The face of a thin-lipped, bright-eyed man, with a truculent jaw ready to confront whatever bad news comes next, has been recreated from the male skull discovered under a Leicester car park, newly confirmed as the last Plantagenet king, Richard III.
The monarch was only 32 when he died on the Bosworth battlefield on 22 August 1485, but the reconstructed face appears much younger. He may not live up to the crook-backed psychopath of Shakespeare’s Tudor propaganda, but he does look a tough character not to be trifled with.
The face was reconstructed from detailed scans of the skull by Caroline Wilkinson, professor of craniofacial identification at Dundee University, who has worked on many modern forensic cases. She did the initial work blind, without consulting contemporary descriptions or images. The skin colour and texture, eyes and hair were then added by Janice Aitken, of the university’s art college.
The head was commissioned by the Richard III Society, and was unveiled at the Society of Antiquaries of London, which owns one of the oldest portraits of Richard, painted like the one in the National Portrait Gallery in Tudor times, but assumed to draw on a Plantagenet original. Since the bones can give no clue to hair and eye colouring, Aitken used the portraits for the final details, but based the stubbled ruddy cheeks on observation of 21st century men who spend a lot of time outdoors.
The head was unveiled by Phil Stone, chair of the society, as “His Grace Richard Plantagenet, king of England, France and lord of Ireland”. Sarah Levitt, head of Leicester’s museums, called it “a stunning object”, which will be one of the star exhibits in the new visitor centre due to open next year, in an old school building overlooking the find site.
Meanwhile a Leicester academic has been puzzling over how Richard might have sounded, and concluded that – to the chagrin of Yorkshire which claims him as the last king of the north – he may well have had a west Midlands accent.
Philip Shaw, from Leicester University’s school of English, has pored over surviving letters including the earliest from 1469 when Richard was 17. Although most of the letter is by a clerk, Richard added an urgent postscript in his own hand – the letter was a desperate plea “in great need” for a £100 loan, a huge sum in those days. A later letter, from 1483, on learning of a rebellion by his cousin the Duke of Buckingham, who initially supported Richard’s claim to the throne, also has a handwritten postscript.
Shaw could find no trace of a northern dialect, and concluded that while as prince and short-lived king, Richard mostly wrote and spoke in the same standardised London spelling and pronunciation of his clerks, a few words such as “say” and “prayer” may have been spoken with a flattened “a”, suggesting a west Midlands dialect.