Laurence Olivier as Richard III

On Monday 4 February 2013 , researchers announced that a skeleton found underneath a car park in Leicester is that of Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England, who died at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

Richard III ruled England from 1483-85, during the Wars of the Roses, and was defeated at Bosworth Field by the army of Henry Tudor, who took the throne as Henry VII. Richard was the last of the Plantagenet dynasty to rule, and was immortalized in one of Shakespeare’s history plays.
(Laurence Olivier memorably brought him to the screen in 1955. Photograph: ITV/Rex Features)

The location of Richard’s body has been unknown for centuries.

Some stories say his body was dumped in a river. Many believe the body was claimed by the Franciscans and buried hastily but in a position of honor near the high altar of their church – exactly where the remains were found.

Last September, archaeologists looking for Richard dug up the skeleton of an adult male who appeared to have died in battle. He appears to have a battle wound in the skull and a barber metal arrowhead was found between the vertebrae in his upper back. The skeleton also displays signs of curvature of the spine, which is consistent with contemporary accounts of Richard III’s appearance. (You may recall that Shakespeare portrayed him as a hunchback.)

The Trail to Discovery

In August 1485, Richard III faced Henry Tudor at Bosworth and was killed. His body was brought back to Leicester, where it was buried without pomp or ceremony in the church of the Grey Friars.

Following the dissolution of the monasteries, the trail goes cold. Popular legend has it that an angry mob threw his remains in the river.

The Richard III Society funded the search for those remains.

According to Richard Buckley, the lead archaeologist, no information about the Grey Friars buildings survived.

The precinct is now crossed by two streets and extensively built over – so finding the site was difficult.

Buckley says he chose to investigate two trenches in the social services car park there.

The team discovered evidence of a burial in the first trench almost immediately.

In the second trench they seemed to find parts of the church.

Buckley says a third trench was opened in an adjacent car park. This revealed a pair of walls – suggesting that the burial found in the first trench lay within the church.

The skeleton found there exhibited certain “interesting characteristics”: curvature of the spine and trauma to the head.

Buckley says the skeleton can be dated from 1455-1540, and is that of an adult male with an unusually slender, feminine build – consistent with descriptions of Richard. He was aged in his late 20s to late 30s, which fits with Richard’s age when he died.
(There is no indication he had a withered arm, however.)

The Appliance of Science

Scientific analysis took place at the University of Leicester.

Since the discovery, researchers have been conducting scientific tests on the remains, including radiocarbon dating to determine their age. They have also compared its DNA with samples taken from Michael Ibsen, a Canadian believed to be a direct descendant of Richard’s sister, Anne of York.

Professor Sarah Hainsworth of the engineering department has been working on microtomography imaging of the skeleton

Forensic specialist Dr Jo Appleby confirmed that ten wounds have been identified, eight on the skull. They all occurred at the time of death or shortly after.

“It is hard to understand how any of these injuries could have taken place if he was wearing a helmet”, she says. “He may have lost the helmet at this time, or some of the injuries could have been caused straight after death.”

Taken as a whole, the skeletal evidence provides a highly convincing case for this being Richard III.

Geneticist Dr Turi King says both the individuals who helped with the DNA analysis – Michael Ibsen and another person who has asked to remain anonymous – are “the last of their line” – so in a generation, it would have been impossible to compare DNA in this way.

DNA analysis of the remains was difficult, but the team did manage to get a sample of DNA to work with.

The DNA confirms that the remains are those of a male, and there is a match from the descendents of Richard III and the skeleton at Grey Friars.

“The DNA evidence points to these being the remains of Richard III”, Dr King says.


Richard Buckley announced that, in the team’s academic view:

“…beyond reasonable doubt the individual exhumed at Grey Friars on September 12th is indeed Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England”.

With this conclusion, the way is set for further investigations into the history of Richard III – some of which may throw light on an enduring mystery of his reign.

The Princes in The Tower

The Princes in the Tower were Edward V of England and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York.

The two brothers were the only sons of Edward IV of England and Elizabeth Woodville alive at the time of their father’s death.

Then 12 and 9 years old, they were lodged in the Tower of London by the man appointed to look after them, the Lord Protector, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later to become King Richard III). This was supposed to be in preparation for Edward’s coronation as king.

After Richard took the throne for himself, it is assumed that the two boys were murdered. This may have occurred sometime around 1483, but apart from their disappearance, the only evidence is circumstantial.

Prelude to Murder?

In May 1483 Edward arrived in London for his coronation and was accommodated in the Tower of London, then a royal residence. Richard at that point was with his mother in sanctuary, but joined his brother in the Tower in June.

Both princes were declared illegitimate by an Act of Parliament of 1483 known as Titulus Regius, and their uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was crowned as King Richard III of England.

There are reports of the two princes being seen playing in the Tower grounds shortly after Richard joined his brother, but there are no recorded sightings of either of them after the summer of 1483.

Their fate remains an enduring mystery, but historians and contemporary popular opinion agree that the princes may have been murdered in the Tower. There is no record of a funeral.

In 1674, the skeletons of two children were discovered under the staircase leading to the chapel, during the course of renovations to the White Tower. At that time, these were believed to have been the remains of the two princes, and on the orders of Charles II the remains were reburied in Westminster Abbey.

In 1933, the grave was opened to see if modern science could cast any light on the issue, and the skeletons were determined to be those of two young children, one aged around seven to eleven and the other around eleven to thirteen.


The evidence is ambiguous, and has led people to various conflicting conclusions.

The Case Against Richard III

Richard III had eliminated the princes from the succession, with the Titulus Regius. However, his hold on the monarchy was not secure, and the existence of the princes would remain a threat as long as they were alive. The boys could have been used by Richard’s enemies as figureheads for rebellion.

Rumors of their death were in circulation by late 1483, but Richard never attempted to prove that they were alive by having them seen in public, which strongly suggests that they were dead by then.

Richard also failed to open any investigation into the matter, which would have been in his interest if he was not responsible for the deaths of his nephews.

Many modern historians, including David Starkey, and Michael Hicks, or writers such as Alison Weir, regard Richard himself as the most likely culprit.

There never was a formal accusation against Richard III on the matter.

The Bill of Attainder brought by Henry VII made no definitive mention of the Princes in the Tower, but it did include the accusation of “shedding of Infants blood”, which may be an allusion to the Princes’ murder (especially since no other specific accusation of harming infants has ever been made against Richard).

The Bloody Knight

James Tyrrell was an English knight who fought for the House of York on many occasions. Some (most notably William Shakespeare) regard him as the likely culprit.

Tyrrell was arrested by Henry VII’s forces in 1501 for supporting another Yorkist claimant to the throne.

Shortly before his execution, it is said that Tyrrell admitted, under torture, to having murdered the princes at the behest of Richard III; however, no written record of such an important confession has ever been found or referred to.

The Not So Grand Duke

Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham was Richard’s right-hand man and sought personal advantage through the new king.

Some (notably Paul Murray Kendall) regard Buckingham as the likeliest suspect.

Stafford’s execution, after he had rebelled against Richard in October 1483, might signify that he and the king had fallen out because Buckingham had taken it on himself for whatever reason to dispose of Richard’s rival claimants; alternatively, he could have been acting on behalf of Henry Tudor (later to become King Henry VII).

On the other hand, if Buckingham were guilty he could equally well have been acting on Richard’s orders, with his rebellion coming after he became dissatisfied with Richard’s treatment of him.

As a descendant of Edward III, through John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster and Thomas of Woodstock, 1st Duke of Gloucester, Buckingham may even have hoped to accede to the throne himself in due course.

Buckingham’s guilt depends on the princes having already been dead by October 1483, since he was executed the following month.

In the 1980s, within the archives of the College of Arms in London, further documentation was discovered which states that the murder was conducted “be (by) the vise of the Duke of Buckingham”.

Another reference, surfacing this time in the Portuguese archives, states that “…and after the passing away of king Edward in the year of 83, another one of his brothers, the Duke of Gloucester, had in his power the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York, the young sons of the said king his brother, and turned them to the Duke of Buckingham, under whose custody the said Princes were starved to death.”

However neither document states whether Buckingham acted for himself, on Richard’s orders, or in collusion with the Tudor party.

The Tudor King?

Henry VII (Henry Tudor) – following his accession to the title – proceeded to find a legal excuse to execute some of the rival claimants to the throne.

He married the princes’ eldest sister, Elizabeth of York, to reinforce his hold on the throne.
As a woman, Elizabeth had no right to inherit, but her value to Henry required that he rescind the Titulus Regius, which would be dangerous for him unless he knew that both her brothers were dead.

Realistically however, Henry’s only opportunity to murder the princes would have been after his accession in 1485. This theory leaves open the question of why the princes were not seen after 1483 and why Richard did not produce them when he was suspected of their murder.

So, The Mystery Remains

But, perhaps, the use of modern forensic techniques may yet throw light upon this case.

Only time will tell.

Till next time.