The face of England’s King Richard III was revealed for the first time in more than 500 years on Tuesday following a reconstruction of his skeleton found underneath a carpark.
A three-dimensional plastic model has been made from the skull of the king, who was killed in 1485 after just two years on the throne but lived on as one of history’s worst villains in an eponymous play by William Shakespeare.
Researchers hope the discovery of his remains under a carpark in the central English city of Leicester, complete with the twisted spine of folklore, will lead to a rehabilitation of his reputation.
And many believe the image of his face, that has until now only depicted in paintings, will be key to this.
“It’s an interesting face, younger and fuller than we have been used to seeing, less careworn, and with the hint of a smile,” said Phil Stone, chairman of the Richard III Society. “When I first saw it, I thought there is enough of the portraits about it for it to be king Richard but not enough to suggest they have been copied.”
The reconstruction work was led by Caroline Wilkinson, professor of craniofacial identification at the University of Dundee in Scotland, and paid for by the Richard III Society.
A team at the University of Leicester announced on Monday that DNA tests, carbon dating and examination of bones had proved beyond reasonable doubt that the skeleton found underneath a municipal carpark last year was that of Richard.
The discovery ends a 500-year-old mystery about what happened to the king’s body, after it was buried by Franciscan friars in an unmarked grave following his defeat at the hands of the future King Henry VII at the Battle of Bosworth.
Jo Appleby, a bones expert who excavated the skeleton, said the contorted spine was contorted by scoliosis, which set in some time after he was 10, from an unknown cause.
She said it would have made Richard’s breathing increasingly more difficult, and taken inches off what would have been his full height of 5’ 8”, a reasonably tall man for medieval times.
There was another sword slash to the skull, which would also have penetrated to the brain and proved fatal in moments, but the others came after death, and were described as “humiliation injuries”.
They could not have happened to a man protected by armour, and are consistent with the accounts of his body being stripped on the battlefield, and brought back to Leicester naked, slung over the pommel of a horse.
Archaeologist Lin Foxhall and mediaevalist Bob Savage pointed out that Richard’s face was relatively undamaged.
“They’d killed the king and they needed to keep him recognisable,” Savage said. “To me, the injuries are fully consistent with the accounts of his dying in a melee, and [being] unhorsed — I believe he was dead within minutes of coming off his horse.
But they took care not to bash the face about too much because of a need to identify him later on.” “It’s the Gaddafi effect,” Foxhall said.
“We saw just this in the horrible mobile-phone footage of Gaddafi being found, and you can hear the voices shouting ‘not the face, don’t touch the face’.”
The next battle will be over what happens next. There have already been demands for a full state funeral, and rival claims that he should be buried in York Minster, as the last king from the north, or Westminster Abbey, which may be uncomfortably close to Henry Tudor, the man who killed him.
However, the people of Leicester insist he should stay in their city, close to where he died. The local cathedral already has candles burning before a memorial slab in front of the altar.
The authorities have said they will see that the remains “are reburied with the appropriate rites and ceremonies of the church”.
Guardian News Service and Agence France-Presse