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A sculpture of Richard III's head is filmed with a television camera in London, United Kingdom.

A plastic model reveals the face of England's King Richard III for the first time in 500 years.

Photograph by Justin Tallis, AFP/Getty Images

A.R. Williams

National Geographic News

Published February 6, 2013

He reigned for only two years and 47 days, and he died more than 500 years ago. But suddenly he's trending on Twitter and the talk of Facebook—and our story this week on the discovery of his bones beneath a British parking lot has netted 11,000 Facebook "likes" and counting.

And while the apparent confirmation of Richard III's bones is no doubt a testament to the power of archaeology, there are many other reasons for the current Richardmania. Here's my list:

The Shakespeare factor: The bard portrayed Richard III as one of the wickedest characters in English literature, launching his play with the now immortal line, "Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by the sun of York." Students around the world study the play about a king who stole the British throne, murdered his nephews, and died in battle lamenting the lack of a horse. The U.S. branch of the Richard III Society, which is dedicated to reassessing the king's reputation, offers one of many online lists of resources for educators.

He was a handsome devil: His heart may have been dark, but his face was fair. Computer modeling has created a true-to-life portrait of RIII by adding muscles and flesh to the recently recovered skull.

His stage presence: From John Barrymore (1929) to Laurence Olivier (1955) to Peter Sellers (1965) to Kevin Spacey (2012), A-list actors have played RIII in theaters and movies. Will the news change how the character is portrayed in the future? That, apparently, will depend on the actor.

A highborn figure laid low: Everyone loves a story with a juicy twist, and this is a good one. Kings and queens normally end up in grand places, not under parking lots. Think of Elizabeth I's tomb in Westminster Abbey. Though most headline writers played it straight, promoting the king-in-the-car-park theme, some couldn't resist pitching this as a hunch that paid off or a face that launched a thousand myths. Twitter was full of digs and puns.

Local interest: From Ph.D.s to people who left school at 16, the Brits know their history and closely follow the news of archaeological finds like RIII. Many volunteer on digs in their spare time. The summer I worked on a medieval excavation at the site of what is now a parking lot in Milton Keynes, I wielded my WHS pointing trowel on weekends alongside a nurse named June, an ambulance driver named Richard, and a bricklayer named Andrew. The Council for British Archaeology publishes a list of current opportunities for fieldwork.

The debates: Is this news more PT Barnum than serious science? Will it rewrite history? Rehabilitate a much-maligned figure? And how solid is the DNA evidence? Turi King, a University of Leicester genetics expert involved in this project promises that the findings will be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

A battle for the burial: The cities of York and Leicester both want RIII. Where will he finally RIP?

Now they're on a roll. British archaeologists are looking for another lost king, the ninth-century's Alfred the Great. The University of Winchester has just applied for permission to investigate an unmarked grave in a local church.

Even if they find bones from the right period, though, a DNA match might be difficult to find. Scientists would have to trace branches of the family tree that lead from more than 1,100 years ago to a living relative. But if they're lucky, a reveal could come as early as this summer.

Have your own explanation for Richardmania? Share it in the comments.

Editor's note: A.R. Williams is an archaeologist who has covered the field for National Geographic since 1988.

21 comments
Laurel C.
Laurel C.

@catrina horsfield

Catrina, I for one appreciate your comment and concur. A decent king, not a saint, but a man of his time who did do much for the everyday man of the time.

@Kerry F.

Kerry, I also enjoyed Sharon Penman's novel. If you get a chance, try Jeremy Potter's biography, "Good King Richard?" and also his novel, "Trail of Blood".

"The most famous prince of blessed memory" read the records of the City of York in 1485. Had Richard III prevailed at Bosworth ... and the accounts indicate he came awfully darned close to taking out Henry Tudor ... we would be living in a different world today.

Why some of the other commenters believe so strongly that only Richard had the motive and opportunity to kill his nephews is beyond me. Richard was a loyal brother who followed his older brother Edward's commands for years. If the princes were indeed illegitimate and therefore barred from the succession due to the precontract of Edward with Salisbury's daughter prior to Edward's marriage with Elizabeth Woodville, the woman who would become the mother of the princes, what danger did the boys pose to Richard? It has always seemed more likely to me that Buckingham was a more likely murderer of the boys ...if they were murdered ... as Buckingham, not Henry, would have had the more legitimate claim to the throne were both the boys and Richard out of the way. If you haven't yet read it, do try Josephine Tey's "Daughter of Time", one place (but not the only one) where such a theory is advanced.

At this late date we are unlikely to ever know the full truth of what happened those 500+ years ago, but I thought it was wonderful to be able to see an actual facial reconstruction of the man, which gives us all a closer look of what he looked like in life. May he and all who fell with him rest in peace.

Kerry F.
Kerry F.

My obsession began when I read the book The Sunne In Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman a number of years ago.

A fantastic book by an amazing author.  Such a tragic story all around.

George Jones
George Jones

A recent newspaper article adds fuel to the fire that all this had to do more for "PR Merit" at the University & the City of Leicester versus sound "Academic Merit"

What's next in America ... a Abraham Lincoln Society says we go dig up the grave of Thomas Lincoln (Father of President Abraham Lincoln) and then Abraham Lincoln and run a Y-DNA Paternity Test because the City of Springfield, Illinois and some knucklehead academics at the University of Illinois in Champaign thinks it has "Academic Merit"

Article Title: Richard III: Princes' fate looks set to remain a mystery

 Date: Saturday, February 09, 2013

From: Leicester Mercury   By Peter Warzynski

A centuries-old claim that Richard III imprisoned and murdered his two young nephews looks set to remain a mystery despite the possibility a genetic study could reveal the truth.

Using DNA from the recently identified monarch (King Richard III), academics at the University of Leicester "could perhaps" determine whether two bodies believed to be those of his nephews, Edward and Richard, are indeed the Princes in the Tower.  

However, Westminster Abbey, where the bodies are buried, said it WOULD NOT grant access to the remains.

The Richard III Society unsuccessfully applied to open the graves in 1993 and 1995.

A spokeswoman for the abbey said: "The recent discovery of Richard III does not change the abbey's position, which is that the mortal remains of two young children, widely believed since the 17th century to be the princes, should not be disturbed."

The story goes that in 1483, Richard III ordered the deaths of the 12-year-old King Edward V and his brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, nine, in order to seize the throne.

Richard Taylor, deputy registrar at the University of Leicester, said tests would involve analysing the Y chromosome from the known Plantagenet remains.

"However, we haven't got that far in our research yet, nor have we been granted, or applied for, permission from Buckingham Palace," he said.

"If we were to do the work, we could work down through the family tree to the princes, but we're not thinking that far ahead yet."

The dramatic discovery of two child skeletons in the Tower of London in 1674 added weight to the claim the young princes came to a gruesome end at the hands of their uncle.

Geneticist Dr Turi King, whose work cemented the identity of Richard III, said: "It's an intriguing question and it would be interesting to try to answer it.

"There's a possibility that if I can amplify the Y chromosome and we can get an uncontaminated sample from the remains at Westminster, we might be able to determine whether there's a link.

"But, if I'm honest, there would be no academic merit.

"I'm a little wary of people who try to do things like this without a proper research question attached to it.

"But I am interested and I think I'd have to do it quietly, without the media breathing down my neck.

"In the case of Richard III, I had to go public before I'd completely finished my research, which is not the way I would have done things in an ideal world."

If the DNA did not match, it would be unlikely the remains at Westminster were those of Edward V and his sibling.

If they did match, it would further strengthen the claims the princes were murdered.

Buckingham Palace has refused to comment on the issue.

Jason Bransfield
Jason Bransfield

Students around the world study the play about a king who stole the British throne, murdered his nephews, and died in battle lamenting the lack of a horse.

Richard III  was King of England not Britain, His defeat at Bosworth Field, the decisive battle of the war of the roses, is sometimes regarded as the end of the Medieval period a period in history in which England had successfully  colonised Wales and had attempted to but proved unable to colonise the Scots. Scotland had remained independent of English rule until the act of union in 1707 


craig hill
craig hill

History is our only time machine (time is not a place, but a measurement), and history making news makes the past 'of the moment', sometimes, as with the blow by blow details of Richard's injuries, bringing us back to share a bit of an experience that living breathing humans of a fairy tale-type earlier time also experienced. As if for a brief time we are breathing their air, and have an inkling of how that tasted.

I have had the privilege of walking the battlefield at Bosworth, a privilege even in a downpour, and even that did not bring the reality of the situation to full consciousness than it did seeing the bones of the vanquished king this week. 

When we see that spine curving like a semi-circle, it elicits gasps, which then makes those of us easily swayed by anything historical perhaps for the first time begin to imagine how it must have felt to be him, laughed at in court for his misshapenness, knowing he's of royal stock (which just means of the richest and, in his case, most successful family of pirates)  but respected perhaps no better than a jester at court, and how that must have weighed on him, and how it easily would have made his privileged spoiled mind go mad, in both senses of the word, enough to lock up and kill one's own nephews to usurp their throne and be able to sit in it and think "Now let's see who makes fun of me" and "How am i going to pay back those who did?"

History breaks down the time barrriers to those kind of very ancient feelings, making them very raw to those of us who can imagine sharing them, now, with those who did 530 years ago, thanks to this drop-dead gorgeous lightning bolt of archeology.  

Michael Stone
Michael Stone

It always helps to go down fighting. Had Richard died of  afever a couple of months before Henry Tudor's landing, only a few scholars would now remember him, and a whole library's worth of romantic novels would have been left unwritten.

And the English have this thing about gallant losers. Jacobites are far more popular than Hanoverians, and Cavaliers than Roundheads, and as Orwell noted, most of theevents of both world wars that have stuck in memory were disasters, not victories. That's just the way we are.

George Jones
George Jones

Yes there is a good dose of Richard III mania and that extends to the academics of the University Research Team and the cast of Ricardian characters who inspired this exhumation.

I am not asserting that the University Scientist Team "made up the facts". I am asserting, just as equally wrong, that they "did not include all of the relevant and important facts" and just "cherry picked the made for the media facts" for their well orchestrated BIG REVEAL press conference on Monday. 

Reminds me of the PBS Finding Your Roots Big Reveals staging by Harvard's Henry Louis Gates and the dramatic made for TV moments. Many leading academics are critical of them for not first publishing their material in peer reviewed journals prior to a P T Barnum Press Confrence.

Indeed, there was another research project initiated much earlier by a PhD part of the University Research Team --- John, Ashdown-Hill a Ricardian. 

Remember, they want to open up a Richard III Visitors Center (York now fighting for it also); enhance the University reputation; sell some books; sell some Made in China Richard III trinkets; enhance the reputation of Richard III; do some movie deals etc. 

I contend that the Monday Press Event Orchestration will become the Gold Standard for Archaelogists, Geneticists, Historians to gain fame and further their funding and tenure in the years ahead.

The Back Stories here are good as the Main Story and main stream journalists are missing the boat in delving deeper into the personalities involved. Take a look at the Ricardian lady who brought this deal to the University and her merry cast. The "Back Stories" are just as good as the "Lead Story" here. 

But some of the crusial facts are not being heard because of the trove of hoofbeats from unaware and eager reporters & bloggers along with a trove of hoofbeats from naive and amateur Genetic Genealogists that do not take the time to fact check and do some critical analysis of their own.

A KEY and UNDERREPORTED FACT: This  University Team did indeed have a viable J1C2C mtDNA sample from Joy Ibsen (died 2008 in Canada) taken sometime between 2005 and 2008. 

But a dead person does not make good press and perhaps they did not have her informed consent. So, this is a 3rd sample we know they had access to (in addition to that from the skeleton of Richard III) ... why didn't they acknowledge this 1st and earliest DNA sample from Joy Ibsen and the guy who made it happen in 2005, John? Is it about some book deal or movie deal or documentary deal? I listened to the Press Conference and they (Dr. Turi King) did not mention Joy's DNA Test on Monday.

When you are doing critical forensic type of DNA analysis involving identity and ancestry... do you just willy nilly omit certain results? 

No - No - No, you don't and they did. Perhaps an unscrupulous DA or police official might ... but now some academics are doing it! To me, that's over the top.

I interdependently and earlier than Monday came up with info on the rare mtDNA Haplogroup J1C2C.

 I cannot divulge the original source but see the James Lick blog piece here: http://blog.jameslick.com/?m=201302 and also this 2010 book written by a key player in all this: The Last Days of Richard III by John Ashdown-Hill.

I have read that book and did considerable back story work on all this including consultative talks with leading PhDs in this area.

Most are eagerly awaiting to critically review any research papers published in Antiquity and elsewhere.

John had Joy's test analyzed by Oxford Ancestors and another Lab for verification.

John also is coming out with a new book and perhaps has a movie deal or documentary deal in the works.

George Jones

JonesGE  (at) yahoo.com

John Daniel Federico
John Daniel Federico

 A tale followed not only in the West but in the rest of the world as well! I am a native and resident of the Philippines, but ever since I have read late last year that a skeleton found buried under a car park might have belonged to the Plantagenet king who allegedly killed his nephews in order to claim the English throne for himself, I found it extremely difficult to turn my eyes elsewhere and simply ignore the story unfolding on the other side of the globe.

Gregory S.
Gregory S.

In a way I find the story compelling in an appalling way. Nobody who rose to power in this era was innocent, and in fact many of their actions would be considered quite shocking and contemptible by today's standards. Yet an important cultural and historical figure was paricularly villified by the victors and then neglected for so long. Their are so many contrasts of this story with the prim and proper image commonly associated with today's royals. His visage does appear regal in appearance, so one wonders if his hunchback disability diminished his authority and led to his demise at the hands of the Tudor rivals? We live in a media image dependent culture mostly devoid of substance, so putting a face on this monarch indeed has a profound effect on what we think of him, despite everything we read about him in Shakespeare. The contrast of what we expected to see in this vilain versus the actual iimages makes us wonder what more there is to this story.

Reena de Lanerolle
Reena de Lanerolle

"Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this King 'neath cement. And all the fumes that lour'd upon our house in the deep bosom of the carpark buried"

But seriously, congrats to the archaeologists. The find of a career.

Samantha M.
Samantha M.

a dead king was found, in an extremely humilating spot, a parking lot. the fact we just found him is sweet, but what's even better is that we know that much more about him, for the uk history geeks like me, it is very exciting...

Lafe Purcell
Lafe Purcell

It's probably all of the things listed above.  In general there's always a natural "pull" towards powerful figures - who wouldn't thrill to discovering the lost remains of Alexander the Great?......or even ::shudder:: Adolf Hitler?  There seems to always be an underlying belief that if we possessed their remains we might somehow gain a better understanding or appreciation of who they were beyond the curtains of history.

With Richard there's the romanticism of the doomed man who - saint or sinner - certainly met his end bravely and well.  528 years after the fact I am still a bit impressed by the realization that this slip of a man was apparently formidible enough that the only safe way to bring him down was to poleaxe him from behind.  Fighting Richard face-to-face does not seem to have been recommended behavior.

There's also always a human tendency against exaggeration.  We - all of us - seem to instinctively understand that Richard wasn't the demon of the Tudor propogandists (sorry William Shakespeare - but you're merely the most talented of the lot) and we all want to see the real Richard emerge.  As sure as I am that he wasn't the demon of history, I'm equally sure he wasn't the smiling rosy-cheeked person the facial reconstruction artists have created.  He was in between and we all would enjoy discovering this real person.

Kat Le Croix
Kat Le Croix

This theory is brought up in historical fiction by Philipa Gregory I think in her novel The White Queen...

Michael Stone
Michael Stone

@Laurel C. @catrina horsfield

What sort of world we'd be living in had Bosworth gone the other way depends mostly on how good Richard was at managing his money. As Abraham might have said to the King of Ur (but probably didn't) "It's the economy, stupid". The big question is whether Richard, financially speaking, behaves like Henry VII or like Henry VIII. 

Henry VII's policy was essentially one of retrenchment. He tried to keep expenses down by avoiding foreign adventures, and recovering lost revenues by enforcing once more all those taxes and feudal dues which had gone uncollected during the years of instability. This was as popular as you might expect, and earned him a reputation as a skinflint, but was hardly avoidable if he hoped to balance the budget.

Henry VIII was an arse of a totally different colour. For him, adventure was what being king was all about, and he couldn't wait to "go forth to Normandie" once more. Iirc he never got much further than Tournai and Boulogne, but that proved expensive enough, with the result that despite inheriting a fortune from his father and acquiring a second by dissolving the monasteries, he died broke.

So it all depends on which way you see Richard going. If he's a Henry VII, he has every chance of founding a lasting dynasty. If he goes the other way, his successor - son, nephew or whatever - inherits an empty treasury and a foreign war that's almost certainly getting nowhere fast - in which case look out.


Michael Stone
Michael Stone

@Laurel C. @catrina horsfield 


How exactly was Buckingham's claim "better than Henry's"?

His mother was a cousin of Margaret Beaufort, but further down the line of succession (supposing the Beauforts to be in it) than MB was. His other royal ancestor, Thomas of Woodstock, was the youngest son of Edward III, so his descendants could only claim after all descendants of Lionel, John of Gaunt and Edmund of Langley - too low on the list to really count. At best he could claim (as his son did later, and got beheaded for it) to be the residual Lancastrian heir should anything happen to Henry. He wasn't ahead of Henry by any reckoning.

craig hill
craig hill

@Michael Stone There's nothing gallant about this loser, who would have been remembered had he not lost his final battle, for the people he had murdered to usurp their throne. Remember???

One thing about this i have learned that i only had an inkling of, and that is how unbeievably ignorant and foolish people are today. A large number of the comments i have read regarding Richard are of a Bizarro World mentality.   

craig hill
craig hill

@John Daniel Federico "Allegedly"? Do you not know who imprisoned the nephews? And do you not see the obstacle their breathing bodies presented for Richard to do as he did, occupy their throne?

It's not like Richard is going to sue you for stating the obvious, John.    

craig hill
craig hill

@Lafe Purcell Umm, did you not know he was killed in a full-fledged battle with thousands of people fighting all around him?? That there were many who wanted to do him in who were in front of him? That it didn't require anyone to cowardly sneak up behind him to take him down? That for all we know---try to use your imagination!!---Richard might've have turned his back on the guy with the poleaxe and tried to run from him?

Good grief. To KNOW he was the demon all knew him to be, all you have to do is follow his bloody well-established trail. That would have been historically known if the actor Shaksper had never had anything to do with the play. Methinks you doth protest the  too little!

Michael Stone
Michael Stone

@craig hill @Michael Stone 

I meant that he "made  a good end", going down with the sinking ship. By contrast, in 1470 his brother Edward IV had slipped away from his guards "feigning to make his water", fled to the coast and escaped abroad - to come back the following year, regain the throne, and die in bed.  Far smarter than what Richard did, but not considered "gallant", which is why there's now a Richard III Society but no Edward IV Society

Ann George
Ann George

@Craig Hill @Lafe Purcell lol I think craig hill should entrench himself in history, not in propoganda, and realize that Richard was a man of his time and that includes ruthlessness. He was absolutely not any worse than any other man of his station and to think that he was is to be incredibly naive. I was a history grad student who became a lawyer and I confess, my interest comes from his progressive judicial reforms that he made for the common people. That contrasted with his reputation as a demon (loooool you might want to look at the bloody well-established trails of others as well if you mean to single Richard out) makes him fascinating. It's cute how people repeat propoganda written during the Tudor era by people who were secondhand sources as fact. lol bye.

catrina horsfield
catrina horsfield

@craig hill@Lafe Purcell Why so much hate? Is it that unbelievable that he's not quite the monster Shakespeare made him out to be? Henry Tudor had as much if not more motive to off the princes in the Tower, and the Tudor reign was far more ruthless and brutal than Richard's ever was, not even counting the reforms Richard had made for the common folk. For the short time he was king, records show that he was a decent one. I don't think he was a saint by any stretch, but he wasn't anywhere near the nastiest player in the game. He was a man of his time, and a brave one at that- wading into battle on his own while Henry Tudor cowered away from the fray surrounded by a crowd of guards.

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