How Did King Richard III Die?

When Hamlet tells Claudius that Polonius, whom he has just killed, is at dinner being eaten rather than eating, Claudius is puzzled. Hamlet explains that the worms are eating Polonius, and Claudius, still puzzled, asks Hamlet what he means by this

Nothing [replied Hamlet] but to show how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.

In other words, we all come to the same end.

I thought of this passage when I read a paper about the death of Richard III in a recent edition of the Lancet. His remains were found recently buried under a car park in Leicester, a dismal provincial town in England, one of many ruined by planned modernization. The car park had once been a priory.

A long historical battle has raged over Richard’s real nature, whether he was hero or villain as per Shakespeare (few people think he might have been something in between the two). Certainly his remains, now more than 500 years old, have not been treated with undue respect: a team of forensic pathologists and archaeologists have examined them minutely for clues as to how he died at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

Richard was not a hunchback, as he is usually portrayed on the stage, but he had a severe scoliosis which made his right shoulder higher than his left. Interestingly, his deformity is said to have accounted for his bad character: in the opening speech of Richard III, he tells us that since he cannot play the lover, he is determined instead to prove a villain. But Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, does not leave it at that: Richard is adept a little later at seducing with astonishing speed the wife of the very man he has just killed, thus casting doubt on physique being the cause of his villainy. It is simply not true that, because he is "made up so lame and unfashionable that dogs bark at me in the street," he cannot be a lover.

From the close examination of his skeletal remains, the team that examined them drew interesting conclusions. Assuming that the wounds to his skull were inflicted before his death rather than after (and they were certainly inflicted very near the time of his death, for they show no signs of healing), Richard could not have been wearing a helmet at the time. On the other hand, he must have been wearing body armor, for there were no signs of defensive wounds on his forearms, as there certainly would have been had he tried to defend himself without such armor.

Richard_III_earliest_surviving_portrait

The wounds to his skull were of a severity to kill him, as was the wound to his pelvis. The latter would have been caused by a long and sharp blade that had been thrust through his buttock and right into his abdomen where injury to the bowel and subsequent bleeding might have been sufficient to cause death. But if he were protected by chainmail and body-armor, as suggested by lack of defensive wounds on the arms, the wound would have been post-mortem. And certainly there were reports of indignities committed on his body after his death.

Was this investigation a further indignity visited upon him? A person dead for half a millennium can hardly give his consent to such a procedure and it would be something of a task to find his nearest living relative to speak on his behalf, since Richard is said to have millions of living descendants. This raises the question of how old a body of a named person has to be before it can be regarded, without anybody’s consent, as a mere object of scientific investigation or curiosity. No doubt the answer is, It depends; certainly, the authors of this paper had no qualms.

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image via wikimedia commons /  "Richard III earliest surviving portrait" by Unknown artist; uploaded to wikipedia by Silverwhistle - Richard III Society website via English Wikipedia.