LONDON (Reuters) - Archaeologists will reveal next week whether a skeleton with a cleaved skull and a curved spine entombed under a municipal car park is that of Richard III, the last English king to die in battle, more than five centuries ago.
The grey, concrete car park with its red-brick walls and a payment hut in Leicester, central England, contrasts sharply with the grandeur of traditional sepulchres for English kings and queens such as Windsor Castle and Westminster Abbey.
The defeated Richard’s lost grave has proved to be as elusive as the reputation of the monarch, portrayed by Shakespeare as a deformed tyrant behind the murder of two young princes in the Tower of London but lauded by devotees as brave and enlightened.
One of the most famous kings in English history, Richard was slain in a bid to cling on to his crown at the 1485 Battle of Bosworth Field, depicted by Shakespeare as dismounted from his courser, calling: “A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!”
In the centuries after the battle, the culmination of a bloody 30-year civil war and dynastic power struggle known as The Wars of the Roses, the place of Richard’s burial was forgotten, one of the few English monarchs to suffer such a fate.
But a team of archaeologists is set to announce on Monday whether a skeleton found in remnants of a Franciscan friary known as Grey Friars is that of the king, a find that would set off a debate about an appropriate final resting place.
“I think for so many reasons it’s going to be an extraordinary announcement,” said Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society, a group which campaigns for a reassessment of the mediaeval monarch who reigned for just two years.
“It will be overwhelming,” Langley, who has spent four years driving the search for Richard’s remains, said in an interview.
Last September, the team from the University of Leicester excitedly announced they had found a skeleton with apparent battlefield wounds during excavations of the Grey Friars site.
The bones were found in good condition in the choir area of the friary’s church whose exact location had been lost but which was documented in historical records as Richard’s burial place.
Since then, the archaeologists have carried out extensive scientific tests to see if the DNA matched with Canadian-born Michael Ibsen who is believed to be a direct descendant of the king’s sister, Anne of York.
“It is exciting to be able to play a small part in something that is potentially so historically important, but also nerve-wracking because it remains to be seen whether the tests will be conclusive,” said Ibsen, a furniture-maker based in London.
The skeleton showed signs of injuries consistent with wounds received in battle; a bladed implement appeared to have cleaved part of the rear of the skull while a barbed metal arrowhead was found between vertebrae of the skeleton’s upper back.
The body also had spinal abnormalities, believed to be severe scoliosis, a form of spinal curvature, which would have made his right shoulder appear visibly higher than his left one, which matches contemporary accounts of Richard.
The archaeologists have gone to ground ahead of Monday’s announcement at the University of Leicester, although they said the search for Richard had caught the world’s imagination with media from the across the globe due to attend.
“It’s going right to the wire,” said Langley, adding that the initial evidence was compelling. “Some of the big tests are literally coming in now. The DNA is probably not going to be in until Sunday.”
While the findings may solve one riddle about Richard, the last Plantagenet king of England remains a complex figure whose life, made famous by Shakespeare’s history play, deeply divides opinion among historians in Britain and abroad.
Richard has been played by a multitude of actors including David Garrick, Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh. Lines from the play include “Now is the Winter of our discontent” as well as “Where Eagles Dare” which became a film title.
A tough soldier and popular in northern England, Richard was crowned at Westminster Abbey in July 1483 after replacing his 12-year-old nephew Edward V on the throne after claims that the young prince and his brother, the sons of Richard’s elder brother Edward IV, were illegitimate.
The two boys later disappeared from the Tower of London, and their fate is one of the greatest unanswered historical questions. However, Richard has long been blamed for ordering, or even carrying out, the murder of the “Princes in the Tower”.
Much of that is thanks to Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of King Richard the Third”, which portrays him as a power-crazed, evil hunchback who killed off his rivals to get to the throne.
His supporters say this is misleading, written as it was over 100 years later when Queen Elizabeth I, the granddaughter of Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII after his victory over Richard at Bosworth, was on the throne.
“He was a man who fought all his life for justice yet irony of ironies, he is now pretty much the subject of a major injustice against him,” Langley said. “The evidence to say Richard killed the princes doesn’t exist.”
Unsurprisingly, there is likely to be much disagreement over what should happen to the bones if the skeleton found in the ignominious location underneath a Leicester car park is certified to be that of the king.
Some think he should stay in Leicester and be interred in the cathedral, others would like a state funeral in London and burial alongside other British monarchs.
“The authorities are waiting for the identification process. If it is him, they’re going to make their decision pretty quickly,” Langley said. Buckingham Palace officials were silent on the enthralling tale with no comment when called by Reuters.
Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Peter Millership