King Richard III–Found!
How Forensic Facial Reconstruction Identified King Richard III
By Dale King
History has been harsh on England’s King Richard III. Even playwright William Shakespeare’s drama based on Richard’s life portrays him as a villainous, deformed demon who killed to maintain his throne until he died a painful, but apparently righteous death in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.
Historical portraits painted after his death show a scowling despot with clawed fingers and misshapen body. No paintings created during his lifetime survive.
But a computer-generated image of the despised British ruler created early this year depicts a young man with a kind and gentle face.
“It doesn’t look like the face of a tyrant,” says Philippa Langley, an activist with the King Richard III Society, on seeing a bust of the ruler created by a computerized facial reconstruction program of the late king’s skull which was located along with the monarch’s remains during a 2012 dig in central England.
“He’s very handsome. It’s like you could just talk to him, have a conversation with him right now,” adds Philippa.
“It is very different from the way he has been depicted, [but] we may never know what kind of person he really was,” says Caroline Wilkinson, professor of Craniofacial Identification at the University of Dundee, Ireland. She led the reconstruction effort for the Richard III Society whose goal is to vindicate the 15th century monarch.
To Richard’s benefit, both Wilkinson and art historian Pamela Tudor-Craig say the king was the victim of “propaganda” by members of the House of Tudor. While the king suffered from scoliosis (curvature of the spine), he was not actually a hunchback. Yet he was often depicted as such to make him seem more threatening. “I think there was a sense of propaganda and bias,” says the professor.
“They made great play [of his spinal condition] as if it were a disfigurement, which they said was due to the vengeance of God,” adds Tudor-Craig, scoffing.
Forensic Facial Reconstruction
To remake the face, Wilkinson says, she began by using a three-dimensional CT scan of the skull, which she described as “strongly masculine,” though she never saw the actual cranium. With her computer, she added layers of muscle and skin. The resulting image was made into a 3D plastic model. It was painted and glass eyes and a wig were attached to create what she calls “a realistic and regal appearance.” Then, a bust and a painting were made.
King Richard III died fighting Tudor forces, which afterward took over the throne with the ascendance of Henry VII. Richard’s body was interred in a shallow, short grave in Gray Friar’s monastery in Leicester, which was later destroyed.
Using a medieval map of the site, the King Richard III Society embarked in 2010 to raise money for an excavation of that location, which had since been covered by a municipal parking lot. In September 2012, the dig led by a team from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services located human bones.
The remains were identified positively as King Richard III after analysis showed that mitochondrial DNA extracted from the bones matched that of two 17th-generation matrilineal descendants of Richard’s niece.