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(Graphic artist Emma Vieceli was inspired by the search for King Richard III to produce these artworks, depicting the story of the excavation.  Flat colors and textures by Kate Brown; panel borders and text by Paul Duffield.)

I spent most of yesterday in a euphoric haze over the incredible historical and scientific news coming from the University of Leicester.  Last year, while on an archaeological dig (see a timeline here) near the purported site of Grey Friars, the last resting place of Richard the III, Duke of Gloucester, the last Plantagenet king,  scientists and researchers worked to piece together clues from the lost church in a hunt to find his grave-site. Four months ago, I wrote the following in response to the news that a skeleton had, in fact, been unearthed at the Grey Friars site: “I so desperately hope that they have found him.  Perhaps some of his history can be rewritten after all.” Yesterday, it was confirmed: Richard III had been found, his skeleton almost completely intact and his DNA compared to Michael Ibsen, a 17th generation descendant of his sister Anne of York, as well as to one other person, who wished to remain anonymous.  Elation doesn’t quite describe what I felt.

He was apparently thrown in with his hands tied, his head shoved down into a grave that appears to have been too short for his height. Any shroud would have rotted away in time but it seems a careless, haphazard burial, even for someone who may or may not have been a villain in his ascension to the throne.  Further study of the body seems to suggest wounds inflicted post-mortem, including several to the ribs and to the pelvis.  In all likelihood, he was stripped, thrown across the back of a horse, subjected to such wounds and humiliation as he was paraded in triumph around the battlefield or through the town.

Any historical and literary accounts of his “hunchbacked” condition seem to be true, if not entirely scientifically accurate. He suffered from “idiopathic adolescent onset scoliosis”, which would have manifested around the age of 10 and gotten progressively worse over time. The curvature of his spine is something truly horrible to behold; scientists say that it would have caused shortness of breath due to the pressure placed on the lungs. He would have stood 5’8″ without the scoliosis, which would have taken several inches off of his stature and made one shoulder significantly higher than the other, leading people to describe him as having a ‘hunched’ back.  At the risk of seeming a bit romantic, it is difficult, if not outright impossible for me to feel anything but sympathy for what must have been a very difficult –and even painful– life for someone in that age, where physical beauty and strength of body historically meant goodness and strength of character.

All that was yesterday. Today, they revealed a facial reconstruction showing us what they believe to be the most accurate representation of the kings face.

This gallery shows the face in great detail and from multiple angles.   I’ve heard him compared to David Boreanaz of Bones and Angel/Buffy fame as well as to Robert Pattinson. I can certainly see hints of both. Regardless, it’s hard to argue that it’s not a handsome face. (Even as I type this, someone else is comparing him to Richard Dreyfuss in Goodbye Girl. To each their own?) For an interactive slideshow of Richard’s facial reconstruction, as well as a demonstration of the uncanny resemblance between the king and his 17th generation descendant, click here.  I can’t stop watching it, myself. Is this the face of a tyrant? Does it matter?

There has been some debate as to whether or not we would be making this much fuss over a skeleton found in a car park if it weren’t for the infamous tales spun by Shakespeare or the more factual accounts of villainy by Sir Thomas More. In a long line of kings, and only two years on the actual throne, is he really that important? One cannot deny the fascination with and the power of the story of the murder of his nephews, the young Edward V and his brother Richard of Shrewsbury, imprisoned in the Tower and afterwards vanished. Made immortal by Shakespeare and More, we look back in time and are intrigued by the cold calculation needed to remove all barriers to his ascension to the throne, including the murder of children.  But is that all we should care about? The “[p]lots … laid, inductions dangerous” of a”subtle, false and treacherous” pretender to his brother’s throne? 

In my opinion, as the last member of the line of the House of York and as the last Plantagenet king, he is of supreme historical and scientific importance. The White Rose is lost to us, blended with the Lancastrian Red Rose to create a new dynasty, the red and white rose of the Tudors. Finding someone so important to England’s history through cartography, forensics, and archaeological analysis, taking us back through time when a lowly car park was once a church where an English king was buried…. Whether or not we uncover the truth in the quality of his character and the events of his reign, the triumph in the very act and success of finding him cannot be overlooked. Well done, University of Leicester. As you rejoice, so the scientific community and indeed, the world rejoices with you.

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