LONDON — A skeleton found in the remains of an English church is that of King Richard III, scientists said Monday, solving a 500-year-old mystery of what happened to a ruler immortalized by William Shakespeare as a hunchbacked villain.
The bones unearthed last year are Richard III's "beyond a reasonable doubt," lead archaeologist Richard Buckley told reporters in Leicester, about 90 miles north of London. The skeleton was found beneath a parking area built over what was once the church of the Greyfriars, where the king was buried after his death at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.
Richard spent his last night before the battle at the Blue Boar Inn in Leicester, now the site of a Travelodge hotel, according to the researchers. His body was returned to the city and buried in the choir of the Franciscan Church in the Greyfriars Monastery, according to the group's website.
Richard III's demise ended Britain's Plantagenet dynasty of kings and inspired one of Shakespeare's most popular plays, with the title role performed by actors from Laurence Olivier to Kevin Spacey. In the bard's play, which opens with the line "Now is the winter of our discontent," the British king pleads, "My horse! My horse! My kingdom for a horse."
Richard reigned from 1483 to 1485 and occupies a unique place in England's long line of colorful rulers. He was the last king to be killed in combat, at the Battle of Bosworth Field by his successor, Henry VII. His death ended the Plantagenet dynasty and ushered in the long era of the Tudors, including Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
DNA from the bones matches that of a living descendant of the monarch's sister, researchers said.
"Rarely have the conclusions of academic research been so eagerly awaited," Buckley told reporters Monday morning. "Beyond reasonable doubt, the individual exhumed . . . is indeed Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England."
Working from old maps of Leicester, about 100 miles northwest of London, archaeologists from the local university had less than a month to dig in a small municipal parking lot — one of the few spaces not built over in the crowded city center. The team stumbled on the ruins of the medieval priory where records say Richard was buried, then found the bones a few days later last September.
"It was an extraordinary discovery that stunned all of us," Buckley said.
The nearly intact skeleton bore obvious traces of trauma to the skull and of scoliosis, a curvature of the spine that matched contemporary descriptions of Richard's appearance.
The feet were missing, almost certainly the result of disturbance sometime after burial, and the hands were crossed at the wrist, which suggests that they may have been tied.
Scientists at the University of Leicester, which pioneered the practice of DNA fingerprinting, were able to extract samples from the bones and compare them to a man descended from Richard III's sister Anne. The match through the maternal line was virtually perfect.
"The DNA evidence points to these being the remains of Richard III," said Turi King, the project's geneticist.
Jo Appleby, an osteologist at the university, said the skeleton belonged to an adult male in his late 20s to late 30s; Richard III was 32 when he died. The man would have stood 5-foot-8 at full height, but the curved spine would have made him appear shorter.
The skull was riddled with wounds strongly indicative of death in battle, including two blows from bladed weapons, either of which would have been fatal, Appleby said.
Richard III is one of England's most controversial monarchs, reviled by some as a bloodthirsty despot who stopped at nothing to gain power, but revered by others who insist that he has been unfairly maligned.
His supporters note that the repugnant portrait of Richard in today's popular imagination is based almost entirely on accounts from the time of the usurping Tudors, especially Shakespeare's indelible characterization of him as a "deform'd, unfinish'd" man without scruples.
Fans say Richard III was an enlightened, capable ruler whose important social reforms included the presumption of innocence for defendants and the granting of bail, which remain pillars of the legal system in Britain and the United States.
What happened to Richard's two nephews, however, who were his rivals for the throne and who were shut up in the Tower of London as young boys, never to be seen again, remains a mystery.
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 had 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."
On Monday, the king's skeleton lay in a glass box in a meeting room within the university library. It was a browned, fragile-looking thing, its skull pocked with injuries and with a pronounced s-shape to the spine.
Soon the remains will be moved to an undisclosed secure location, and next year Richard will, at last, get a king's burial, interred with pomp and ceremony in Leicester Cathedral.
It is a day Langley, of the Richard III Society, has dreamed of seeing.
"We have searched for him, we have found him — it is now time to honor him," she said.
Information from the Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg News and Associated Press was used in this report.
. Reigned for 26 months; one of the shortest reigns in English history
. Last English king to die in battle; killed by forces of the future Henry VII in 1485
. Given a low-key burial beneath the church of Greyfriars
. Skeleton had suffered 10 injuries
. Two skull wounds were potentially fatal
. Other wounds included slashes, stabs to the face