Experts find remains of England's King Richard III
Feb 4, 2013 at 12:19 PM
LEICESTER, England — He wore the English crown, but he ended up defeated, humiliated and reviled.
Now things are looking up for King Richard III. Scientists announced Monday that they had found the monarch's 528-year-old remains under a parking lot in the city of Leicester — a discovery Richard's fans say will rewrite the history books and help restore the reputation of a much-maligned king.
Researchers from the University of Leicester announced that tests on a battle-scarred skeleton unearthed in the central England city last year prove "beyond reasonable doubt" that it is the king, who died at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, and whose remains have been missing for centuries.
"Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England, has been found," said the university's deputy registrar, Richard Taylor, describing the find as "truly astonishing."
Few monarchs have seen their reputations decline as much after death as Richard III. He ruled England between 1483 and 1485, during the decades-long tussle over the throne known as the Wars of the Roses, which pitted two wings of the ruling Plantagenet dynasty — York and Lancaster — against one another.
His brief reign saw liberal reforms, including introduction of the right to bail and the lifting of restrictions on books and printing presses.
But his rule was challenged, and he was defeated and killed by the army of Henry Tudor, who took the throne as King Henry VII and ended the Plantagenet line.
Death was just the start of Richard's problems. Historians writing under the victorious Tudors comprehensively trashed his reputation, accusing him of myriad crimes — most famously, the murder of the "Princes in the Tower," the two sons of his elder brother, King Edward IV.
William Shakespeare indelibly depicted Richard as a hunchbacked usurper who left a trail of bodies on his way to the throne before dying in battle, shouting "My kingdom for a horse."
That view was repeated by many historians, and Richard remains a villain in the popular imagination. But others argue that the image is unfair, and say Richard's reputation was smeared by his Tudor successors.
Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society — which seeks to restore the late king's reputation — said for centuries Richard's story had been told by others, many of them hostile.
"Now, here today ... it is Richard who has finally been able to reveal himself," she said.
"A wind of change is blowing, one that will seek out the truth about the real Richard III."
Langley, who helped launch the search for the king, said she could scarcely believe her quest had paid off.
"Everyone thought that I was mad," she said. "It's not the easiest pitch in the world, to look for a king under a council car park."
The location of Richard's body was unknown for centuries. Records say he was buried by the Franciscan monks of Grey Friars at their church in Leicester, 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of London. The church was closed and dismantled after King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1538, and its location eventually was forgotten by most local residents.
But last year a team led by University of Leicester archaeologist Richard Buckley identified a possible location of the grave through map regression analysis, starting with a current map and analyzing earlier maps to discover what had changed and not changed. Ground-penetrating radar was employed to find the best places to start digging.
The team began excavating in a parking lot last August. Within a week they had located thick walls and the remains of tiled floors. Soon after, they found human remains — the skeleton of an adult male who appeared to have died in battle.
He had been buried unceremoniously, without coffin or shroud — plausible for a despised and defeated enemy.
Researchers, could scarcely believe their luck, and set out to conduct a battery of scientific tests, including radiocarbon dating to determine the skeleton's age, to see whether, against the odds, they really had found the king.
They found the skeleton belonged to a man aged between his late 20s and late 30s who died between 1455 and 1540. Richard was 32 when he died in 1485.
Bone specialist Jo Appleby said study of the bones provided "a highly convincing case for identification of Richard III."
Appleby said the 10 injuries to the body were inflicted by weapons like swords, daggers and halberds and were consistent with accounts of Richard being struck down in battle — his helmet knocked from his head — before his body was stripped naked and flung over the back of a horse in disgrace.
She said some scars, including a knife wound to the buttock, bore the hallmarks of "humiliation injuries" inflicted after death.
The remains also displayed signs of scoliosis, a form of spinal curvature, consistent with contemporary accounts of Richard's appearance — though not the withered arm he Shakespeare describes him as having.
DNA from the skeleton matched a sample taken from a distant living relative of Richard's sister. Geneticist Turi King said Michael Ibsen, a Canadian carpenter living in London, shares with the skeleton a rare strain of mitochondrial DNA. She said combined with the archaeological evidence, that left little doubt the skeleton belonged to Richard.
Ibsen said he was "stunned" to discover he was related to the king — he is a 17th great-grand-nephew of Richard's older sister.
"It's difficult to digest" he said.
Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology magazine, said he found the evidence persuasive.
"I don't think there is any question — it is Richard III," said Pitts, who was not affiliated with the research team.
He said it was one of the most exciting archaeological discoveries in ages.
"The identification of the king is just the very beginning of a whole range of new ideas and research that will change the way we view this period of history," he said.
The discovery is a boon for the city of Leicester, which has bought a building next to the parking lot to serve as a visitor center and museum.
On Monday, the king's skeleton lay in a glass box in a meeting room within the university library. It was a browned, fragile-looking thing, its skull pocked with injuries, missing its feet — which scientists say were disturbed sometime after burial — and with a pronounced s-shape to the spine.
Soon the remains will be moved to an undisclosed secure location, and next year Richard will, at last, get a king's burial, interred with pomp and ceremony in Leicester Cathedral.
It is a day Gregory, of the Richard III Society, has dreamed of seeing.
"We have searched for him, we have found him — it is now time to honor him," she said.
The Search for Richard III: http://www2.le.ac.uk/projects/greyfriars
Richard III Society: http://www.richardiii.net/
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless