Forensic Case Files: The Final Journey of Richard III

We’ve been covering the fascinating story of England’s King Richard III for two and a half years now here on Skeleton Keys, so it only seems fitting to cover the last stage in his journey as well. The modern portion of Richard’s story started in August of 2012, when it was announced that the combined forces of the Richard III Society, and the University of Leicester Archeology Department had discovered very old remains under a parking lot in the City of Leicester. The remains were discovered under the posited historic location of Greyfriars church, where King Richard was supposedly buried in 1485 following his death at the Battle of Bosworth Field. The church was demolished in 1536, and its exact location lost to time in the following centuries, but meticulous research and many man hours led the combined team to this location.

Archeologists were hopeful that they had indeed discovered the remains of Richard III due to the conformation of the buried remains—the spine of the buried man had a significant curve or scoliosis. Over the centuries, the Tudor family, with the help of Shakespeare, had maligned Richard, turning the memory of a once-favoured king into that of a hunchbacked monster, and a man responsible for the death of his two nephews to ensure him the throne. But contemporary reports from Richard’s own time had simply reported him having one shoulder higher than the other, a common occurrence in those with scoliosis. Certainly, his curved spine didn’t prevent him from sitting a horse or fighting in battle. The skull also showed that the man had died a violent death, likely through battle.

In February of 2013, the University of Leicester released the news that the parking lot remains were indeed that of Richard III. Using mitochondrial DNA and tracing his line from his sister down through all the female relatives, as well as carbon dating, age and sex estimation of the remains, and analysis of the wounds to match with the account of Richard III’s death, it was determined they had a positive identification beyond any reasonable doubt.

On March 22nd, 2015, Richard III’s coffin, topped by a wreath of white roses, was transferred by horse-drawn carriage from the University of Leicester to Leicester Cathedral. Hundreds of people lined the route which passed the site of the Blue Boar, the inn he possibly stayed at during his last night; the Guildhall, built in 1390 and one of the last remaining buildings in Leicester Richard III might have seen; and the Newarke Gateway, through which his body was likely carried on its way back into the city following the battle. His body lay in state at the cathedral for the next three days as thousands came to pay tribute to the fallen monarch.

On March 26th, following more than a year of DNA testing, facial reconstruction, bone analysis and historical research, Richard III was finally laid to rest in Leicester Cathedral. Richard’s coffin, crafted by his decedent, carpenter Michael Ibsen, was carried into the cathedral by ten decorated Army soldiers and the service was presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury. His coffin was lowered into a tomb topped with a plinth of Kilkenny marble and will be closed with a massive block of Swaledale stone, incised across the top with a cross. Ironically, his final resting place is only forty yards from his original burial beneath Greyfriars church.

The service was attended by members of the royal family, including the Countess of Wessex, and the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. Queen Elizabeth II did not attend but sent a message that was read at the beginning of the service.

Benedict Cumberbatch, who will play Richard III in an upcoming BBC production, and who is a third cousin, sixteen times removed, of Richard III, read the poem Richard by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy (the video can be found here, for those of you who like me would listen to him read anything, including the dictionary).

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons  and The University of Leicester