King Richard III’s Life Revealed by Modern Bone Chemistry Analysis

King Richard III’s Life Revealed by Modern Bone Chemistry Analysis

Details about King Richard III’s life have been further revealed by modern bone chemistry analysis. Dr. Angela Lamb, an isotope geochemist, and Richard Buckley, an archaeologist, have compared bone chemistry and historical records to fill in the details of the monarch’s life. They can identify changes in diet and geographical location that agree with changes in his status.

In 2012 the remains of the infamous monarch were found under a parking lot in the city of Leicester. Richard III died heroically at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. It was believed that his body was flung by his Tudor enemies into a nearby river. However, other accounts said he was buried in a medieval monastery. A small group of independent researchers located the monastery underneath the car park and petitioned for excavation. Through subsequent bone analysis and DNA testing it appears likely that the bones uncovered are indeed those of Richard III.

The bones show a curve to the spine rather than the historically depicted humpback. This is congruent with the way portraits of him are painted with one shoulder higher than the other. His hands are effeminate rather than withered. After more than 500 years the mystery of the monarch’s final resting place has been solved and now scientists have a rare opportunity to examine the bones using modern technology.

Two years later a new kind of bone testing has taken place. Using two teeth, a femur and a rib, scientists are attempting to piece together the skeleton’s life through bone chemistry. They examine isotopes of strontium, nitrogen, oxygen, carbon, and lead which vary over geographic location. It is true that one is what one eats. The water and food consumed leave mineral traces in the bones and teeth of humans. Scientists can discover what Richard III was eating and where he was living by looking at the isotopes of these element in various bones.

Teeth form during childhood, and Richard’s teeth confirm a move from his childhood home in eastern England by the time he was seven. This is commensurate with the move to the Earl of Warwick’s Middleham Castle in the far north of England. The bone chemistry analysis shows Richard spent his later childhood years in a place with more rainfall and older rocks. It also shows that his diet changed to consist mostly of grains.

The femur retains a history of 15 years prior to death. The composition of Richard III’s femur proves that he moved back to England and resumed the diet of an aristocrat. This would match the time that his older brother became King and he became the duke of Gloucester.

The rib changes quickly and only contains isotopes from the two years before Richard III’s demise. The rib represents the greatest change in bone chemistry. Historical records state that Richard III did not move from England, so the scientists theorize that his diet changed drastically. After Richard III became king he drank more wine, ate more fresh water fish and more wading birds which were popular at royal feasts. In the last two years of his life Richard III truly lived like a king.

Richard III is called the last Plantagenet King, though technically he was of the royal house of York. William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066 and began the Norman line of kings. When Henry I, William’s last son, died, he tried to leave the crown to his daughter Matilda, but Matilda’s cousin Stephen swooped in to seize the crown and a civil war began. The result was that Stephen retained the crown but Matilda’s son Henry would be his heir. Henry II was the son of Geoffrey of Anjou who wore a sprig of broom in his hat. Anjou was called plante genet in French, and so his son became Plantagenet when he was crowned in 1154 and began 331 years of unbroken, though not always peaceful, succession.

Richard III was only England’s King for two years. His family based their claim to the throne on a younger son of Edward III, a direct descendant of Henry II. After Edward III’s older sons’ heirs died out, Richard and his brothers were in line for the throne. First, Richard II, the son of Edward III’s oldest son, was overthrown and imprisoned, and died. Next came the famous Henrys, descended from Edward III’s third son John of Gaunt. Henry IV took the crown, Henry V expanded England’s power, but Henry VI was young and sickly. His state of health allowed the line of Edward III’s fourth son, Edmund of York, to make a grab for the throne and began the Wars of the Roses.

When Richard III’s father was killed in his bid for the crown, Richard and his brothers were taken in by the Earl of Warwick, a.k.a. the Kingmaker. Warwick moved the boys to his estates in Yorkshire. The bone chemistry analysis of Richard’s teeth matches this move. It also indicates that his diet was no longer that of an aristocrat. Any mistreatment by Warwick could have caused the brothers’ later falling out with their mentor.  After the eldest brother Edward IV was made King, Richard moved back south to become the duke of Gloucester and part of Edward IV’s court. The mineral composition of his femur shows that his location and his diet changed during this period. Fans of history, especially British history, may be thrilled to discover that modern bone chemistry analysis could reveal so much more about King Richard III’s life than what has been previously known.

According to Shakespeare, Richard III was one of the greatest villains of all time. Portents at his birth foretold evil doings, but actual history does not wholly support this view. He was a loyal supporter of his brother and stood by him through a tumultuous kingship. First there are unfounded rumors that the Earl of Warwick and Prince Edward, son of Henry VI, did not die in battle but were murdered by Richard for his brother. Richard married Anne Neville, the daughter of Warwick and widow of Prince Edward, and, again without proof, is accused of poisoning her after several years of marriage. It is more likely that Richard had something to do with the death of the imprisoned ex-king Henry VI in the Tower of London, some historians say. Edward IV’s other brother, George, duke of Clarence, was not as faithful an ally and it is presumed without evidence that Richard had something to do with his downfall and execution for treason which opened the way to the throne.

What is fact, and an evil enough act to satisfy most people of Richard III’s true nature, was the imprisonment and murder of his two nephews. Edward IV died prematurely, but not before fathering two sons. Within months of his brother’s death Richard III had imprisoned the boys in the Tower of London and had himself declared King. In 1674 two small skeletons were uncovered in the Tower and reburied in Westminster Abbey.

Much of what historians know about Richard has been filtered through the Tudor monarchs that came after him. In order to validate their rise to power, they characterized King Richard III as an evil, crippled despot. Because he fell in battle his body was lost to time. The discovery of his bones in 2012 has provided a singular opportunity to learn about his lifestyle and confirm accounts of the time. Now, modern bone chemistry analysis has revealed much more about this man’s rich past and fascinating history.

By: Rebecca Savastio


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3 Responses to "King Richard III’s Life Revealed by Modern Bone Chemistry Analysis"

  1. Judy Jacobs   August 23, 2014 at 6:49 am

    There is no record that Warwick moved the boys, Richard and George, into his care following the death of their father. Edward IV sent Richard to Warwick to learn his knightly skills, following the custom of sending sons of the nobility to live with another great family to be instructed in martial skills, the chivalric code, religion,etc. Warwick had other castles around which he would have travelled and so this common (and romantic) idea that Richard grew up at Middleham is not accurate. He and his brother George spent some time in the low countries after the death of his father and brother, Edmund, returning to England only after Edward’s success at the Battle of Towton, after which he claimed the throne, becoming Edward IV in 1461 when Richard would have been almost nine years old. In the 15th Century, his childhood would have been rapidly coming to an end.

  2. George Dent   August 23, 2014 at 6:38 am

    I don’t know why you say that the study supports the idea that Richard moved to Middleham at 7 when it states no such thing. The study says that changes in his bone structure support the view that he moved to the Welsh Marches at about 7, not Middleham Castle in Yorkshire. There is no evidence that he went to Yorkshire at such a young age. The study emphasises that he was brought up in Eastern England and the Welsh Marches. The study makes no mention of Middleham and only mentions Yorkshire once. It makes clear that Richard spent the great majority of his life in England’s eastern counties. It is a pity you have misrepresented the study in this article.

  3. Cynthia Waterman   August 22, 2014 at 8:30 am

    There is no proof that Richard 111 murdered his nephews. The Tower of London was a royal palace, not just a prison and significantly, there were several others in whose interest it would have been to eliminate them – not least Henry Tudor himself. Richard was actually planning his nephew’s coronation when news came to him that his brother’s children were illegitimate, their father having entered into a previous “pre-contract marriage” still valid when he married their mother. His heirs, therefore, could not claim the throne. In view of this (substantiated) news, Richard became the next in line to the throne and had no need to kill his nephews. We should try to forget Shakespeare when thinking about the this monarch!


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