LEICESTER, England — Until it was discovered beneath a city parking lot last fall, the skeleton had lain unmarked, and unmourned, for more than 500 years. Friars fearful of the men who slew him in battle buried the man in haste, naked and anonymous, without a winding sheet, rings or personal adornments of any kind, in a space so cramped his cloven skull was jammed upright and askew against the head of his shallow grave.
On Monday, confirming what many historians and archaeologists had suspected, a team of experts at the University of Leicester concluded on the basis of DNA and other evidence that the skeletal remains were those of King Richard III, for centuries the most reviled of English monarchs. But the conclusion, said to have been reached “beyond any reasonable doubt," promised to achieve much more than an end to the oblivion that has been Richard’s fate since his death on Aug. 22, 1485, at the Battle of Bosworth Field, 20 miles from this ancient city in the sheep country of England’s East Midlands.
Among those who found his remains, there is a passionate belief that new attention drawn to Richard by the discovery will inspire a reappraisal that could rehabilitate the medieval king and show him to be a man with a strong sympathy for the rights of the common man, who was deeply wronged by his vengeful Tudor and Elizabethan successors. Far from the villainous character memorialized in English histories, films and novels, far from the damning representation of him as the limping, withered, evil-spirited murderer of his two princely nephews in Shakespeare’s Richard III, these enthusiasts believe the recovery of his remains can be a springboard to a new age of scholarship and popular reappraisal.
“I think he wanted to be found, he was ready to be found, and we found him, and now we can begin to tell the true story of who he was," said Philippa Langley, a writer who has been a longtime and fervent member of the Richard III Society, an organization that has worked for decades to bring what they see as justice to an unjustly vilified man. “Now," Langley added, “we can rebury him with honor, and we can rebury him as a king."
Richard Taylor, the University of Leicester official who served as a coordinator for the project, said the last piece of the scientific puzzle fell into place with DNA findings that became available on Sunday, five months after the skeletal remains were uncovered. At that point, he said, members of the team knew that they had achieved something historic.
“We knew then, beyond reasonable doubt, that this was Richard III," Taylor said. “We’re certain now, as certain as you can be of anything in life."
Even before the DNA findings came in, team members said, evidence pointed conclusively at the remains being those of the king. These included confirmation that the body was that of a man in his late 20s or early 30s — Richard was 32 at his death — and that an analysis of his bones showed that his high-protein diet had been rich in meat and fish, characteristic of a privileged life in the 15th century.
Also strongly indicative, they said, was the radiocarbon dating of two rib bones that showed that they were those of somebody who died between the years 1455 and 1540. In addition, team members said, the remains showed an array of injuries consistent with historical accounts of the fatal blows Richard III suffered on the battlefield, and other blows he was likely to have suffered after death from vengeful soldiers of the army of Henry Tudor, the Bosworth victor who succeeded Richard as King Henry VII.
The fatal wound, researchers said, was almost certainly a large skull fracture behind the left ear that was consistent with a crushing blow from a halberd, a medieval weapon with an axlike head on a long pole — the kind of blow that was described by some who witnessed Richard’s death. The team also identified nine other wounds, including what appeared to be dagger blows to the cheek, jaw and lower back, possibly inflicted after death.
But perhaps the most conclusive evidence from the skeletal remains was the deep curvature of the upper spine that the research team said showed the remains to be those of a sufferer of a form of scoliosis, a disease that causes the hunchback appearance, with a raised right shoulder, that was represented in Shakespeare’s play as Richard III’s most pronounced and unappealing feature.
Members of the Richard III Society have said in the past they believed he should be reburied, once found, alongside other British monarchs in Westminster Abbey in London, traditional venue for most royal weddings and burials. But in Leicester, officials said that plans were in hand to bury the bones early next year in the city’s Anglican cathedral, barely 200 yards from where the skeleton was found, and a new visitors’ center dedicated to Richard to be opened in the cathedral grounds at the same time.