England's last Plantagenet1 king, Richard III, died on 22 August, 1485, aged 32. He was killed at the Battle of Bosworth, bringing the Wars of the Roses to an end. While the king's life and the Shakespeare play are well documented, the unearthing of the king's mortal remains provided an intriguing archaeological story for the 21st Century.
Richard III suffered from bad press, it's fair to say. However, there are those who seek to right the perceived wrongs of the past, and in 1924 the Richard III Society2 was formed. One of the current members is screenwriter and researcher Philippa Langley, who along with other 'Ricardians' (people who have an active interest in Richard III), determined to seek out the truth. It is known that Richard III was buried in a Leicester friary by Franciscan monks, because there was an account recorded by priest John Rous that 'Richard III was at last buried in the choir of the Friars Minor at Leicester'. Backing this up was a reference in the financial records of Henry VII for the cost of 'an alabaster tomb to be erected over Richard's grave in the Choir of Greyfriars church'. However, there was a story that his bones had been unceremoniously tossed into the River Soar when Greyfriars was destroyed during the Reformation.
In 2009 Ms Langley began her quest to locate the king and succeeded in raising the thousands of pounds required to fund the 'Looking For Richard' project. Studying a 1741 map of Leicester, she located the area where the long-gone friary once stood; it is now a car park. Although Ms Langley lived hundreds of miles away in Scotland, she visited the car park and was stunned to find one of the car spaces was marked with a crudely painted 'R'3. Taking this as a sign, she was convinced this was where Richard III's body would be found. Obviously you need permission before you can send in a JCB4 and there were other things to consider like health & safety and the disruption to local people. Ms Langley faced quite a few obstacles along the way but in the end the dig was set for August 2012. News about the forthcoming excavation spread fast and Channel 4 decided to make a TV documentary about it. Before the dig their presenter met up with a 17th-generation nephew of the king, Michael Ibsen. He was handy to have around just in case human remains were discovered, then there'd be someone available to provide a DNA sample.
Digging for Royal Remains
Once the permits had been obtained, the car park was closed to the public and digging could begin. Uncannily, human bones were discovered on the first day, right beneath where the 'R' had been. However, when archaeologist Mathew Morris found the leg bone in the trench, further work had to be suspended while an exhumation licence was applied for and granted by the Ministry of Justice. Osteo-archaeologist Dr Jo Appleby, of the University of Leicester thought the skeleton, which was intact except for its feet, was unlikely to be Richard III. The evidence, however, began adding up. There was damage to the skull, consistent with a brutal death, and a striking curvature of the spine (scoliosis), which convinced just about all of the remaining sceptics. When all of the skeleton had been removed and boxed, Ms Langley offered a Royal Standard flag to Dr Appleby to drape over the box. Dr Appleby refused, stating it would be inappropriate should the bones turn out not to be Richard's, but Ms Langley was so convinced they had found the king that she did the honours.
As an archaeologist people always ask what the best thing you have ever found is. I used to have to think about that. Not any more!
– Mathew Morris
The bones were whisked away for carbon dating and DNA testing, and an impression of the skull was sent for a CT scan to aid facial reconstruction. Just under five months later, the research team drew the following conclusions:
- The bones were from a male who died in his late twenties or early thirties.
- There were eight injuries to the skull and another two on the body. The most dramatic injury was to the back of the skull. A large section had been cleft, most likely by a heavy-bladed weapon such as a halberd or a sword. This was undoubtedly the cause of death.
- The spine had a marked curvature, which would have made one shoulder higher than the other.
- Carbon dating revealed that if the deceased had a high-protein diet5, as the king likely would, then he died between 1455 - 1540. Only if the individual had a low-protein diet6 would the dating have been wrong.
- DNA samples extracted from the teeth and the right femur matched that of the descendants of Richard's sister, Anne of York (1439 – 1476). The mitochondrial DNA was of a type shared by only 1-2% of the general population.
The skeleton, they concluded, was 'beyond reasonable doubt' the mortal remains of Richard III.
Telling the World
The archaeology team were sworn to secrecy about the discovery until all the tests were concluded and a press conference prepared. When the day of the announcement dawned, Time Team7 addicts, more used to exciting discoveries like mediæval pottery shards, mangled Viking gold jewellery and Roman coins being unearthed, were agog. History buffs must have been salivating and one suspects there was more than a flurry of interest in Royal homes around the nation. During the presentation, live on the BBC News channel, tension was building when the live feed cut away to another breaking news story about a politician who had just changed his plea to guilty, exasperating watching viewers who had been left dangling. Luckily the presentation was back on the screen in time for the announcement that Richard III had indeed been found.
The 90-minute Channel 4 documentary Richard III: the King in the Car Park was aired on the evening of the public announcement, so the outcome was already known to anyone who had seen the breaking news earlier. Apart from that spoiler, the whole programme provided an engaging story, as 3.7 million viewers would probably attest.
The Bloody Death of a King
Thanks to finding the skeleton of Richard III, so much information can be gleaned and knowledge learned about his life and death. Unlike bone, after death skin and muscle deteriorate in a process known as decomposition. Therefore we cannot know exactly how many injuries were inflicted upon Richard III, because the soft tissue no longer exists. But what can be concluded from the bone damage gives us a good idea of his last moments.
As soon as Richard was thrown or pulled off his horse and divested of his helmet, he would have been targeted by the army of Henry Tudor, all eager for a piece of the king and the ensuing bragging rights. Death was likely instantaneous but many enemy soldiers would have had a stab at the king's dead body. Following the battle, Henry Tudor ordered that Richard's body should be located. It was brought to him, stripped and tossed onto the back of a horse. His protruding buttocks must have presented a golden opportunity during the parade through Leicester, because there's a tell-tale scrape on the inside of the king's pelvis. The body was transported to Greyfriars church where he had a simple funeral performed by the friars before being buried with his hands still bound.
Scrapping over the Bones
The next step in the saga of Richard's bones was what to do with them. Several places could lay claim to him: he was born at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire, but he grew up in Middleham Castle in the Yorkshire Dales. Before he was crowned his title was Duke of Gloucester and when he became the last monarch of the House of York, his coronation took place in Westminster Abbey8. The Justice Secretary Chris Grayling stated that according to the terms of the exhumation licence the king's remains would be re-interred at Leicester Cathedral. David Montieth, Leicester Cathedral's canon chancellor, said plans were underway for the king's committal 'early next year in a Christian-led but ecumenical service'.
The Case for York
Representatives of the city of York, however, have staked their claim to the king's bones, mainly because Richard III was the last monarch of the House of York and he grew up in Yorkshire. There is a Richard III museum on York's city walls. Chief executive of the city council, Kersten England, said that York would give Richard III a proper state funeral fit for a king prior to interment in York Minster. One wonders what part the Queen would play, if she were invited. An e-petition created by Mark Cousins was submitted to the government in support of York Minster:
For the mortal remains of England's last Plantagenet King, and the last King to die in battle, recently discovered under a Council car-park in Leicester, to be re-interred with due dignity and respect in York Minster. He was the last King of the House of York and it is recorded that he was popular in and fond of the North and York in particular where he was regarded with much love and affection. It will also place him geographically closer to the remains of his son, Edward the Prince of Wales, whose remains lie in Sherriff Hutton church.The e-petition was signed by 31,347 people.
Face of a King
Professor of craniofacial identification at the University of Dundee, Caroline Wilkinson, took on the task of putting a face on a replica of the skull. Facial reconstruction was undertaken based on science rather than knowledge of the person's identity. Only when the muscles and skin had been worked were the king's known features such as hair and eye colour applied by University of Dundee artist Janice Aitken. When a wig and hat were added, the result was remarkably similar to an ancient portrait of Richard III.
Richard III Exhibition
By using CT scans of the king's skull, a copy was made by Loughborough University using a laser scanner. The 3D plastic model became the main attraction at an exhibition at Leicester's Guildhall. Also on view were artefacts found at the Greyfriars site, such as mediæval decorative floor tiles. The exhibition tells the story of the archaeological dig which found the bones of Richard III and projections that it is expected to be a boost to tourism in the city were proved when over 1,000 people passed through the doors on the first day. Entrance to the Richard III exhibition is free.
There's no doubt the UK owes Philippa Langley a great deal for her insight and dogged determination. Here are her thoughts after scientific tests proved that the unearthed human remains were that of Richard III:
My passion for the search was based on personal intuition, which only became stronger and stronger. The moment I walked into that car park in Leicester the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and something told me this was where we must look. A year later I revisited the same place, not believing what I had first felt. And this time I saw a roughly painted letter 'R' on the ground. Believe it or not, it was almost directly under that 'R' that King Richard was found. This was the first area we excavated in fact, and it proved to be the choir of the church, the very place where we knew he was buried. And it was on the very first day, the anniversary of Richard's burial, that we came across his remains. We couldn't know it then, of course. We simply stared in disbelief and wondered just how lucky you could get on the first day of a dig! By the time he had been freed from his surroundings, and we saw his curved spine and battle wounds, I needed no further proof. We had to wait for the scientific tests, of course... but for me, my quest was over.
R for Richard
Finding the lost grave of Richard III has been hailed 'the UK's Tutankhamun equivalent'. Luck played a big part in the discovery – two centuries ago the bones came within a whisker of being destroyed. The Victorians laid foundations in the area, missing the king's skeleton by 30cm, and even if he had been discovered then, they wouldn't have had the technology to determine to whom the bones belonged. The question of who painted the 'R' in the car park above Richard's unmarked grave remains unanswered.