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Aug 17, 2014

It Was Good to Be King . . . Even in the 13th Century

  • Research conducted on the composition of Richard III of England’s teeth and bones confirm what we already knew—that people with means and power lived higher off the hog, and as a result enjoyed better health than the common undernourished man. And while his last request may have been for his horse as opposed to a last meal immediately prior to his death on the battlefield, he died well-fed.

    Richard Plantagenet was born in Northamptonshire in 1452 and became King of England in 1483 at the age of 30, ruling for 26 months before his death. The much-maligned protagonist of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, he was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, ending the Wars of the Roses and the Plantagenet dynasty. Supporters of the victorious Henry VII took his body to Leicester and buried in Greyfriars Church, now the site of a parking lot owned by the Leicester city council.

    In their research results reported in The Journal of Archaeological Science by the British Geological Survey and the University of Leicester, scientists noted that discovery of the King’s mortal remains provided an opportunity to “learn more about his lifestyle, including his origins and movements and his dietary history; particularly focusing on the changes that Kingship brought.”

    Through analysis of bioapatite and collagen from sections of two teeth which formed during Richard's childhood and early adolescence, and from two bones, the femur (which averages long-term conditions), and the rib (which remodels faster and represents the last few years of life), the researchers said they could reconstruct a full life history for the fallen King.

    Using multi-element isotope techniques including analysis of strontium, nitrogen, oxygen, carbon, and lead, the scientists said isotope analyses initially concur with Richard's known origins in Northamptonshire but suggest that he had moved out of eastern England by age seven, and resided further west, possibly the Welsh Marches. 

    Specifically, for example, the scientists could reconstruct where Richard may have resided as a child, as oxygen and strontium isotopes are fixed in enamel biogenic phosphate at the time of tooth formation and, once fixed, will not change during life, nor alter in the burial environment. Strontium isotopes (87Sr/86Sr) are derived from diet and largely relate to the geology of the area where the food was produced, they noted.

    What kingship and a change in geography brought to the King’s diet included an increase in consumption of luxury items for the times such as freshwater fish and birds including swan, crane, heron, and egret. His oxygen isotope values also rise toward the end of his life, the authors noted, and, “As we know he did not relocate during this time, we suggest the changes could be brought about by increased wine consumption.”

    This forensic study, the most complete to have been conducted on a medieval monarch, will feature in a documentary, Richard III: The New Evidence.


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