LONDON: The face of England’s King Richard III was revealed for the first time in more than 500 years Tuesday.
A 3-D plastic model has been made from the skull of the king, who was killed in 1485 after just two years on the throne but lived on as one of history’s worst villains in the eponymous play by William Shakespeare.
Researchers hope the discovery of his remains under a car park in the central English city of Leicester, complete with the twisted spine of folklore, will lead to a rehabilitation of his reputation.
Many believe the image of his face, until now only depicted in paintings, will be key to this.
“It’s an interesting face, younger and fuller than we have been used to seeing, less careworn, and with the hint of a smile,” said Phil Stone, chairman of the Richard III Society, which seeks to restore the late king’s reputation and backed the search for his grave. “When I first saw it, I thought there is enough of the portraits about it for it to be King Richard but not enough to suggest they have been copied. I think people will like it. He’s a man who lived.”
The reconstruction work was led by Caroline Wilkinson, professor of craniofacial identification at the University of Dundee in Scotland, and paid for by the Richard III Society.
A team at the University of Leicester announced Monday that DNA tests, carbon dating and examination of bones had proved beyond reasonable doubt that the skeleton found underneath a municipal carpark last year was that of Richard.
The discovery ends a 500-year-old mystery about what happened to the king’s body, after it was buried by Franciscan friars in an unmarked grave following his defeat at the hands of the future King Henry VII at the Battle of Bosworth.
Few monarchs have seen their reputations decline as much after death as Richard III. He ruled England between 1483 and 1485, during the decadeslong battle over the throne known as the Wars of the Roses, which pitted two wings of the ruling Plantagenet dynasty – York and Lancaster – against one another.
His brief reign saw liberal reforms, including the introduction of the right to bail and the lifting of restrictions on books and printing presses.
His rule was challenged, and he was defeated and killed by the army of Henry Tudor, who took the throne as King Henry VII and ended the Plantagenet line. Britain’s current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is distantly related to Richard, but is not a descendant.
After his death, historians writing under the victorious Tudors comprehensively trashed Richard’s reputation, accusing him of myriad crimes. William Shakespeare indelibly depicted Richard as a hunchbacked usurper who left a trail of bodies on his way to the throne before dying in battle, shouting “My kingdom for a horse.”
That view was repeated by many historians, and Richard remains a villain in the popular imagination. But others say Richard’s reputation was unjustly smeared by his Tudor successors.
Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society said that for centuries Richard’s story has been told by others, many of them hostile. She hopes a new surge of interest, along with evidence from the skeleton about how the king lived and died – and how he was mistreated after death – will help restore his reputation.
The location of Richard’s body was unknown for centuries. He died in August 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field in the English Midlands, and records say he was buried by the Franciscan monks of Grey Friars at their church in Leicester, 160 kilometers north of London.
The church was closed and dismantled after King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1538, and its location eventually was forgotten by most local residents.
There were tales that the king’s bones had been dug up and thrown in a nearby river in the 16th century.
Then last year a team led by University of Leicester archaeologist Richard Buckley identified a possible location of the grave through map regression analysis, starting with a current map of the general area of the former church and analyzing earlier maps to discover what had changed and not changed. Ground-penetrating radar was used to find the best places to start digging.
They found the skeleton belonged to a man in his late 20s to late 30s who died between 1455 and 1540. Richard was 32 when he died in 1485.
DNA from the skeleton matched a sample taken from Michael Ibsen, a distant living relative of Richard’s sister. The project’s lead geneticist, Turi King, said Ibsen, a Canadian carpenter living in London, shares with the skeleton a rare strain of mitochondrial DNA. The same DNA group also matches a second living descendant, who wants to remain anonymous.
King said that between 1 and 2 percent of the population belongs to this genetic subgroup, so the DNA evidence is not definitive proof in itself of the skeleton’s identity. But combined with the archaeological evidence, it left little doubt the skeleton belonged to Richard.
On Monday, the king’s skeleton lay in a glass box in a meeting room within the university library. It was a browned, fragile-looking thing, its skull pocked with injuries, missing its feet – which scientists say were disturbed sometime after burial – and with a pronounced s-shape to the spine.
Soon the remains will be moved to an undisclosed secure location, and next year Richard will, at last, get a king’s burial, interred with pomp and ceremony in Leicester Cathedral.