Image: A facial reconstruction of King Richard III.
Dan Kitwood  /  Getty Images
A facial reconstruction of King Richard III is unveiled by the Richard III Society on February 5, 2013 in London, England. Now we're learning the monarch may have had an accent similar to that of today's residents of West Midlands county in the United Kingdom.
updated 2/5/2013 5:10:31 PM ET 2013-02-05T22:10:31

Modern ears will never hear the true voice of medieval English King Richard III, but a new look at the monarch's own notes suggests he may have had an accent not unlike today's residents of the United Kingdom's West Midlands county.

University of Leicester archaeologists announced Feb. 4 that a skeleton unearthed beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England, is almost certainly that of the king. The grave had been lost for centuries after the king's death in battle and burial in 1485.

Archaeologists based the identification on battle wounds consistent with historical records of Richard III's death, as well as radiocarbon dating of the skeleton and a DNA analysis linking the bones to two modern descendents of the king.

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Richard III's writings
Before he became a historical mystery, however, Richard wrote letters, some of which survive. The first and oldest, dating to 1469, comes from before Richard's reign (he ascended the throne in 1483). In the letter, Richard's secretary requests a loan of 100 pounds from Sir John Say, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, to help alleviate a disturbance in Yorkshire. To underscore the urgency of the request, Richard put pen to paper himself, writing a two-line addendum begging that Say "fail me not in this time of my great need." [ Gallery: The Search for Richard III ]

A second letter, written by Richard as monarch in 1483, is addressed to the King's Chancellor. Richard III wrote the letter after learning that the Duke of Buckingham was rebelling against him. He requests the Great Seal, a mold for creating wax seals to attach to official state documents. At the end of the document, which is mostly penned by a secretary, Richard III again adds an urgent personal note, asking the chancellor to come in person and promising to "subdue" the Duke's "malice."

Reconstructing a voice
An analysis of Richard III's grammar and spelling in these notes provides tantalizing hints as to how he spoke, said Philip Shaw, a professor of English at the University of Leicester. At the time, people's spellings reflected their local dialects, Shaw said in a statement.

In a university podcast, Shaw read Richard III's notes in a lilting dialect nearly incomprehensible in places to modern ears.

"You notice words like 'say' and 'pray,' where we have this 'a' sound, which is what we call a dipthong, it's a glide from 'a' to 'e,' so it's a glide from one sound to another," Shaw said. "Richard may have had a pure vowel there, so just 'saa' or 'praa.'"

On the page, Shaw said, the words are easy to pronounce into modern English letters. The challenge is forgetting current pronunciations and thinking about how words would have been said more than 500 years ago, he said.

"It looks to me like he has an accent we probably associate more or less with the West Midlands," Shaw said, referring to a county in west-central England, which contains the city of Birmingham.  

Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappasor LiveScience @livescience. We're also on Facebook&Google+.

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Video: Richard III found … in a parking lot

  1. Closed captioning of: Richard III found … in a parking lot

    >>> of all the kings of england , richard iii has one of the worst reputations, at least as shakespeare imagined him, a murder rouse maniac who would do anything to secure his place on the throne. he died in battle more than 500 years ago but now his remains have been positively identified, found, if you can believe it, buried under a parking lot in lester, about 100 miles north of london. the story from nbc's stephanie gosk.

    >> reporter: the unearthing of lost kings does not happen every day. not even in england.

    >> richard iii , the last monarch of england, has been found.

    >> reporter: richard iii was dug up in an unlikely place. a parking lot in lester. an ig noble and for the 15th century noble man, but the bones don't lie. the right age, the spine twisted by the scoliosis the king suffered and with eight head wounds from the battlefield. the dna links to very distant relatives of richard iii . the king who reigned for only two years but who was so cruel, shakespeare couldn't resist creating his own version.

    >> now he's the winter of our discontent .

    >> reporter: played by some great actors.

    >> my kingdom for a horse!

    >> reporter: in the play, richard iii kills his two nephews, and anyone else who gets in the way of the throne.

    >> if not to heaven, then hand-in-hand to hell.

    >> reporter: kevin space's richard iii drew packed crowds. a pretty murderous, brutal guy.

    >> completely. and obviously a very colorful character for william shakespeare to write about in dramatic form.

    >> reporter: but historians suspect shakespeare 's richard iii may not be historically accurate. bones could tell a different story.

    >> i think this could be the moment where richard iii 's reputation actually turns. this could be the moment where we look at his achievements and the positive aspects of richard iii and don't just see him as one of the old dark ages kings.

    >> either way, richard iii 's bones will be reburied in a cathedr cathedral. even if he did kill his nephews, a parking lot is no place for a king.


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