Richard III Mania: Understanding a Kingly Obsession

Why is the world going nuts over the discovery of a British king’s old bones?

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


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.