleun Says:

    Not just the deformity but the DNA:

    “Experts from the University of Leicester said DNA from the bones matched that of descendants of the monarch’s family.”

  15. OlderandWheezier Says:

    Got a chuckle at the link/caption to the story made by a commenter at Patterico’s site:
    “They paved Plantagenet and put up a parking lot.”

  16. DonS Says:

    My recent reading has been a book on the Wars of the Roses. But I haven’t gotten to Richard III yet . . .

  17. neo-neocon Says:

    OlderandWheezier: good one.

  18. Susanamantha Says:

    For a compelling look at Richard III read Josephine Tey’s most excellent mystery, Daughter of Time.

    (Miss Tey was one of Britain’s best writers and one of her novels, Brat Farrar, was broadcast on PBS Mystery years ago. Unfortunately, it was never released on VHS, much less on DVD. The book is one that I re-read every couple of years, same with Daughter of Time.)

    I learned so much about the English monarchy in the middle ages, its intrigues and scandals during the War of the Roses. Miss Tey’s novel inspired my joining the Richard III Society, dedicated to reinstating Richard’s good name and removing the taint of murdering his nephews.

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