LEICESTER, England (Reuters) - A skeleton with a cleaved skull and a curved spine entombed under a car park is that of Richard III, archaeologists said on Monday, solving a 500-year-old mystery about the final resting place of the last English king to die in battle.
Cast by Shakespeare as a deformed tyrant who murdered two princes in the Tower of London, Richard was slain in a bid to keep his crown at the 1485 Battle of Bosworth Field, immortalised by the words: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”
In one of the most significant archaeological finds of recent English history, a team from the University of Leicester said evidence showed a skeleton found last year in excavations of a mediaeval friary under a city car park was that of Richard.
“It’s the academic conclusion ... that beyond reasonable doubt the individual exhumed at Grey Friars in September 2012 is indeed Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England,” lead archaeologist Richard Buckley said.
The skeleton had 10 wounds, eight of which were to the head clearly inflicted on the battlefield. A photograph showed a sword had cleaved away part of the rear of the skull. A metal fragment was found between Richard’s vertebrae.
After the battle, the victor, the future King Henry VII, had Richard’s naked body exposed to the people of Leicester to show the battle was won, ending the bloody 30-year civil conflict known as The Wars of the Roses between the houses of York and Lancaster.
Other wounds were consistent with being caused after death when his body was taken from the battlefield to the nearby city of Leicester on the back of a horse. All of the wounds were from swords or daggers and it appeared his hands had been bound.
Confirmation the bones were Richard’s hinged on DNA taken from the skeleton matching that of Michael Ibsen, a Canadian-born furniture maker in London who genealogists said was the direct descendant of Richard’s sister, Anne of York.
Admirers of Richard hope that the discovery will fuel interest in the mediaeval monarch and dispel Shakespeare’s physically impaired protagonist who said: “And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover ... I am determined to prove a villain.”
The curvature of the spine, so ruthlessly mocked by Shakespeare and famously depicted by Laurence Olivier, was striking.
After a detailed presentation focusing on the life, wounds and physique of Richard, Buckley, announced his conclusion to world media amidst cheers and applause. The project almost ended prematurely, but funds from countries ranging from the United States and Germany to Australia and Belgium kept it afloat.
Richard, who died aged 32 after just two years on the throne, will be interred at Leicester Cathedral, which traces its history to a Saxon bishop in AD 680, in line with guidelines about burying bodies close to where they are exhumed.
The grey, concrete car park with its red-brick walls and a payment hut, under which the bones were found contrasts sharply with the grandeur of traditional sepulchres for English kings and queens at Windsor Castle and Westminster Abbey.
Asked whether the prime minister agrees with some Conservative MPs who said they believe the late king should receive a state burial, a spokesman for David Cameron said: “The decision on burial is a matter for Leicester University who hold the licence to exhume the remains.”
The evidence ends the centuries-old mystery which has fascinated historians in Britain and around the world and which has provided material for a welter of legends, one of which maintained the body was dug up in the reign of Henry VIII, thrown in a river and the stone coffin used as a horse trough.
One of the most famous English kings, Richard’s grave, which was lost after Henry VIII ordered the monasteries dissolved, had been as elusive as his reputation. Richard was cast by Shakespeare as a monster but supporters say he was enlightened and unfairly maligned by a victorious House of Tudor.
There was also a DNA match with another unidentified descendant of Anne of York who wished to remain anonymous. The genetic match was especially significant as it was a rare type of DNA found in only a few percent of the population, said Turi King, a geneticist at the university.
“It’s really difficult to come to grips with the fact that there is some part of you that is part of somebody as famous or infamous as Richard III,” Ibsen said in an interview, adding that he was stunned to find his royal connection.
Unlike his mediaeval ancestor, Ibsen said he did not plan to put forward his family’s claim to the throne: “I think our chances are long gone.” Buckingham Palace declined comment on the importance of the discovery, which is expected to increase interest in Richard and bring more visitors to Leicester.
The remains of the king were put on display on a black velvet cloth encased in a glass box for the media and other guests in a small room with a worn red carpet that is part of the University of Leicester’s library.
There was reverential silence as two security guards manned the door and a chaplain looked on. No photography was allowed as a mark of respect to the remains of the man who once ruled England.
While the findings may solve the mystery about the whereabouts of the grave of Richard, the last Plantagenet king of England remains a complex figure whose life, made famous by Shakespeare’s history play, deeply divides opinion.
In a sign of the widespread public interest in Richard, photographs of his skull were published on the front pages of national newspapers in Britain on Monday and the academic briefing on the find was shown live on television news channels.
A tough soldier and popular in northern England, Richard was crowned at Westminster Abbey in July 1483 after replacing his 12-year-old nephew Edward V on the throne after claims that the young prince and his brother, the sons of Richard’s elder brother Edward IV, were illegitimate.
The two boys later disappeared from the Tower of London, and their fate is one of the greatest unanswered historical questions. However, Richard has long been blamed for ordering, or even carrying out, the murder of the “Princes in the Tower”.
Much of that is thanks to Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of King Richard the Third”, which portrays him as a power-crazed, evil hunchback who killed off his rivals to get to the throne.
Richard has been played by a multitude of actors including Olivier, David Garrick and Kenneth Branagh. Lines from the play include “Now is the Winter of our discontent” as well as “Where Eagles Dare” which became a film title.
His supporters say Shakespeare’s play is misleading, written as it was over a century later when Queen Elizabeth I, the granddaughter of Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII after his victory over Richard at Bosworth, was on the throne.
“People can see he’s been done a massive injustice and I think it gets them angry and I think they want people to look at the facts about this man and change everything that we’ve ... been told about him,” said Philippa Langley, of the Richard III Society which launched the four-year search for the lost king.
The level of international interest in the project was shown when the money nearly ran out and supporters from the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Belgium, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Britain came forward to help.
Langley’s mission is to re-write history.
“No disrespect to Olivier because he was a brilliant actor, but that portrayal of Richard III is going to be consigned to the dustbin of history. (He) was a mediaeval man and mediaeval king,” said Langley, adding:
“He just wasn’t the monster of Tudor legend.”
And the answer to the burning question of whether Richard killed the princes in the Tower?
Langley, a pro-Richard devotee, was adamant. “The evidence that we have says he did not”. (Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Maria Golovnina and Peter Millership)