For centuries historians have debated Richard III and whether his reputation as a ruthless hunchback king was a true reflection of his reign or just a figment of Shakespeare’s imagination.
Now it would seem that at least some of that legend may be true, after archaeologists unearthed a fully intact skeleton that they believe is that of the medieval king, which, crucially, has a deformed spine.
The remains were found three weeks into an archaeological dig by a team from Leicester University, which recently pinpointed the site of Grey Friars Church, where Richard was believed to be buried after being killed in the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485.
To the team’s astonishment, the excavation unearthed a result “beyond our wildest dreams”, and strengthened their belief, which they hope will be put beyond doubt by DNA testing, that they have ended a decade-long search for his remains.
The skeleton was of an adult male, who appeared fit and strong, but with spinal abnormalities that pointed to the fact that he had severe scoliosis, a form of spinal curvature. This would have made his right shoulder appear higher than his left, and in less enlightened times would almost certainly have been cause for him being nicknamed a “hunchback”.
Poleaxed to the head
He had suffered significant trauma to the head where a blade had cut away part of the back of his skull, an injury consistent with battle, and a barbed arrow head was found lodged between vertebrae in his upper back. The remains were found in the choir area of the Church, again consistent with historical record of where he was buried.
The only known account of Richard’s death is in a poem that states he was “poleaxed to the head”. Philippa Langley, of the Richard III Society, who has driven the search to find his body since 2000, said: “This will allow us to really challenge what we know about Richard.
“We can find out how he got to the Church, how he was buried, how he died; all the things that have been the subject of assumptions and misconceptions.” Little has been known about Richard III’s end, other than he died on the battlefield and was supposedly taken on horseback by his vanquisher, Henry Tudor, who later became King Henry VII.
The only known account of Richard’s death is in a poem that states he was “poleaxed to the head”. He was the last of the Plantagenet dynasty and his death was decisive in the Wars of the Roses. Richard’s two-year reign was the subject of one of William Shakespeare’s most celebrated plays, which portrayed him as an evil, ugly hunchback, and which helped cement the public perception of him.
Richard Taylor, whose team led the dig, said: “We are not saying that we have found Richard III. What we are saying is that the search for Richard III has entered a new phase. Our focus is shifting from the archaeological excavation to laboratory analysis. We are all very excited.”
Sir Peter Soulsby, Leicester’s mayor, said: “They can’t say it, but I can. This is as near a certainty as we can get that we’ve found him. Everything fits.” DNA tests are expected to take 12 weeks. The team will compare samples from the skeletal remains with the DNA of a direct descendant of the king’s sister, Michael Ibsen, 55, a Canadian furniture maker who lives in London.
Ms Langley, who has driven the search to find his body since the year 2000, added: “This goes to show that if you have a dream, you should follow that dream.”