King Richard III Suffered Nine Blows to the Skull

2155 King Richard III Suffered Nine Blows to the Skull
Inferior aspect of the skull with a micro-CT inset of the penetrating injury / The Lancet

Richard III was the last king of England to die in battle, and his remains (most likely, anyway) were famously discovered under a parking lot on a former church site in Leicester in 2012. Now, new bone scans detailing the blow-by-blow account of his death at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22, 1485, reveal that it was painful, but he went down fighting: Richard III sustained at least 11 wounds, and nine of those were to his skull. The findings were published in The Lancet this week. 

A UK team led by Jo Appleby from the University of Leicester used whole body CT scans and micro-CT imaging of the injured bones to analyze the trauma sustained by the 500-year-old skeleton, which had previously been shown to match accounts of the king’s “twisted spine.” The team also examined the weapon marks on the bones. 


“Richard’s injuries represent a sustained attack or an attack by several assailants with weapons from the later medieval period,” University of Leicester’s Sarah Hainsworth says in a 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 11 peri-mortem injuries on the skeleton were mostly suffered in the skull, along with one to the right tenth rib and another to the right pelvis. None of the injuries overlapped, so they couldn’t actually tell what order the blows came. Three of those injuries had the potential to quickly cause death: two to the base of the skull (specifically the inferior cranium, pictured above) and one to the pelvis. 

To the right is the right hemi-pelvis and sacrum, and the red line shows the direction of sharp-force trauma. Because his wounds suggest he was otherwise armored, the researchers think the fatal pelvis injury likely came postmortem. Historic accounts describe how the king’s lifeless, armor-less body was slung over a horse and subjected to further insult.

That leaves the most likely cause of death to be the two blows to his skull -- a large sharp-force trauma possibly from a sword or staff weapon, like a halberd or bill, and a penetrating injury from the tip of an edged weapon after he lost his helmet.


“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,” according to University of Leicester’s Guy Rutty. Furthermore, the blows seem to be inflicted from above, suggesting that he was kneeling with his neck bent forward. 

Richard III’s history was heavily edited by the Tudors and further muddied by Shakespeare. "Whatever else people think about him,” Hainsworth tells AP, “he fought bravely until he died."

Here’s a very cool video showing how researchers used modern forensic technology to reconstruct Richard III’s last moments:



Images: The Lancet