December 11, 2023

The Death of Richard III or CSI Bosworth: A very cold case at the Wallace Collection

The Wallace Collection is one of London’s great small museums, but I wasn’t visiting to see the Laughing Cavalier or examine the miniatures. Bob Woosnam-Savage was speaking about the 2012 discovery of Richard III’s bones, the evidence they provide and what they can show us. As the Curator of European Edged Weapons at the Royal Armouries Woosnam-Savage was called in when the skeleton was found in Leicester and has actually handled the bones of the last Plantagenet king.

The title was ‘Killed the Boar; Shaved his head’: The Violent Death of King Richard III and the lecture lived up to that title, with a detailed examination of the skeleton’s wounds. Woosnam-Savage was able to look at the different injuries that the skeleton – oh, let’s call him Richard – had suffered and suggest which weapons would have made them. I now know the different wounds left by a halberd, a dagger and various other hand-held instruments of death. All of them look horrendous, although Woosnam-Savage – Oh, let’s call him BWS – and I obviously live by a different definition of fatal.

‘That wouldn’t have been fatal,’ he said of one blow to the back of the neck. ‘It would have killed him in five seconds.’

With the Wallace Collection’s Curator of Arms and Armour Tobias Capwell asking questions the lecture was illustrated by photos from the original dig, as well as images of relevant skulls and bone wounds from around Europe. That makes it sound dry and morbid, but BWS has an amusing delivery and the lecture, though almost two hours long, was entertaining and informative.

BWS made clear the synchronicity present in the discovery of the bones and their analysis. If they had been found 40 years ago there would have been no means of DNA testing them. If they had been found in 40 years there would be no descendants of Richard to take DNA from. So the discovery came at a perfect moment, and gives hope to all those investigating historical conundrums that new evidence can appear and make everything sparkling clear.

Except, though the discovery has banished some myths – he didn’t have a withered arm, his back problem was scoliosis not a hunch, it has introduced more. The fact that the hands of the skeleton were tied together has led some to erroneously conclude that Richard was taken to Leicester alive. The appearance of one of the wounds to his head has encouraged others to decide he had been scalped. It makes a good denouement for re-enactors, but the facts are, he hadn’t been.

From the teeth and bones academics have been able to draw conclusions not only about the cause of death, but also about fighting technique, contemporary diet and the king’s infections. The one thing they don’t show is whether or not Richard killed the princes in the tower, but maybe a test will be developed soon that will tell us that…

More details about the Wallace Collection

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