Hail of vicious blows to head killed King Richard III, scans of skull show
King Richard III probably perished at the hands of assailants who hacked away pieces of his scalp and rammed spikes or swords into his brain as the helmetless monarch knelt in the mud.
So suggests a report, published yesterday, that in dry forensic prose exposes the horrific demise of one of English history’s most controversial monarchs.
It backs anecdotal evidence, made famous by Shakespeare, that Richard was unhorsed before he met his doom.
Bringing together 21st century science and sketchy knowledge of 15th century history, the analysis provides a chilling tableau of the brutality of warfare in late medieval England.
Richard was killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field in Leicestershire, central England, on August 22, 1485. His death was the culmination of a three-decade war for the throne, bringing the curtain down on the three-century dynasty of his Plantagenet clan, and ushering in the Tudors.
“The most likely injuries to have caused the king’s death are the two to the inferior aspect [lower part] of the skull – a large sharp-force trauma possibly from a sword or staff weapon, such as a halberd or bill, and a penetrating injury from the tip of an edged weapon,” said Guy Rutty, a University of Leicester pathologist.
A halberd was a medieval battle axe with spiked point, and a bill was a hooked-tip blade on the end of a pole.
“Richard’s head injuries are consistent with some near-contemporary accounts of the battle, which suggest that Richard abandoned his horse after it became stuck in a mire and was killed while fighting his enemies,” said Rutty.
The study, published in The Lancet medical journal, used X-ray computed tomography (CT) for a microscopic analysis of a skeleton found in 2012 under a car park at a former church. After being lost for five centuries, researchers identified the remains as Richard’s, backed by DNA analysis and radiocarbon-dating.
The new paper documents nine injuries to the head at or shortly before death, and two to the torso that were likely inflicted post-mortem.
The two blows that probably killed the king likely came from a sword or spike driven into the brain at the base of the skull.
They were consistent with the victim being “in a prone position or on its knees with the head pointing downwards”, the study’s authors wrote.
Non-fatal injuries included three cuts to the top of the skull that would have sliced off much of the scalp. A knife or dagger was stuck right through his face, from right cheek to left.
“Richard’s injuries represent a sustained attack or an attack by several assailants,” said Sarah Hainsworth, a professor of materials engineering. “The wounds to the skull indicate that he was not wearing a helmet, and the absence of defensive wounds on his arms and hands indicate that he was otherwise still armoured at the time of his death.”
Richard died aged 32 after only two years on the throne. Contemporary accounts described him as a good monarch, but his reputation was blackened by the victorious Tudors. In Shakespeare’s Richard III, the king was portrayed as a murderous, power-hungry hunchback.