In the 15th century, England was ravaged by the conflicts known as the Wars of the Roses. This was a dynastic rivalry between two powerful Houses: the House of York (badge was a white rose) and the House of Lancaster (badge was a red rose).
By 1483, it was the House of York that was in the ascendency. In June of that year, Richard of York was crowned King of England. He ruled as Richard III, possibly the most notorious of all the English Kings.
Two years later, in 1485, the exiled Lancastrians returned to challenge the Yorkists once more. They had found new claimant for the throne. Henry Tudor.
Richard, an experienced and capable commander, marched to meet this new invasion. At the Battle of Bosworth Field, the future of England was to be decided.
According to medieval sources, at the height of the battle, Richard saw an opportunity to cut the head off the snake. He, accompanied by his bodyguard of knights, charged directly at Henry Tudor’s position. In the intense fighting that followed Richard apparently unhorsed a famous tournament champion, was unhorsed himself, slew the Tudor standard bearer (who was traditionally a warrior of some repute) and came within a sword’s length of Henry Tudor himself. Alas, even that small distance proved too far. Richard had lost his helmet when he was unhorsed and now that vulnerability proved fatal. He was struck multiple times in the head with a variety of weapons.
Richard III was dead.
Henry Tudor would go on to be crowned Henry VII, founding the Tudor dynasty. However, before he marched on London, he had Richard’s body stripped and slung over the back of a horse. Exposed, it was then subjected to mutilation, including being stabbed deeply in the buttocks.
It was then left on display in Leicester for at least two days before it was, supposedly, buried in a small, unmarked grave in the garden.
After his death, Richard was the subject of vitriolic written accounts. Most of these post-death sources tend to characterise him as a monstrous man who was capable of great evil. The case of the so-called Princes in the Tower, in which the young sons (and heirs) of Richard’s brother (Edward IV) were moved into the Tower of London after their father’s death but were never seen again, was typically cited as evidence of his malignancy.
He is most famously depicted in Shakespeare’s Richard III, where he is portrayed as a cunning but utterly ruthless individual whose dark mind is reflected in his physical deformities (a hunchback and withered arm). This evocative image has proven to be the most enduring.
However, Shakespeare produced his work, as did many of the other contemporary sources, about Richard during the reign of (and sometimes under his direct patronage ) of Henry VII. It is for this reason that they are treated with a good deal of scepticism.
Fifty years after the Battle of Bosworth, the Greyfriars chapel was demolished and Richard’s burial place was lost along with it. The area was subsequently built over by urban development in Leicester. It seemed that Richard would never be found.
In 1975, a member of the Richard III Society (an organisation dedicated to the rehabilitation of Richard’s image) posited in an article that the location of the Greyfriars chapel was under what was now a Leicester City Council municipal car park.
In 2004, Philipa Langley, also a member of the Richard III Society, began intensive research in an effort to finally uncover the lost location of the chapel and, it was hoped, the location Richard’s remains.
Three years later, historian Annette Carson, in partnership with Langley’s team, uncovered a crucial piece of evidence. It was a map of medieval Leicester and it positioned the Greyfriars chapel at the north end of the municipal car park.
It took four years of research, consultation and gathering the necessary funding before Langley and her team were able to begin the long-awaited excavation of the car park.
On August 25, 2012, the dig finally began.
The very same day, two human leg bones were uncovered.
Further excavations elsewhere in the car park revealed the remains of the chapel. The layout of the building put the bones found on the first day in the east part of the chapel, in the general vicinity of where Richard was said to have been buried.
Over two days from September 4-6, the soil around the bones was dug back, revealing a skeleton that was largely complete. It was missing only the feet, which were posited as having been destroyed by construction works in the Victorian period.
The skull was in an unusual position as if the head had been pushed forward at the time of burial, indicating that the grave was too small. Nor was there any sign of a coffin. In addition, the positioning of the arms and hands raised the possibility of the hands being bound at the time of burial. All of this pointed to the body being thrown into a hurriedly dug grave.
When the remains were fully exhumed, the full horror of the individual’s manner of death was revealed.
There was what was believed be an iron arrowhead lodged in the spine, which appeared to as good an indication as any that the subject died in battle. (later scans would reveal the object to be a Roman nail mostly likely buried in the soil at the time the grave was dug)
However, it was the condition of the skull which gave a true testament to final moments filled with extreme violence.
There was a square-shaped hole in the top of the cranium, most caused by a halberd, a deadly pole weapon. A deep gouge on the right side of the face and laceration on the mandible were identified, both likely made using daggers. In multiple locations, bladed weapons had sheared off layers of flesh and bone without penetrating the skull itself. On the right side another bladed weapon, likely a sword, had penetrated the bone deeply enough that it left a mark on the inside of left side of the skull.
And yet, none of these wounds is believed to have been the killing blow.
That dubious honour would go to the gaping hole at the back of the skull, where a large section of the skull had been sheared away, which would have left the brain exposed.
In total there were ten head wounds, almost all of which were consistent with the manner in which Richard was killed as described by contemporary accounts. Clearly, this individual died in the thickest of the fighting. Even Richard’s most strident critics never doubted his courage. Moreover, at least one account tells of Richard losing his helmet when he was unhorsed. This, also, is consistent with the remains.
In addition, there were wounds on the ribs and also on the pelvis, both of which are also consistent with contemporary accounts of Richard being slung over the back of a horse and stabbed in the buttocks. It is speculated that there may have been other wounds inflicted postmortem that did not leave any marks on the skeleton.
More and more, this was looking like the skeleton of Richard. However, there was still the possibility that these were simply the remains of someone else killed at Bosworth.
When the remains were cleaned and assembled for analysis, one feature (apart from the appalling head wounds) stood out from all the rest.
The skeleton displayed the effects of scoliosis or curvature of the spine. Analysis indicated that the condition would have resulted in one shoulder being higher than the other. This would not, however, have precluded the individual from physical activity. Indeed, analysis of the locations where the tendons joined the bones indicated that the individual, for all his condition, had a slender, yet lean physique. There was no sign of Shakespeare’s withered arm.
Indeed, it was now clear that, given the increasingly high likelihood that these were the remains of Richard, his scoliosis was the inspiration for the hunchback depicted by the great Playwright.
All signs pointed to Richard. There remained only one thing left to do.
As Richard had no offspring, DNA taken from the remains was compared to that of a Canadian descendant of Richard’s older sister, Anne of York.
The results confirmed that the remains found under the car park were indeed those of Richard III.
In 2015, 530 years after his death, Richard III was given the funeral he deserved before being laid to rest in Leicester Cathedral.
And by some cosmic coincidence, the parking space under which Richard had been found was ‘reserved’. It was marked with the letter ‘R’.