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The Archaeological Discovery That Led Historians To Richard III's Long Lost Body

Updated September 23, 2021 91k views11 items

In 2012, researchers in Leicester, England, made one of the 21st century's most important archaeological discoveries: the body of Richard III. One of history's most controversial monarchs, King Richard III of England was slain in 1485. Yet for centuries, no one knew what happened to his remains.

Born in 1452, Richard was a leading figure in the War of the Roses, a conflict between two noble houses. The Lancasters adopted a red rose as their emblem; the Yorks - Richard's house - adopted a white rose. In 1455, Richard's father, the Duke of York, attempted to take control of the kingdom from King Henry VI and his Lancastrian forces. After the duke perished, Richard's older brother took up the Yorkist cause and became King Edward IV in 1461. But the Lancastrians never really gave up.

Following Edward's demise in 1483, the throne briefly passed to his 12-year-old son Edward V, with Richard serving as his protector. But Richard took his nephew's place as king of England that same year - and some believe he was responsible for the boy's eventual demise. During his reign, Richard introduced legal reforms and made it clear that he took governance seriously.

But his time on the throne was cut short. Henry Tudor - an Anglo-Welsh nobleman - now took up the Lancastrian claim to the throne. Richard's troops met Henry's at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Richard was slain, thus ending the War of the Roses once and for all. Henry Tudor became King Henry VII, launching the Tudor dynasty.

What happened to Richard's body after the fight? Nobody knew for sure until 2012. The discovery of Richard's skeleton enabled researchers to conduct a post-mortem that shed light on the king's gruesome demise, as well as his controversial life.

  • In 2012, Richard III's Skeleton Was Discovered Under A Parking Lot In Leicester

    The Richard III Society - dedicated to rehabilitating the English king's reputation - pushed for years to excavate a parking lot in Leicester, England, on the belief that Richard's bones may have been buried there. Why that spot? Because the parking lot was built atop Greyfriars, a medieval church and the likely home of the royal remains.

    Excavations of the parking lot began in 2012, and the archaeological team was quickly successful. According to Dr. Jo Appleby, one of the archaeologists who made the discovery, "When we started digging in 2012, he was the first thing that was found. He turned up two hours after digging."

  • Photo: Richard Buckley, Mathew Morris, Jo Appleby, Turi King, Deirdre O'Sullivan, Lin Foxhall / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

    After Some Dispute, DNA And Radiological Evidence Proved The Bones Were Richard's

    Despite the high-profile discovery, some skeptics weren't convinced the remains belonged to Richard III.

    But experts silenced those doubts through a combination of scientific and historical sleuthing. Radiocarbon and stable isotope research dated the bones to the time of Richard's passing and revealed other details about his physical condition. Scientists also compared the skeleton's genes with those of Richard's contemporary relatives, thus confirming his identity. These tests also proved there was infidelity in the royal line at some point over the centuries.

  • Photo: John Augustus Atkinson / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    His Body Revealed He Was Slain By Two Blows To The Head In An Extended Onslaught

    The discovery of Richard's skeleton enabled researchers to conduct what amounts to a post-mortem. 

    Historians knew Richard III perished at the Battle of Bosworth Field. But scientific analysis provided a more complete picture of his demise. In short, it was gruesome.

    Of the wounds he received in his final hours, if not minutes, nine were on the skull; serious head trauma likely ended him. According to Dr. Appleby, "Both of these injuries would have caused an almost instant loss of consciousness and death would have followed quickly afterwards."

  • Photo: James William Edmund Doyle / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Richard Was Not Wearing A Helmet And Suffered Multiple Head Injuries - And Part Of His Head Was Sliced Off

    Most of Richard III's injuries were concentrated on his head. The blows were so ferocious that it's likely his helmet was missing at the time he received them. Given the nature of the wounds he took, he was probably hit by a number of men who overwhelmed him.

    Richard's skull doesn't just show evidence of stabs and blows. Henry VII's men also apparently sliced off the top part of his skull. He received just a couple of injuries to his face.