Armouries finds England’s lost king – Richard III - Monday, 4 February 2013
Royal Armouries’ curator Bob Woosnam-Savage formed part of an expert team that today confirmed the identity of the “skeleton in the car park” as those of England’s last king to fall in battle – Richard III.
Britain’s oldest public museum and home to the national collection of arms and armour has played a crucial part in today’s historic announcement, confirming Richard’s identity – nearly 530 years after his death.
Bob, Curator of European Edged Weapons, played a key role in investigating the lost king’s battle-related trauma, and attempting to identify some of the possible weapons used to kill the last of the Plantagenets.
Under international academic and media scrutiny, historians and scientists have spent the past five months testing a human skeleton, unearthed during an archaeological project at the former site of Greyfriars Church in Leicester – formerly hidden in an unmarked grave, below a council car park.
Bob was invited to join the Greyfriars’ project by the University of Leicester and has been working to help identify Richard, using his expert knowledge of medieval weapons.
Historians believe Richard was buried at Greyfriars after his death at the Battle of Bosworth, in 1485 but his corpse was disinterred during the Dissolution. His human remains have never been identified – until today (Monday, February 4).
Here Bob takes up the story of what historians now believe were the final minutes of Richard III – slain by the army of Henry Tudor, father of Henry VIII.
Bob said, “What we have is a very tentative, first attempt to try and create a possible narrative reconstructing the last minutes and death of Richard III, the last king of England to die in battle. It is extremely important to bear in mind that this is exactly that; a first attempt. It will no doubt evolve as more is discovered.
“My narrative that follows is a synthesis, based upon various elements from the historical accounts – the veracity of each is a discussion for another time – and what we presently understand the evidence the skeleton may possibly suggest. The scenario offered suggests just one possible scenario. Material from existing histories is written in italics.
“Richard was described as leading a mounted charge against Henry Tudor in an attempt to kill him. Cutting down Tudor’s standard bearer, Sir William Brandon, there is the possibility Richard’s momentum was stalled by marshy ground, a feature confirmed by the recent archaeology of the Bosworth battlefield. His horse stuck, or slain, Richard, fully armoured, continues fighting manfully on foot, maybe only a few feet away from his intended target, Henry Tudor.
“However, the tide of battle had seemingly already begun to turn as Stanley’s forces decided to side with Tudor, and they came down upon the Plantagents and Richard. Tudor’s own bodyguard would have been defending him as well and so, within a very short space of time, Richard could have found himself outnumbered and in the press of his enemies. But then what?
“His armour, successfully protecting him up to this time, probably began to fail under ferocious attack. There is no evidence to say how long this sustained attack lasted but at some point it would appear that his helmet was forcibly removed (possibly cut or ripped away). It is perhaps from these moments that the skeleton appears to begin to provide some glimpses of a possible scenario, regarding the dying moments of Richard III.
“At this time, Richard immediately receives more blows; a number of individual wounds from bladed weapons to the head, particularly to the top and rear of the skull, indicate a sustained and repeated attack on an unprotected head, one particularly massive blow possibly proving fatal. That particular blow could well have been delivered by a staff weapon such as a halberd. Other blows, including a penetrating wound to the top of the skull, and another to the base, both again probably dealt to an unprotected head, appear to have been perhaps delivered either near, or at the point of, death, with Richard possibly finally keeling over in a kneeling position or even lying semi-prone on the ground (although the body position must remain speculative at this time). This trauma to the head certainly would appear to fit accounts that include descriptions such as his head was shaved and that his brains came out with blood.
“However the skeleton bears other wounds which, if it were that of Richard, can only be explained as having been delivered after any armour was removed from the body and therefore probably after the king was presumably already near death, or dead. These ‘insult injuries’ might have included the small stab wound to the face; a stab in the back from behind, which struck a rib and, perhaps most tellingly of all, a stab wound, possibly delivered with a knife or dagger, to the buttocks. This last, insulting, blow could easily have been delivered to king’s body by an infantryman with a bladed weapon after it had been slung over the back of a horse, ‘with the armes and legges hanging down on both sides’, as he was borne to Leicester.
“A point of interest is that compared to a number of the dead from the Battle of Towton (1461), the face itself seems to bear comparatively little trauma. This may be of significance as the body of the king was subject to at least two days of exposure, from the time of his death to his burial. One of the reasons for such exposure, which was not exceptional at this time, was to allow an individual’s death to be witnessed and accepted – a severely damaged or unidentifiable face, preventing recognition, would obviously largely defeat this purpose.
“Finally it should be borne in mind that the trauma to the skeleton (over 10 wounds) must be regarded as an under enumeration of the number of wounds the body originally sustained – for Richard may well have borne wounds to the soft tissue , which have not been preserved. The state of his body would therefore no doubt have matched descriptions which say Richard was all besprinkled with mire and blood.
“We are obviously aware of how previous historians, including Murray Kendall, have been vilified for attempting to create such an account but with the discovery of the skeleton we are now approaching a time when we can indeed begin to create such a picture with a degree of accuracy, especially as all of the identified traumas are indeed consistent with what we know about the death and subsequent treatment of the corpse of Richard III. However to reiterate, this is only a first attempt to contextualise what has been discovered so far and more work, from me and others, will without doubt follow.
“This has been an excellent example of everyone working together within the research team. Our real work is now only beginning.”
Since its excavation the Greyfriars’ skeleton has been studied for four months by a number of different specialists, working in in diverse areas such as DNA testing, carbon-dating, dental tests to establish diet, osteology and forensic pathology.
Bob is available for interviews at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds tomorrow (Tuesday, February 5) or by prior arrangement by telephone. For his biographical details, please see the editors’ notes.
Examples of the weapons used to kill Richard will also be available to photographers and cameramen. Visit our web page to see images of the weapons
For more details about the Greyfriars project, please visit www2.le.ac.uk/offices/press/media-centre/richard-iii
For more information and the latest news about the Royal Armouries:
Notes to editors
- The Search for Richard III – University of Leicester
- Bob Woosnam-Savage, AMA, took up his post at the Royal Armouries in 2001. He read Art History at the University of Manchester (1978-81) and gained a Post-Graduate Diploma in Art Gallery and Museum Studies (1982). He has been involved with work on various battlefields including Towton (1461), Bosworth (1485) and Culloden (1746).
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