The Final Moments of Richard III…

Bob Woosnam-Savage, Curator of European Edged Weapons at Royal Armouries, formed part of an expert team that on Monday 4 February confirmed the identity of the “skeleton in the car park” as those of England’s last king to fall in battle – Richard III. His role was to investigate the battle-related trauma on the skeleton, and attempt to identify some of the possible weapons used to kill the last of the Plantagenets.

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L to R: Philippa Langley (Richard III Society), Dr. Stuart J Hamilton (Deputy Chief Forensic Pathologist, East Midlands Forensic Pathology Unit, University of Leicester), Bob Woosnam-Savage (Curator of European Edged Weapons, Royal Armouries) and Dr. Jo Appleby (Lecturer in Human Bioarchaeology, University of Leicester).

Bob tells us 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.

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 Plantagenets 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.

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Halberd. Swiss or German, about 1480 (VII.1497)

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.

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The skull of the skeleton found at the Grey Friars excavation in Leicester.
© University of Leicester

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.

This investigation has been an excellent example of everyone working together within the research team. Our real work is now only beginning.

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