Royal honour for professor who solved riddle of Richard III’s death in battle OBE for forensic expert who helps police in modern murder cases
KING Richard III, whose skeleton was discovered beneath a Leicester car park, died in a crowded swirl of violence, his body swamped in a murderous melee. Just ask Sarah Hainsworth.
During the 1485 Battle of Bosworth, the monarch was buried under a mob. The overpowered king suffered at least 11 injuries, nine of them to the skull. At least four weapons struck the blows.
One of them, a halberd – a sixfoot pole with an axe attached – took such a large chunk from the skull that death was only minutes away.
Death was not instantaneous, says Prof Hainsworth, who has received an OBE in the New Year’s Honours.
She is professor of materials and forensic engineering at Birmingham’s Aston University, and her expertise played a major part in revealing Richard III’s last moments.
“Death is never instantaneous. He would’ve been instantly unconscious,” corrects the 51-year-old. “The term instantaneous is from the movies. It takes a certain while for the circulation and breathing to stop.”
Prof Hainsworth, whose expertise on knife crime has helped police forces across the UK, has this week been appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for her services to engineering and forensic science.
Her OBE is one of the most fascinating in the New Year’s Honours list.
Her knowledge of stab wounds, her ability to tell what implement caused fatal injuries, has been key in bringing many dangerous criminals to book.
But it was the mystery of Richard III’s demise, solved in 2013, that first made the general public aware of Prof Hainsworth’s painstaking work.
“When I began work on the skull, it had not been confirmed that it was Richard III,” says the mum-of-two, who lives near Northampton.
“For me, I only realised it was a big deal when they made the announcement.
“The account of the battle is that he died in a melee and the injuries are consistent with that.
“Within the injuries to the top of the skull there were very fine marks that we call striations. We were able to show two of the blows were made by the same bladed weapon, a sword most likely.
“At the base of the skull there was an injury that resulted in a large chunk of the skull being missing, probably caused by a halberd.”
The bone had also been punctured by a short sword or dagger. The king also suffered a stab wound to the pelvis.
“People say 11 injuries are a lot and that number does not include the soft tissue,” says Prof Hainsworth. “But a number of skeletons from the Battle of Townton had more than 20 injuries. We know that Richard III’s body was relatively intact, probably because they wanted to show they’d killed the king. His face was relatively untouched.”
Prof Hainsworth’s work on the skull has sparked an interest in the king’s short-lived reign that goes beyond the physical. She has attempted to skin, so to speak.
“Richard III is an interesting person because he is painted in a positive way by the Richard III Society as a capable and good king,” she says. “Other Tudor historians see him as a not so good king.
“It is the problem of judging him through the lens of the 21st century. Applying modern day interpretations to what was done in years gone by is difficult. He did do some very positive things for the peasants.”
Despite the acclaim following her work on that skeleton, the bulk of Prof Hainsworth’s business is in the here and now. And it has proved vital in uncovering the missing pieces of the bloodstained jigsaws surrounding a string of murders.
She can tell the force used to deliver a fatal blow and, most importantly, confirm the suspected murder weapon caused the fatal wounds.
“Someone was in prison,” she says matter-of-factly, “and said the interpretation of events I’d given in court was correct. That was nice, you want to know if what you did was right.”
Prof Hainsworth’s first tentative steps in the science of crime solving were taken in 2000, while working at Leicester University. East Midlands forensic pathologist Professor Guy Rutty presented her with bones from a dismembered body.
She was able to identify the tools used to make the cuts on the bones.
The knowledge has come from painstaking knife studies. Prof Hainsworth’s has probed the coatings on blades to discover if they keep the tool or weapon sharper for longer. She has spent long hours chronicling “edge sharpness”.
Police forces are now reaping the rewards of that research.
“It is difficult to name individual cases and something I don’t get under his do,” stresses Prof Hainsworth. “All of them have involved different skills, different levels of complexity in terms of the analysis and different levels of complexity in terms of events.
“There is often a particular story told, after the event, on how the stabbing occurred. By applying science and engineering knowledge, we’ve been able to show that’s not always the truth.”
>Above: Sarah Hainsworth and the skull and reconstruction of King Richard III
>Prof Hainsworth with a halberd that killed the king, above,