By Jill Lawless
---- — LEICESTER, England — He was king of England, but for centuries he lay without shroud or coffin in an unknown grave, and his name became a byword for villainy.
On Monday, scientists announced they had rescued the remains of Richard III from anonymity — and the monarch’s fans hope a revival of his reputation will soon follow.
In a dramatically orchestrated news conference, a team of archaeologists, geneticists, genealogists and other scientists from the University of Leicester announced that tests had proven what they scarcely dared to hope — a scarred and broken skeleton unearthed under a drab municipal parking lot was that of the 15th-century king, the last English monarch to die in battle.
Lead archaeologist Richard Buckley said that a battery of tests proved “beyond reasonable doubt” that the remains were the king’s.
Lin Foxhall, head of the university’s school of archaeology, said the discovery “could end up rewriting a little bit of history in a big way.”
Few monarchs have seen their reputations decline as much after death as Richard III. He ruled England between 1483 and 1485, during the decades-long battle over the throne known as the Wars of the Roses, which pitted two wings of the ruling Plantagenet dynasty — York and Lancaster — against one another.
His brief reign saw liberal reforms, including the introduction of the right to bail and the lifting of restrictions on books and printing presses.
But his rule was challenged, and he was defeated and killed by the army of Henry Tudor, who took the throne as King Henry VII and ended the Plantagenet line. Britain’s current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is distantly related to Richard, but is not a descendant.
After his death, historians writing under the victorious Tudors comprehensively trashed Richard’s reputation, accusing him of myriad crimes — most famously, the murder of his two nephews, the “Princes in the Tower.”
William Shakespeare indelibly depicted Richard as a hunchbacked usurper who left a trail of bodies on his way to the throne before dying in battle, shouting “My kingdom for a horse.”
That view was repeated by many historians, and Richard remains a villain in the popular imagination. But others say Richard’s reputation was unjustly smeared by his Tudor successors.
Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society — which seeks to restore the late king’s reputation and backed the search for his grave— said that for centuries Richard’s story has been told by others, many of them hostile.
She hopes a new surge of interest, along with evidence from the skeleton about how the king lived and died — and how he was mistreated after death — will help restore his reputation.
“A wind of change is blowing, one that will seek out the truth about the real Richard III,” she said.
Langley, who helped launch the search for the king, said she could scarcely believe her quest had paid off.
“Everyone thought that I was mad,” she said. “It’s not the easiest pitch in the world, to look for a king under a council car park.”
The location of Richard’s body was unknown for centuries. He died in August 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field in the English Midlands, and records say he was buried by the Franciscan monks of Grey Friars at their church in Leicester, 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of London.
The church was closed and dismantled after King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1538, and its location eventually was forgotten by most local residents.
There were tales that the king’s bones had been dug up and thrown in a nearby river in the 16th century.
Then last year a team led by University of Leicester archaeologist Richard Buckley identified a possible location of the grave through map regression analysis, starting with a current map of the general area of the former church and analyzing earlier maps to discover what had changed and not changed. Ground-penetrating radar was used to find the best places to start digging.