Richard III's remains identified, but was he really Shakespeare's villain?

Though Richard's final resting place has been subject of long debate among historians, scientists announced today the skeleton found in the English city of Leicester is that of the 15th-century king.

Darren Staples/Reuters
Lead archaeologist Richard Buckley confirms the discovery of King Richard III, during a news conference in Leicester, England, today. A skeleton with a cleaved skull and a curved spine entombed under a parking lot is that of Richard III, scientific tests confirmed, solving a 500-year-old mystery about the final resting place of the last English king to die in battle.

He was immortalized as one of Shakespeare's greatest villains, and his death brought the Wars of the Roses to a close and ushered in a new royal dynasty. But despite his lasting fame and place in history, King Richard III's final resting place had been long debated by historians.

Today, scientists confirmed they had found that place: a parking lot in the English city of Leicester.

Tests by archaeologists at the city’s university say the remains were Richard’s "beyond all reasonable doubt." The body was discovered during an archaeological dig last August around what was Grey Friars Church, where the king was recorded to have been buried after defeat at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. The victory by Henry Tudor effectively ended the dynastic civil wars fought between two powerful royal houses: York, led by Richard, and Lancaster by Henry.

Researchers were reluctant to comment until tests were carried out, which included taking DNA samples from the descendants of Richard’s sister, Anne of York, one of whom was Canadian-born carpenter Michael Ibsen, and another person who didn’t want to be identified.

The skeleton, which was said to be of a man in his late 20s to early 30s, had a metal arrow in its back, and injuries to the skull. It also had a curved spine, which was consistent with Shakespeare’s ridiculing of him as a hunchbacked, evil man hungry for power. However, there was no evidence of a withered arm, which the playwright had also highlighted.  Richard died at age 32 after just two years on the throne.

Richard Buckley, the lead archaeologist on the project said: “It is the academic conclusion of the University of Leicester that the individual exhumed at Grey Friars in August 2012 is indeed King Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England."

“It has been an honor and privilege for all of us to be at the center of an academic project that has had such phenomenal global interest and mass public appeal. Rarely have the conclusions of academic research been so eagerly awaited,” he says.

Richard Van Allen at the Richard III Society, which helped coordinate and fund the search, says the confirmation was exciting. “I’m delighted by the news. We were started in 1924 by a small group of people who did not believe what Shakespeare had written and wanted to counter the distortions."

“It’s fantastic that the body has been found and the scientists can dispel some of the physical myths, but what’s more important is that people are talking about him and his legacy."

Elizabeth Dollimore at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust says she hopes it would renew interest in what she says is one of England’s most interesting monarchs. “Some people have accused Shakespeare of writing propaganda, but he was a businessman and he wrote to his audience. Of course he was influenced by the times he lived in, but could also only use the historical writings available."

“To be fair to him, he created one of the most interesting, charismatic villains who actors always love to play. Shakespeare didn’t just portray him as a bad man; he was a strong man who woos Lady Anne over the body of her dead husband,” she says.

Shakespeare “has him speaking to the audience and wondering whether he is liked," an introspection still echoed by modern politicians. "Look at Barack Obama and Tony Blair and what’s now called ‘spin’ around them.”

Mr. Van Allen adds that the next question regarding Richard III is a practical one: Where will he be buried?

“There are some people saying he should have a state funeral because he’s the only king of England not to have had a decent burial, but I can’t see the palace agreeing to that. Others say it should be in Leicester Cathedral, which is only 50 yards away from the excavation; others say in York or his birthplace at Fotheringhay Castle – who knows?"

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