First ever archaeological search for the grave of an anointed King of England begins

Posted by mjs76 at Aug 24, 2012 12:05 AM |
The University of Leicester has begun one of the most exciting archaeological investigations it has ever carried out. No less than a search for the bodily remains of the last Plantagenet King - Richard III - killed at the Battle of Bosworth.
First ever archaeological search for the grave of an anointed King of England begins

Leicester's statue of Richard III


Every other English Monarch has a known resting place, but not Richard III. He has no tomb because his mortal remains have been lost in the passage of time. Recent research has begun to indicate a possible location of where the King ought to be - if he's anywhere.

Underneath a Leicester City Council car park.

Richard was killed in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth (the last significant battle of the War of the Roses that pitched Richard's Yorkists against the Tudor Lancastrians), just up the road from the City of Leicester. His body was brought back and publicly displayed, then interred by the Grey Friars, a local order of Franciscan monks. A few years later, a tomb was erected within the Grey Friars’ church. Meanwhile the victor of Bosworth, Henry Tudor, was crowned King Henry VII – then in 1538 his son, Henry VIII, split from Rome. Across the land monasteries were demolished and dissolved, and the Grey Friars were no exception.

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Memorial stone to Richard III in Leicester Cathedral.

As Leicester flourished and expanded in the 17th and 18th centuries, the land in the ‘Greyfriars’ area of the city was built on and the precise location of the original church lost underneath houses, although a monument marking Richard’s grave was apparently still on the spot as late as 1612.

Recognising Richard

The University of Leicester and Leicester City Council, in association with the Richard III Society, have joined to begin the search.

The car park will be surveyed using ground-penetrating radar on Friday 24 August. Then on Saturday 25 August – 527 years to the day since Richard was buried* – Richard Buckley from our School of Archaeology and Ancient History and his team of ULAS archaeologists will start work on two trenches across the car park. Dr Buckley discusses the project in this seven-minute video interview:

The trenches will run North-South and should intersect with the church’s East-West walls (helpfully, Christian churches are usually built on the same alignment). The ULAS team shouldn’t have to dig too deep as, although there are hundreds of years of remains to get through, the actual strata are fairly shallow. Previous Leicester excavations have shown that the Roman layer is less than a meter down – and if you reach that, you’ve gone way past 1485.

The work will continue for two weeks and will culminate in an event over the weekend of 8-9 September when the project will be open to the public. It will then take another week or so to fill in the trenches, tarmac over everything and let the Council have their car park back.

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Memorial plaque on Grey Friars Street, erected by the Richard III Society in 1990.

For the first time ever there is a small but genuine possibility that Richard’s remains might be located. Or at least, some human remains, because obviously he wasn’t the only person buried in the church. Genealogical research by Dr John Ashdown-Hill, author of The Last Days of Richard III, has uncovered a direct descendant of Richard’s sister, and thus we have access to the King’s mitochondrial DNA sequence. If any human remains turn up under the car park, the resources of our world-leading Department of Genetics will come into play, led by Dr Turi King. Any remains found will be tested to see if the last Plantagenet King has been found.

Should the remains prove to be King Richard III, a massive logistical exercise will come into play to provide him with a burial that is appropriate to his status as an anointed King of England.

Re-evaluating Richard

Richard III has had a bad press over the years, not least through the writings of one William Shakespeare. History, as they say, is written by the victors and in Tudor England it was politically astute to rubbish the previous dynasty. Generations of schoolchildren were taught that Richard had the condition sometimes inappropriately called a 'hunchback', also a withered arm, and that he murdered the Princes in the Tower, all of which are now, shall we say, seriously in doubt. Fortunately, today’s young historians have more reliable resources

Leicester has many connections with Richard, who stayed here on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth at the Blue Boar Inn. There is a statue of Richard on St. Augustine Road, a number of plaques and even a pub called The Last Plantagenet. Bosworth Battlefield itself remains a major local tourist attraction.

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Richard III's standard featuring his symbol, the white boar, and his motto 'Loyaulte me lie' (loyalty binds me).

Here at the University, our New History Lab, working with the Richard III Society, staged a courtroom trial of the King last year to determine whether he was really guilty of the crimes which are associated with his name. And students from our School of English enhanced their understanding of Shakespeare’s play by studying sword-fighting techniques at the Bosworth Battlefield Visitor Centre. King Richard III’s most recent appearance on campus was in June as part of LUTheatre’s Shakespeare Marathon.

Marvellous though the Bard’s work is, the play is now well-known as propaganda which unfairly besmirched a well-loved monarch who made a number of significant improvements to British law. Now, finally, through historical, archaeological and genealogical research, there may be a chance to pay Richard III his dues and provide him with a resting place more fitting than a City Council car park.

Richard III: not a below-par King, just below parking.

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The Greyfriars car park. Up to now, the only royalty found here has been an Austin Princess.

*If we conveniently forget the eleven-day difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars.