Modern Forensic Techniques Have Reconstructed The Violent Death Of King Richard III

The skeleton of Richard III. Image: University of Leicester

Modern forensic techniques have reconstructed a blow-by-blow account of the injuries inflicted on King Richard III’s body at the Battle of Bosworth Field on Aug 22, 1485.

The King’s skeletal remains reveal that three of his injuries had the potential to cause death quickly; two to the skull and one to the pelvis.

The remains of King Richard III, the last English monarch to die in battle, were found under a car park in Leicester by archaeologists from the University of Leicester, and subsequently identified by a multidisciplinary team from the University.

The forensic team used whole body CT scans and micro-CT imaging of injured bones to analyse trauma to the 500-year-old skeleton carefully, and to determine which of the King’s wounds might have proved fatal.

They also analysed tool marks on bone to identify the medieval weapons potentially responsible for his injuries.

The results, published in the medical journal The Lancet, show that Richard’s skeleton sustained 11 wounds at or near the time of his death, nine of them to the skull, clearly inflicted in battle and suggesting he had removed or lost his helmet.

Sarah Hainsworth, Professor of Materials Engineering at the University of Leicester, says:

“Richard’s injuries represent a sustained attack or an attack by several assailants with weapons from the later medieval period. The wounds to the skull suggest that he was not wearing a helmet, and the absence of defensive wounds on his arms and hands indicate that he was otherwise still armoured at the time of his death.”

The investigators, led by Dr Jo Appleby of the University of Leicester School of Archaeology and Ancient History, say postcranial injuries, including the potentially fatal one to the pelvis, might have been inflicted after Richard’s death

Had he been alive he would have been wearing a specific type of armour worn in the late 15th century that would have prevented such wounds.

The most likely injuries to have caused the King’s death are the two to the skull, a large sharp force trauma possibly from a sword or staff weapon, such as a halberd or bill, and a penetrating injury from the tip of an edged weapon.

Richard’s head injuries are consistent with some accounts of the battle, which suggest that Richard abandoned his horse after it became stuck in a mire and was killed while fighting his enemies.

This is where Shakespeare’s words written for Richard III come from: “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.”

Commenting on the research, Dr Heather Bonney from the Natural History Museum in London, says Appleby and colleagues provide a compelling account, giving tantalising glimpses into the validity of the historic accounts of his death, which were heavily edited by the Tudors in the following 200 years.

“Wherever his remains are again laid to rest, I am sure that Richard III will continue to divide opinion fiercely for centuries to come,” he says.

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