How did Richard III die? The Royal Armouries on the violent death of the King in battle

By Bob Woosnam-Savage | 04 February 2013

Richard III: The Royal Armouries' Curator of European Edged Weapons Bob Woosnam-Savage, who was part of the team which investigated the Grey Friars skeleton, on the final moments of Richard III's life...

A photo of a team of four scientists standing in front of a table within a laboratory
Bob Woosnam-Savage (third from left) with (left to right) Philippa Langley (Richard III Society), Dr Stuart J Hamilton (Deputy Chief Forensic Pathologist, East Midlands Forensic Pathology Unit, University of Leicester)  and Dr Jo Appleby (Lecturer in Human Bioarchaeology, University of Leicester)© Royal Armouries
“What we have is a very tentative, first attempt to try and create a possible narrative reconstructing the last minutes and death of Richard III, the last king of England to die in battle.

It is extremely important to bear in mind that this is exactly that; a first attempt. It will no doubt evolve as more is discovered.

My narrative that follows is a synthesis, based upon various elements from the historical accounts - and what we presently understand the evidence the skeleton may possibly suggest. The scenario offered suggests just one possible scenario:

A photo of a long silver medieval weapon with a kind of forked silver sword on the end
The halberd (1488) is Central European (Swiss) and of late 15th century date. Such staff weapons were in common use by European infantry at this time© Royal Armouries
Richard was described as leading a mounted charge against Henry Tudor in an attempt to kill him.

Cutting down Tudor’s standard bearer, Sir William Brandon, there is the possibility Richard’s momentum was stalled by marshy ground, a feature confirmed by the recent archaeology of the Bosworth battlefield.

His horse stuck, or slain, Richard, fully armoured, continues fighting manfully on foot, maybe only a few feet away from his intended target, Henry Tudor.

However, the tide of battle had seemingly already begun to turn as Stanley’s forces decided to side with Tudor, and they came down upon the Plantagents and Richard.

Tudor’s own bodyguard would have been defending him as well and so, within a very short space of time, Richard could have found himself outnumbered and in the press of his enemies. But then what?

His armour, successfully protecting him up to this time, probably began to fail under ferocious attack.

There is no evidence to say how long this sustained attack lasted, but at some point it would appear that his helmet was forcibly removed – possibly cut or ripped away.

A mock up computer photo of a man standing in medieval armour carrying a sword
This life-size dummy shows a European (Italian) infantryman of the same period (late 15th century), this time wielding another staff weapon - a bill. These types of close combat troops were also common. Billmen were used in English battles and were also present at Bosworth© Royal Armouries
It is perhaps from these moments that the skeleton appears to begin to provide some glimpses of a possible scenario regarding the dying moments of Richard III.

At this time, Richard immediately receives more blows; a number of individual wounds from bladed weapons to the head, particularly to the top and rear of the skull, indicate a sustained and repeated attack on an unprotected head, one particularly massive blow possibly proving fatal.

That particular blow could well have been delivered by a staff weapon such as a halberd.

Other blows, including a penetrating wound to the top of the skull, and another to the base, both again probably dealt to an unprotected head, appear to have been perhaps delivered either near, or at the point of, death, with Richard possibly finally keeling over in a kneeling position or even lying semi-prone on the ground, although the body position must remain speculative at this time.

This trauma to the head certainly would appear to fit accounts that include descriptions such as his head was shaved and that his brains came out with blood.

However, the skeleton bears other wounds which, if it were that of Richard, can only be explained as having been delivered after any armour was removed from the body and therefore probably after the king was presumably already near death, or dead.

These 'insult injuries' might have included the small stab wound to the face; a stab in the back from behind, which struck a rib and, perhaps most tellingly of all, a stab wound, possibly delivered with a knife or dagger, to the buttocks.

This last, insulting blow could easily have been delivered to king’s body by an infantryman with a bladed weapon after it had been slung over the back of a horse, ‘with the armes and legges hanging down on both sides’, as he was borne to Leicester.

A point of interest is that compared to a number of the dead from the Battle of Towton (1461), the face itself seems to bear comparatively little trauma.

This may be of significance as the body of the king was subject to at least two days of exposure, from the time of his death to his burial.

One of the reasons for such exposure, which was not exceptional at this time, was to allow an individual’s death to be witnessed and accepted – a severely damaged or unidentifiable face, preventing recognition, would obviously largely defeat this purpose.
Finally, it should be borne in mind that the trauma to the skeleton (over 10 wounds) must be regarded as an under-enumeration of the number of wounds the body originally sustained - Richard may well have borne wounds to the soft tissue, which have not been preserved.

The state of his body would therefore, no doubt, have matched descriptions which say Richard was all besprinkled with mire and blood.

We are obviously aware of how previous historians, including Murray Kendall, have been vilified for attempting to create such an account.

But with the discovery of the skeleton we are now approaching a time when we can, indeed, begin to create such a picture with a degree of accuracy, especially as all of the identified traumas are indeed consistent with what we know about the death and subsequent treatment of the corpse of Richard III.

However, to reiterate, this is only a first attempt to contextualise what has been discovered so far and more work, from me and others, will without doubt follow.

This has been an excellent example of everyone working together within the research team. Our real work is now only beginning.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More on this story.

Richard III to be buried in Leicester, High Court rules

Archaeologists send head of Richard III to Northampton Museum

Richard III: Archaeologist Claire Calver on the search for the King's body in Leicester

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Excellent article, the halberd is a fearsome weapon
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