A forensic study released on Wednesday offers a picture of the last gruesome moments of King Richard III’s life before he died in 1485. He was the last English king to die in battle. His real story was mangled in memory forever by Shakespeare: While he appears to have had scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine, he was not the hunchback portrayed by The Bard.
But the study confirms contemporary accounts of his death in battle. “Richard’s injuries represent a sustained attack or an attack by several assailants with weapons from the later medieval period,” said Sarah Hainsworth, a professor at the University of Leicester and a co-author of the study. “The wounds to the skull suggest that he was not wearing a helmet, and the absence of defensive wounds on his arms and hands indicate that he was otherwise still armored at the time of his death,” she said in a statement describing the extensive study.
The king’s skeleton was found underneath a parking lot in 2012. The new study, published in the Lancet, used computer scans and other forensic techniques to examine Richard’s head, saying he suffered 11 wounds. The injuries were caused by weapons such as daggers, swords and a long metal pole with an axe and hook used to pull riders from their horses. Hainsworth, a professor of materials engineering, said the king was probably attacked by numerous assailants after getting off of his horse: “Medieval battle was bloody and brutal…. Richard was probably in quite a lot of pain at the end.”
Richard died at the Battle of Bosworth on Aug. 22, 1485, fighting an army led by Henry Tudor, who would become Henry VII. He was surrounded by enemy forces, according to one account, after his horse got stuck in a marsh.
Of the injuries found in the study, nine were to the head, including a puncture from a sword. The wounds suggest the king either lost his helmet or took it off during battle. Defensive wounds to his arms and hands suggest he was otherwise armored. According to a video released by the Lancet, the blows to the skull most likely happened from above while Richard was kneeling or prone.
Though the researchers were unable to identify the order of the injuries, they concluded that only three had the potential to cause death — two to the skull and one to the pelvis. According to the video released by the Lancet, a number of the wounds to the cranium, jaw and 10th rib were consistent with wounds from a dagger. Because of the armor used in Richard’s time, some were most likely inflicted postmortem after the armor was removed. The video also suggests that Richard’s body was slung over a horse.
“Medieval battlefields saw an array of weapons used, from swords, battle hammers, maces, arrows and even early firearms,” Robert Woosnam-Savage, curator of European edged weapons at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, told the BBC. “Richard probably got within a few yards of Henry before his horse probably became stuck in marshy ground or was killed from underneath him. On foot, with foot soldiers closing in, the fight becomes a close infantry melee.”
Heather Bonney, an expert on human remains at London’s Natural History Museum who was not involved with the study, cautioned in a statement about coming to conclusions about Richard’s death. She told NBC that such findings should “always be approached with caution, particularly when the remains are those of a prominent historical figure…. It appears somewhat unorthodox to publish the analysis of the remains before unequivocally identifying them.” Even with such caveats, Bonney said the study is “a compelling account, giving tantalizing glimpses into the validity of the historic accounts of Richard III’s death, which were heavily edited by the Tudors in the following 200 years.”