Modern Forensics Provides Clues to Death of Richard III

Analysis of skeletal remains sheds light on fatal injuries English king suffered in battle over 500 years ago

TUESDAY, Sept. 16, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Modern forensic techniques are shedding light on a 500-year-old mystery: Which battlefield injuries might have killed King Richard III, the last English monarch to die in battle?

A new analysis of the king's skeletal remains, using whole-body CT scans and micro-CT imaging of injured bones, provides a detailed account of the 11 injuries he suffered at the Battle of Bosworth Field, where he died on Aug. 22, 1485.

The modern forensics revealed that two skull injuries could have killed the king in a short amount of time, according to a new report published Sept. 16 in The Lancet.

The skeletal remains of the king were discovered under a Leicester parking lot in 2012 by archaeologists from the University of Leicester. Since then, the university's forensic imaging team, in collaboration with the forensic pathology unit and department of engineering, has analyzed his wounds. They also examined tool marks on his bones to identify the medieval weapons that may have caused his injuries.

The team, led by Dr. Jo Appleby of the university's School of Archaeology and Ancient History, was able to determine which of the king's wounds might have been fatal.

The study showed of the 11 injuries he sustained at or near the time of his death, nine were wounds to his skull. The researchers noted this head trauma occurred during battle, suggesting Richard either removed or lost his helmet.

"Richard's injuries represent a sustained attack or an attack by several assailants with weapons from the later medieval period," study author Sarah Hainsworth, a professor of materials engineering at the university, said in a journal news release. "The wounds to the skull suggest that he was not wearing a helmet, and the absence of defensive wounds on his arms and hands indicate that he was otherwise still armored at the time of his death."

The researchers concluded that some of the king's injuries, including a wound to his pelvis, may have been inflicted after his death. If he were alive, they explained, he would have been wearing a specific type of armor that would have protected him from such wounds.

"The most likely injuries to have caused the King's death are the two to the inferior aspect of the skull -- a large sharp force trauma possibly from a sword or staff weapon, such as a halberd or bill, and a penetrating injury from the tip of an edged weapon," study co-author Guy Rutty, from the East Midlands Pathology Unit at the university, said in the news release.

The study itself noted, "If inflicted in life, either of the injuries on the inferior aspect of the cranium could result in subarachnoid hemorrhage, injury to the brain, or an air embolus. Any . . . would be potentially fatal within a short time. The injuries are highly consistent with the body having been in a prone position or on its knees with the head pointing downwards."

Rutty added, "Richard's head injuries are consistent with some near-contemporary accounts of the battle, which suggest that Richard abandoned his horse after it became stuck in a mire and was killed while fighting his enemies."

In the study, the researchers added this end-note: "The fact that the face is not more completely destroyed might relate to the need to display Richard's corpse after the battle, which was done to reduce the chances of future pretenders claiming the throne in Richard's name."

More information

The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more about modern forensic science.

SOURCE: The Lancet, news release, Sept. 16, 2014
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