The real Richard III never said, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” but he’s remembered by that line–part of a Shakespeare play that has colored the legend of Richard III down the ages. He’s remembered as a hunchbacked, usurping murderer of his own nephews.
Some months ago, archaeologists came across a skeleton under a church in Leicester, England. It was tentatively identified as Richard III. DNA analysis has now confirmed it:
This is one of the most interesting archeological finds of the past several decades. (Sutton Hu comes to mind.) This is because of Richard’s infamy and the many unanswered questions about him and his death.
Richard was the last of the Plantagenet kings. He grew up during the Wars of the Roses, when his own house of York battled the House of Lancaster for the throne. When he was eight years old, his brother Edward defeated the armies of the Lancastrian King, Henry IV. Edward, at 18, became king (the fourth Edward). Aside from a brief overthrow by the Lancastrians, Edward had a stable reign. His brother Richard was one of his most loyal allies. When Edward died prematurely, he left two sons, several daughters, and a commoner wife who was intensely disliked.
But his sons were young. Young Edward, now King Edward V, was only 13. He was being escorted to London for his coronation by his mother’s family when Richard intercepted them and took the young king into his care. Edward was lodged in the Tower preceding his coronation, as tradition dictated. His mother had gone into sanctuary, taking Edward’s younger brother Richard with her. Somehow, she was convinced to part with Richard, who joined Edward in the Tower. The two boys were seen playing there, but then the sightings stopped. They were never seen again. Richard declared himself king. To make things tidier, he claimed his late brother was a bastard. With his brother and all his brother’s children now considered “illegitimate”, Richard was nominally the legitimate king. Even if the boys were found alive, they weren’t rightful heirs to the throne.
The Lancastrians saw an opening. Henry Tudor, an obscure Welshman with a bit of royal Lancastrian blood, sailed from France, where he’d been in exile since he was a boy. In 1485, at the Battle of Bosworth Field, Henry defeated Richard in battle. Richard was killed. (Shakespeare would have us believe some of his last words were, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”) Legend has it that Richard’s crown was found in a thorn bush and picked up by Henry himself. It was during the reign of Henry Tudor’s granddaughter Elizabeth that William Shakespeare wrote Richard III and turned Richard into one of literature’s great villains.
Richard’s death in battle was violent. No one ever doubted that. His body was flung into an apparently unmarked grave at Grayfriars church in Leicester with little ceremony. The church was demolished (hundreds of years ago) and a car park/parking lot put on top. Archaeologists went on a hunt, found these bones, and realized they might be Richard’s.
The hard evidence is the DNA. Some people have questioned the validity of a test that uses DNA from two people separated by 17 generations. First, the type of DNA used is passed down through the female line basically untouched from generation to generation [here’s some info on DNA testing, courtesy of the BBC]. Second, the circumstantial evidence makes a pretty strong case:
Clue 1. Scoliosis. Richard was famously “deformed.” The Tudors, of course, made a great deal out of this. It was believed that physical deformities mirrored deformities in a person’s soul. The Tudors wanted to paint Richard as a villain, so they painted him as a cripple. His arm wasn’t withered, but his spine was bent, which would have given him a slightly raised shoulder, according to the BBC article. There are well-known paintings and descriptions of Richard as having uneven shoulders.
Clue 2. Time and age. The bones were dated to the right time period: 1455-1540. The bones belonged to a man in his late twenties or early thirties. Richard was only 32 when he was killed.
Clue 3: Place: The bones were found where the Grayfriars church once stood–and it was known that Richard’s body was taken there.
Clue 4: Wounds. We know RIchard died in battle, and this person clearly was killed violently. There are many wounds to the head and face. It was not just one quick blow. This suggests someone wanted to brutalize him. It was overkill. Not only that, there were wounds that were clearly meant to humiliate, like a sword thrust through the buttocks. Richard’s enemies wouldn’t have accorded his body any respect; on the contrary, they would have submitted it to as much degradation as possible.
AND the skeleton shares mitochondrial DNA with his sister’s descendants. How many possible skeletons could there be in that place, from that time, of that age, with those types of wounds, and carrying the DNA of Richard’s family?
The find is cool, of course. It’s not every day a medieval king is found. The location of most royal bodies is known: they’re in abbeys and chapels. The find also answers a lot of questions. For instance, it tells us exactly what Richard’s deformity was. People assumed the Tudors embellished (which they did), but no one was sure whether they made up Richard’s deformity from whole-cloth. No contemporary likenesses of Richard exist; now we have a skull, and presumably a facial reconstruction won’t be long in coming. We also can see how he was killed and just how brutal that death was (admittedly, with those kinds of injuries, he was dead so quickly that he probably didn’t even knew what hit him–you just can’t live long with your brain sliced open).
Now if only the skeleton could tell us what happened to those missing princes in the Tower . . .