Richard III (2nd October 1452 – 22nd August 1485) was King of England from 1483 until his death in 1485 in the Battle of Bosworth Field. He was the last king of the House of York and the last of the Plantagenet dynasty. His defeat at Bosworth Field, the last decisive battle of the Wars of the Roses, marks the end of the Middle Ages in England.
He is also the subject of the fictional historical play Richard III by William Shakespeare.
When his brother King Edward IV died in April 1483, Richard was named Lord Protector of the realm for Edward’s son and successor, the 12-year-old Edward V. As the young King travelled to London from Ludlow, Richard met and escorted him to lodgings in the Tower of London where Edward V’s brother Richard joined him shortly afterwards. Arrangements were made for Edward’s coronation on 22nd June 1483, but before the young king could be crowned, his father’s marriage to his mother Elizabeth Woodville was declared invalid, making their children illegitimate and ineligible for the throne. On 25th June, an assembly of lords and commoners endorsed the claims. The following day, Richard III began his reign, and he was crowned on 6th July 1483. The young princes were not seen in public after August, and accusations circulated that the boys had been murdered on Richard’s orders, giving rise to the legend of the Princes in the Tower.
There were two major rebellions against Richard. The first, in October 1483, was led by staunch allies of Edward IV and also by Richard’s former ally, Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham; however the revolt collapsed. In August 1485, another rebellion against Richard was led by Henry Tudor and his uncle, Jasper Tudor. Henry Tudor landed in southern Wales with a small contingent of French troops, and then marched through his birthplace, Pembrokeshire, recruiting more soldiers. Henry’s force engaged Richard’s army and defeated it at the Battle of Bosworth Field in Leicestershire. Richard was struck down in this conflict, making him the last English king to die in battle on home soil, and the first to do so since Harold II was killed at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Richard III’s remains were buried without pomp. The original tomb is believed to have been destroyed during the Reformation, and the remains were lost for more than five centuries.
On 24th August 2012, the University of Leicester and Leicester City Council, in association with the Richard III Society, announced that they had joined forces to begin a search for the remains of King Richard. Originally instigated by Philippa Langley of the Society’s Looking For Richard Project and led by University of Leicester Archaeological Services, experts set out to locate the lost site of the former Greyfriars Church (demolished during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries), and to discover whether his remains were still interred there. By comparing fixed points between maps in a historical sequence, the search located the Church of the Grey Friars, where Richard’s body had been hastily buried without pomp in 1485; its foundations identifiable beneath a modern-day city centre car park.
On 5th September 2012, the excavators announced that they had identified Greyfriars church and two days later that they had identified the location of Robert Herrick’s garden, where the memorial to Richard III stood in the early 17th century. A human skeleton was found beneath the Church’s choir.
On 12th September, it was announced that the skeleton discovered during the search might be that of Richard III. Several reasons were given: the body was of an adult male; it was buried beneath the choir of the church; and there was severe scoliosis of the spine, possibly making one shoulder higher than the other. Additionally, there was an object that appeared to be an arrowhead embedded in the spine; and there were injuries to the skull. These included a relatively shallow orifice, which is most likely to have been caused by a rondel dagger and a scooping depression to the skull, inflicted by a bladed weapon, most probably a sword. Additionally, the bottom of the skull presented a gaping hole, where a halberd had cut away and entered it. Forensic pathologist, Dr Stuart Hamilton stated that this injury would have left the King’s brain visible, and most certainly would have been the cause of death. Dr Jo Appleby, the osteo-archaeologist who excavated the skeleton, concurred and described the latter as “a mortal battlefield wound in the back of the skull”.
The base of the skull also presented another fatal wound in which a bladed weapon had been thrust through it, leaving behind a jagged hole. Closer examination of the interior of the skull revealed a mark opposite this wound, showing that the blade penetrated to a depth of 10.5 cm. In total, the skeleton presented 10 wounds: 4 minor injuries on the top of the skull, 1 dagger blow on the cheekbone, 1 cut on the lower jaw, 2 fatal injuries on the base of the skull, 1 cut on a rib bone, and 1 final wound on the King’s pelvis, most probably inflicted after death. It is generally accepted that postmortem, Richard’s naked body was thrust over a horse, with his arms slung over one side and his legs and buttocks over the other. This presented a very opportunistic target for onlookers, and the angle of the blow on the pelvis suggests that one of them stabbed Richard’s right buttock with substantial force, as the cut extends from the back all the way to the front of the pelvic bone and was most probably an act of humiliation. It is also possible that Richard suffered other injuries which left no trace on the skeleton.
In 2004, the British historian John Ashdown-Hill had used genealogical research to trace matrilineal descendants of Anne of York, Richard’s elder sister. A British-born woman who emigrated to Canada after the Second World War, Joy Ibsen (née Brown), was found to be a 16th-generation great-niece of the king in the same direct maternal line. Joy Ibsen’s mitochondrial DNA was tested and belongs to mitochondrial DNA Haplogroup J, which by deduction, should also be the mitochondrial DNA haplogroup of Richard III. Joy Ibsen died in 2008. Her son Michael Ibsen gave a mouth-swab sample to the research team on 24th August 2012. His mitochondrial DNA passed down the direct maternal line was compared to samples from the human remains found at the excavation site and used to identify King Richard.
On 4th February 2013, the University of Leicester confirmed that the skeleton was beyond reasonable doubt that of King Richard III. This conclusion was based on mitochondrial DNA evidence, soil analysis, and dental tests (there were some molars missing as a result of caries), as well as physical characteristics of the skeleton which are highly consistent with contemporary accounts of Richard’s appearance. The team announced that the “arrowhead” discovered with the body was a Roman-era nail, probably disturbed when the body was first interred. However, there were numerous perimortem wounds on the body, and part of the skull had been sliced off with a bladed weapon; this would have caused rapid death. The team concluded that it is unlikely that the king was wearing a helmet in his last moments. Soil taken from the Plantagenet King’s remains was found to contain microscopic roundworm eggs. Several eggs were found in samples taken from the pelvis, where the king’s intestines were, but not from the skull and only very small numbers were identified in soil surrounding the grave. The findings suggest that the higher concentration of eggs in the pelvic area probably arose from a roundworm infection the King suffered in his life, rather than from human waste dumped in the area at a later date, researchers said. The Mayor of Leicester announced that the king’s skeleton would be re-interred at Leicester Cathedral in early 2014, but a judicial review on that decision delayed the reinterment for a year.
A museum to Richard III was opened in July 2014 in the Victorian school buildings next to the Greyfriars grave site.
On 5th February 2013 Professor Caroline Wilkinson of the University of Dundee conducted a forensic facial reconstruction of Richard III, commissioned by the Richard III Society, based on 3D mappings of his skull. The face is described as “warm, young, earnest and rather serious”. On 11th February 2014 the University of Leicester announced the project to sequence the entire genome of Richard III and one of his living relatives, Michael Ibsen, whose mitochondrial DNA confirmed the identification of the excavated remains. Richard III was the first ancient person, with known historical identity, to have the genome sequenced.
In November 2014 the results of the testing were announced, confirming that the maternal side was as previously thought. The paternal side, however, demonstrated some variance from what had been expected, with the DNA showing no links to the purported descendants of Richard’s great-great-grandfather Edward III of England through Henry Somerset, 5th Duke of Beaufort. This could be the result of paternity that does not reflect the accepted genealogies between Richard and Edward III or between Edward III and the 5th Duke of Beaufort.
In 2015 it was decided that Richard’s re-discovered remains were to be reburied at Leicester Cathedral despite strong feelings in some quarters that he should have been reburied in Yorkshire.