HOD 2016 – Richard III Talk

‘Killed the Boar, Shaved his Head’, the Violent Death of Richard III

Robert Woosnam Savage, Curator of European Edged Weapons at the Royal Armouries Leeds and a member of the team which worked on the recently excavated skeleton of Richard III gave a talk which drew one of our largest ever audiences.

In August 1485 Richard of York, the last English king to be killed in battle, led his Yorkist army out from Leicester to meet the greatly outnumbered forces of the Lancastrian rebel Henry Tudor.

Until recently the exact whereabouts of the battlefield were not known. Then in 2009 Dr Glenn R. Foard and his team searching in the area some distance from the traditional location at Bosworth found the largest group of cannonballs ever retrieved from a medieval battlefield – no less than 22 shot of a variety of calibres – ranging from bullets fired from handguns to roundshot from substantial artillery pieces and a silver-gilt badge in the shape of a boar, Richard’s emblem. The finds were made on land which would have been marshy plain near a Roman road, agreeing well with the contemporary accounts which reported that Richard’s horse was caught in a boggy morass causing it’s rider to fight on foot; ‘ A horse,a horse! My kingdom for a horse! (Shakespeare)

Richard was slain and the victorious Henry Tudor decreed that the body be strapped across a horse, brought to Leicester and “there laid openly, that every man might see and look upon him”. After two days, the corpse said to have been interred in a plain unmarked tomb within the church of the Greyfriars which was demolished following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538.

Archaeologists from the Leicester University researched the location of the grave and decided it was likely to be beneath a modern car park. On first day of the dig, within a few metres of a painted letter R on the tarmac, they found a skeleton – a Caucasian male about 35 years old with a twisted spine. Was it possible that after almost six centuries Richard was found?

Exhaustive investigations including a DNA study concluded that this was so and in March 2015 the remains were reinterred beneath a specially designed tomb in Leicester Cathedral, with all the ceremony due to a king.

Robert gave a very detailed analysis of the supporting evidence provided by the skeleton. The burial seemed to have been hasty, the hands were probably tied, there was no sign of shroud or coffin, the grave was too small for the body, the skeleton was crumpled and the feet were missing.

Richard’s standard bearer at Bosworth, Sir Percival Thirwell died after his feet were sliced away during the battle, possibly with a two-handed sword but more likely with a bill or halberd but Richard’s feet were likely lost to a previous building on the site (a Victorian toilet!).

There was significant scoliosis or curvature of the spine, which may have developed at puberty and increased in severity with age. Had the spine been straight the individual would have been about 5 feet 8 inches tall but the condition may have reduced this and caused the head to be off centre – over to the right. The team believe the condition may not have been very noticeable except to a tailor or an armourer.

Richard spent virtually all his adult life fighting and there is every indication he was a talented, brave and resourceful soldier. Polypore Vergil, Henry Tudor’s official historian wrote “King Richard, alone, was killed fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies’. He had led the ill-fated charge towards the enemy, unhorsing Sir John Chene, a well-known jousting champion, and killing the Tudor standard bearer Sir William Brandon who would have been very near to Henry. The Burgundian chronicler Jean Molinet in 1490 wrote ‘the king [Richard] bore himself valiantly according to his destiny, and wore the crown on his head … His horse leapt into a marsh from which it could not retrieve itself. One of the Welshmen then came after him, and struck him dead with a halberd, and another took his body and put it before him on his horse and carried it, hair hanging as one would bear a sheep.’

The contemporary Welsh poet Guto’r Glyn writing even earlier, within a year or so of the battle, made leading Welsh Lancastrian Rhys ap Thomas, responsible for the death (‘Lladd y baedd, eilliodd ei ben’; ‘Killing the boar, he shaved his head’).

The 2013 study shows that the skeleton had 11 wounds, eight of them to the skull, clearly inflicted in battle and suggesting the helmet was lost or pulled off. In his dying moments Richard had sustained multiple blows to the head, from various bladed weapons and perhaps from more than one person. One massive blow to the base of the skull possibly from a halberd of Rhys ap Thomas may have killed him instantly.

There were few wounds to the rest of the body and no defensive wounds to the forearms or hands. Was he protected by his armour or was he was attacked from behind?

Other wounds could only have been delivered to an un-armoured man and are therefore likely to be post-mortem humiliation or insult injuries. They include nick in the right 10th rib just above the kidney, possibly from a sword or dagger and a wound to the buttocks probably delivered by knife, as the naked body lay over the horse.

Unlike the victims of the earlier battle of Towton there was neither facial mutilation nor any attempt to remove ears as trophies Robert’s detailed inventory of all Richard’s injuries was a vivid reminder the horrific power of the sword and the other weapons of medieval warfare. He reflected that it was almost as though the dead king had guided the team to their conclusions.

Although Richard now lies at rest the research continues.

Details and pictures are available on the web at www.le.ac.uk/richardiii/index.html and a book is due soon.