On this date in 1485, the last Plantagenet king of England died on Bosworth Field defending his crown from Henry Tudor.
Today, thanks to archaeological investigations on the battlefield, we know whereabouts the combat took place and that at least one side (probably the king’s) deployed artillery. The question of exactly how Richard III came to be unhorsed remains a matter for conjecture; suffice to say here that his cavalry charge having failed to dispatch the pretender, he continued fighting manfully on foot ‘in the thickest press of his enemies’ until the fatal melee.
As to how his end came about, the discovery of his skeleton means that myth can be laid aside and his final moments reconstructed with reasonable accuracy. The bardic tradition which has Richard’s head struck so hard by a Welsh halberdier as to drive the crown into his skull is demonstrably untrue, since no such crushing trauma was found.
However, it does contain a grain of truth, indicated by the wounds he in fact sustained. Maybe his helmet was struck by a halberd with sufficient force to stun or disorientate him. Taking instant advantage of this, one or two foes closed in and cut the helmet’s chin-strap, as shown by the shallow cut-marks either side of his jaw.
Once the helmet had been yanked off, it was pretty much ‘game over’. An assailant swung a bladed weapon, probably a sword, at the rear left of his head, aiming to cleave it apart. Richard may have side-stepped or stumbled away, because the blow failed to do this; it did however shear off a disc of scalp several centimetres in diameter, along with the outer layer of skull-bone (consistent with the line, ‘killed the Boar, shaved his head’).
An injury of such stunning force may have driven him to his knees, because another attacker was able to strike the top centre of his head using a square-section weapon such as the beak of a war-hammer or a rondel dagger. This penetrated his skull, driving two flaps of bone into the upper surface of his brain. In all likelihood this rendered Richard unconscious so that he slumped forward, exposing the back of his head. Two opponents then delivered the fatal blows: one, possibly the same swordsman who inflicted the ‘shaving’ injury, plunged his blade in from the left with such force that it penetrated all the way through the brain to leave a mark on the inner table of Richard’s skull. The other, possibly the halberdier, struck from the right, cleaving off a massive slice of bone and cutting into the cerebellum. Either of these wounds would have been instantly fatal – and thus perished the last, and one of the very few, English kings to die in battle.
The one consolation is that this series of events probably takes longer to read about than it did to happen, and (mercifully) Richard may have been aware of very little after the first major blow. But it was a sad end for a brave warrior – so whether you love or hate Richard III, do spare him a thought on this, the 529th anniversary of his death.