Richard III’s death – the grim details

Forensic archaeology at its best – if perhaps not entirely welcome to everyone. We are now able to read exactly what Richard III’s skeleton tells us about his traumatic death.

The description of the wounds, in a multi-authored paper published in the Lancet, changes little of what has already been told (so my summary in Act V of Digging for Richard III is happily pretty much right), but adds much detail as it sets out all the evidence. Here’s a handy summary of what it says, to help you navigate what the press thinks it says.

The main conclusions are:

  • Richard died on his knees, his crown and helmet removed – and his proven identify revealed – “after a sustained attack or an attack by several assailants”
  • with his head bloodied and badly damaged, his body was stripped of the remaining armour, and slung naked over a horse; here it took two cutting blows, to the back and buttocks, the latter penetrating the bowel and, had he been alive, causing “substantial bleeding”.

And here is more detail.

Shona Campbell, consultant radiologist, Jo Appleby and Guy Rutty putting some of the king’s remains into a Toshiba Medical Systems CT scanner at the Leicester Royal Infirmary. Photo Leicester University
Claire Robinson (Advanced Practitioner Forensics), Jo Appleby and Mike Biggs (Home Office Pathologist with the East Midlands Forensic Pathology Unit) putting some of the king’s remains into a Toshiba Medical Systems CT scanner at the Leicester Royal Infirmary. Photo Leicester University
  1. They found nine, possibly ten, perimortem injuries to the head, and two to the body (perimortem means they were inflicted close to the point of death, though that could be before, at or after this). None had healed, they could have been delivered in any order, they are consistent with later medieval weaponry, and three would rapidly have been fatal.
  1. The head wounds, says the paper, suggest that the king was not wearing a helmet when he was killed, though he was otherwise armoured (no wounds to arms and hands – people typically raise their arms defensively when attacked). This would indicate that a potentially fatal pelvis injury, and a non-fatal rib injury, were probably received after death, when his armour had been stripped off.
  1. Thus what actually killed Richard were probably one or two injuries to the back of the head. These “are highly consistent with the body having been in a prone position or on its knees with the head pointing downwards… the head had to be forward and flexed from the neck to expose this part of the head and cervical spine.”

Funnily enough, we came to exactly the same conclusion about an Anglo-Saxon skeleton from Stonehenge. In that case, the man was beheaded with a single sword blow (described at length in my book, Hengeworld). The Stonehenge skull (which for burial had been placed on the body’s shoulders, so that execution was only recognised when we examined the remains in 1999, though the grave had been excavated in 1923), was raised above the body. Richard III’s skull was thus raised, which is why I asked Jo Appleby, when I was writing Digging for Richard III, if there were any signs of beheading? She said no.

Richard died on the battlefield and received several wounds, some of which we very likely can’t see (not having damaged any bone). Yet there is an element of the execution about his death, too. He didn’t die fighting Richmond, as Shakespeare had it. Nor, perhaps, was he necessarily the victim of the Welshman Rhys ap Thomas who “shaved his head” – that would seem more appropriate for the glancing sword blows to the back of the head (see below) than either of the two that penetrated the brain. In other respects, we see once again that near contemporary historical records and archaeology agree. Richard III was struck “until his brains came out with blood”, apparently when he was “on his knees”. Perhaps he simply fell down, as his body crumpled beneath the attack, to receive the fatal blows at that moment of collapse.

A pair of nasty wounds in the head (numbered as below). Photo Leicester University

The Lancet report lists 11 wounds – nine to the skull, two to the rest of the body – and suggests a 12th, which might instead have been caused by bone breaking in the ground after burial. Strictly there are 13 or 14, which I’ve indicated here by adding sub-letters:

1. A small cut on the right jaw from a knife or dagger

2. A smaller “toolmark” higher up the right jaw, which “seems to be an injury from a sharp weapon”

3. A penetrating injury to the right cheek, from a square-sectioned dagger blade

4–6. Three shallow “shaving-type injuries caused by a [sharp-]bladed implement” on the back of the skull, two of which show similar striations and were probably made with the same blade, but this is not certain

7. An oblique blow to the head from above, from a rondel dagger (not an arrow), perhaps the same weapon that caused wound 3

8. A “sharp-force trauma” at the rear base of the skull, caused by a large blade, possibly a sword or staff weapon such as a halberd or billhook

9a–c. A penetrating injury at the left base of the skull, which aligned on an injury on the inside of the skull 105mm distant through the head; it also aligned on a cut mark on the atlas vertebra (the top neck bone). These could have been caused by a sword tip or the top spike of a bill or halberd, and represent a single blow; I think the vertebral cut is described here for the first time

10. A sharp force toolmark on the right 10th rib, with two distinct cuts within the injury, probably made by a dagger rather than a sword and coming from behind

The third potentially fatal wound, in the hip. Photo Leicester University
The third potentially fatal wound, in the hip. Photo Leicester University

11. An incised injury on the right hip, caused by a fine-bladed weapon (not a staff) entering from behind; “the angle of the injury… is highly consistent” with an attack when, as contemporary accounts describe, Richard’s naked body was slung over a horse.Other damage was probably caused by soil pressure during the centuries of burial:

i. Some cheek sutures had separated; one of these separations, on the right side, could alternatively have been caused by “direct facial trauma” (12), such as a weapon forced into the maxilla (as caused wound 3), or a blow to the back of the head (several options above)

ii. The mandible (lower jaw) was fractured

iii. Many of the ribs were “fragmented by taphonomic processes”, but any further injuries here would nonetheless probably have been seen.

There is something else, described almost in passing at the start of the paper. The previously published estimate for the skeleton’s age was late 20s to late 30s (Antiquity 2013, 536). This is now refined to 30–34. While the full evidence is not given, it is said that it came from the auricular surfaces of the ilium, the os pubis, the complete fusion of the medial clavicle, rib end morphology and cranial sutures, using “standard post-mortem CT methods”. This is quite a precise age estimate, and it will be interesting to see how what will undoubtedly have been unusually close examination of the remains allowed them to reach this conclusion – which we know from the historical evidence to be correct (Richard III died when he was 32). In other words, this could be one of many areas where new ground is being broken.

In view of disputed accounts of who paid for what in this project, it’s worth noting, from the acknowledgments, that “the University of Leicester funded this research”. Archaeologists call the analyses that make sense of what is dug up, without which there would be little point to the exercise and the excavation would be irresponsible, post-excavation. Post-excavation almost always costs more, often substantially more, than the dig itself – as in this case, where even by the end of 2012, when post-ex had barely begun, the cost of digging (£48,518, of which the Richard III Society contributed an essential £18,083) was dwarfed by the analytical costs (£94,115, paid for by the university). It’s quite possible that this study of the wounds alone – which involved among much else, use of a CT scanner and a micro-CT scanner – cost more than the Richard III Society’s contribution towards excavation costs. This is not to belittle anyone, but simply to explain how it works.

And the writers end by saying, once again and quite rightly, “thanks to Philippa Langley, without whose faith and perseverance none of this would ever have been possible”.


Perimortem trauma in King Richard III: a skeletal analysis”, by Jo Appleby, Guy Rutty, Sarah Hainsworth, Robert Woosnam-Savage, Bruno Morgan, Alison Brough, Richard Earp, Claire Robinson, Turi King, Mathew Morris & Richard Buckley, The Lancet (2014)

The Lancet also has online comment, and a video, with some good graphics, narrated by Sarah Hainsworth, one of the article’s authors and professor of engineering at Leicester University

This is the fifth peer-reviewed article about the excavation. Here are the other four:

  1. “‘The king in the car park’: new light on the death & burial of Richard III in the Grey Friars church, Leicester, in 1485”, Antiquity (May 2013)
  1. The intestinal parasites of King Richard III”, The Lancet (September 2013)
  1. The scoliosis of Richard III, last Plantagenet King of England: diagnosis and clinical significance”, The Lancet (May 2014)
  1. Multi-isotope analysis demonstrates significant lifestyle changes in King Richard III”, by Angela Lamb, Jane Evans, Richard Buckley & Jo Appleby, Journal of Archaeological Science (August 2014)

2 thoughts on “Richard III’s death – the grim details

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s