A burial fit for a King

Posted by ac555 at Apr 27, 2015 04:45 PM |
All eyes on Leicester and the University for the historic moment of the reinterment of King Richard III

Greyfriars dig


On the very first day of the Grey Friars dig in 2012, Mathew Morris discovered a leg bone which was set to rewrite history. For the archaeologist had found the mortal remains of the last Plantagenet King, solving a more than 500 year old mystery.

What followed from this momentous day was a journey unlike no other the University of Leicester – or any other university for that matter – had experienced before. A two and a half year investigation into the bones, now identified as King Richard III to 99.999 per cent at its most conservative, revealed a host of new information about the lost King.

Drawing on interdisciplinary skills of researchers from across all of the University’s four colleges, we now know how he died (several blows to his head), his eye colour (blue), his childhood hair colour (blond) and that his ‘hunchbacked’ appearance as described by Shakespeare was due to scoliosis. Perhaps most shocking of all was Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Kevin Schürer’s and geneticist Dr Turi King's discovery of a break somewhere in his family’s male-paternity line – raising some interesting questions about the royal lineage.

“From the outset of the project, I have always stressed the importance of maintaining the strong historical association of King Richard with Leicester,” says Dr Richard Buckley OBE, lead archaeologist on the Grey Friars dig.

“If, and it is  a very big if, the break in the chain is one of five between Richard, up through Edward and then to John of Gaunt, historians could ask questions theoretically about the inheritance of a number of the Plantagenet monarchs,” he explains. “However, statistically speaking, the break is far more likely to have occurred from John of Gaunt’s son downwards.”

Richard’s remains were studied and guarded at the University from September 2012 until March 2015 – 141 days longer than he was on the throne – as preparations for his reinterment were put into place by the University in partnership with Leicester Cathedral and the city and county councils.   


The exhumation licence was granted to the University by the Ministry of Justice on the condition that if found, his remains stay in Leicester. This licence was challenged by the Plantagenet Alliance – a group of pro-Yorkists – once he was discovered, but the High Court upheld the Ministry of Justice’s decision and so the Leicester Cathedral Quarter Partnership began to make plans to rebury the monarch.

“From the outset of the project, I have always stressed the importance of maintaining the strong historical association of King Richard with Leicester,” says Dr Richard Buckley OBE, lead archaeologist on the Grey Friars dig. “We followed best archaeological practice in recommending that his remains be transferred to the nearest place of consecration for the reinterment: the Cathedral of St Martins, less than a hundred metres away.”

As Richard would have received a Christian funeral when he was buried in the Church of the Grey Friars in 1485, it was decided that the reinterment should not be treated as a funeral, but instead a Christian service celebrating his life with partners from multi-faith and multicultural communities. The date of Thursday 26 March 2015 was set and Michael Ibsen, a direct descendant of Richard’s sister – who provided a DNA sample to aid in the identification of Richard's remains – was commissioned to make his coffin.

“I was touched when they asked me to do it,” recalls Michael. “I think it has a lovely resonance that I’m making a coffin for a distant relative. It’s a real honour.”

Plans for a whole week of celebration activities in Leicester were made to rebury the King with dignity and honour, with the University and our academics at the heart of the arrangements.

Open Day

R3 open day

Thousands of staff, students, members of the local community and tourists from all over the world gathered at the University on Saturday 21 March for the first of the city’s week-long activities to lay the King to rest; the University’s King Richard III Open Day.

“I just wanted to say thank you to the University for a fantastic Richard III Open Day,” said Sally from the 1st Narborough Brownies.

The University opened up its campus for a fun-filled day of family-friendly activities celebrating our discovery, identification and the study of the last Plantagenet King. This included talks from all of the experts involved in the project, such as: ‘To the point’ with Professor Sarah Hainsworth from our Department of Engineering and Bob Woosnam-Savage from the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds, exploring Richard’s fatal battle injuries and ‘Bones of the past’ with Dr Jo Appleby from our School of Archaeology and Ancient History, shedding light on the scientific analysis of his bones.

Popular hands-on activities included experiments with DNA extraction, a 14th century Friar, the opportunity to examine real skeletal remains and a medieval banquet.

“I just wanted to say thank you to the University for a fantastic Richard III Open Day,” said Sally from the 1st Narborough Brownies. “The Brownies had a most enjoyable day.”

bones of a king

Hundreds of people also gathered in the University’s bookshop at 1pm for the launch of The Bones of a King: Richard III Rediscovered authored by the Grey Friars research team with Professor Lin Foxhall from our School of Archaeology and Ancient History and Guardian journalist Maev Kennedy who has been following the historic discovery from the start.

The reveal

R3 reveal

The next day, Sunday 22 March, the world’s media gathered at the University from 7am, eagerly anticipating the first glimpse of Richard’s coffin and the start of his final journey to Leicester Cathedral.

Reporters, photographers and camera crews assembled outside the Fielding Johnson building on a specially constructed media platform. National broadcasters were reporting live for their breakfast bulletins and the final preparations were made for the University to bid farewell to the King who has helped to put Leicester on the map. Staff, students and members of the public arrived in their hundreds for the historic moment.  

Shortly before 11am, the doors of the Fielding Johnson building opened and the ceremony marking the departure of the mortal remains of King Richard III began. A procession of invited VIPs, including instrumental members of the University’s research team, and living descendants of relatives of Richard III, followed the coffin and the congregation was welcomed by the Chancellor and the President and Vice-Chancellor.

“King Richard III ruled for just over two years but has been a part of our local history for over 500 years,” announced the President and Vice-Chancellor. “Since his discovery at the site of the former Church of the Grey Friars priory, the University of Leicester has been custodian of his remains for longer than he actually reigned.

“Today, we remember him as we prepare to pass on his mortal remains to the care of the Cathedral Church of St Martin, Leicester, so that they may reinter him with dignity and honour.”  

The University’s Chaplain, Stephen Foster led a brief public ceremony, ‘Reflections on a Journey’, to mark the beginning of Richard’s final journey and members of the University project team, the Richard III Society and descendants of King Richard’s sister were invited to pay their respects by placing a symbolic white rose on top of Richard’s coffin, before he left the University in a waiting hearse.

Upon departure, the mortal remains travelled through the city and county, stopping at sites of significance along the way, before being officially handed over to the care of Leicester Cathedral by Dr Richard Buckley OBE, live on Channel 4.

From the University, the cortege first travelled to Fenn Lane farm, reputedly the site of the King’s death, before moving on to nearby village parish churches of Dadlington and Sutton Cheney. These sites were chosen due to their significance in Richard’s final days – some of the victims of his final battle are buried in Dadlington’s churchyard of St James the Greater, and some people believe him to have taken his final Mass at the Church of St James in Sutton Cheney on the eve of his final battle.

The Bishop of Leicester, the Right Reverend Tim Stevens, then led a short ceremony at the Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre before the remains continued to Market Bosworth, Newbold Verdon and Desford.

They returned to the city mid-afternoon at Bow Bridge, where they were met by the City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby, Lord Mayor Councillor John Thomas and a horse-drawn hearse to take the coffin to the Cathedral for an evening service of Compline with the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster.

“It was from Leicester in 1485 that Richard rode out to battle, and it was to Leicester that he returned, defeated, slung ignominiously across the back of a horse,” Sir Peter explained prior to the event. “It is now our opportunity to put it right and to make sure this time that it’s done with dignity and honour.”

At every step of the way, the streets were lined with thousands of well-wishers hoping for a glimpse of history as Richard made his way to his final resting place and more than 70,000 people tuned in to live updates of the day’s events on the Cathedral-run King Richard in Leicester website. Even X Factor winner and Leicestershire resident Sam Bailey made it a family affair, tweeting pictures of her children enjoying the celebrations, wearing crowns and holding banners for the King.

“We witnessed some amazing history today!” she said.

Reinterment Week

King Richard’s remains lay in repose at Leicester Cathedral for three days, during which time thousands of people from all over the world visited to pay their respects. The University and Leicester Cathedral held a number of press conferences to give interested media access to key spokespeople, and Professor Kevin Schürer held a remarkable reception on the eve of the reinterment ceremony for 50 strangers with one thing in common.

Individuals travelled to Leicester from South Africa, Australia and other parts of the UK after being contacted by Kevin, whose research identified them as ancestors of men who fought on both sides of the Battle of Bosworth, many descendants of relatives of King Richard III and therefore distant relatives of one-another.

“Tracing the descent of various (non-aristocratic) families who fought at Bosworth has been an amazing journey, one that has been challenging and one that has thrown up all kinds of interesting stories along the way,” he explains.

“The discovery of his remains in Leicester has been described as one of the most significant archaeological finds in the country’s history. I send my sincere thanks to the University of Leicester, members of the Church and other authorities in Leicester who have made this important occasion possible," HRH Queen Elizabeth II

“The stories are a mixture of continuity and change, with a fair measure of fame and glory thrown in. The inter-relation between some of the families from Bosworth is another interesting feature – in some regards it truly was a battle of cousins.

“It is a bit surreal having everyone meet for the first time, but it is a very special moment.”  

Conrad Penny travelled from South Africa to attend the unique event. He is an ancestor of King Richard’s brother and is related to 11 other people who fought in the battle.

“I think it is incredible to bring so many people together, from diverse places,” he says. “Richard had a very ungracious death in battle and was treated cruelly. This is an opportunity now to give him the burial he deserved.”

Reinterment Ceremony

R3 reinterment

“The reinterment of King Richard III is an event of great national and international significance,” says HRH Queen Elizabeth II in a statement sent to Leicester Cathedral. “Today we recognise a King who lived through turbulent times and whose Christian faith sustained him in life and death.

“The discovery of his remains in Leicester has been described as one of the most significant archaeological finds in the country’s history. I send my sincere thanks to the University of Leicester, members of the Church and other authorities in Leicester who have made this important occasion possible.”

The day of the reinterment finally arrived on a not-so-sunny spring day. The Countess of Wessex was in attendance representing the Queen and the congregation was filled with some other famous faces, most notably Sherlock actor Benedict Cumberbatch – identified by Kevin as a descendant of one of multiple relatives of Richard III – who delivered a reading of a specially commissioned poem, Richard, by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy.

Actor Robert Lindsay and former politician John Sergeant were also in attendance alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury, invited guests and 200 members of the public following a special ballot. An additional 3 million people tuned into Channel 4’s live coverage of the hour-long ceremony.

“People have come in their thousands from around the world to this place of honour, not to judge or condemn but to stand humble and reverent,” said the Rt Rev Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, during the service.

“From car park to Cathedral…today we come to give this King, and these mortal remains the dignity and honour denied to them in death.”   

King Richard’s coffin was lowered into a new grave site in Leicester Cathedral and the Archbishop of Canterbury sprinkled soils onto the coffin from three sites of significance to the King: Fotheringhay (where he was born), Middleham Castle in North Yorkshire (where he lived his youth) and Bosworth (where he met his death).

His tomb was revealed to the public the following day in the Cathedrals’ third and final ceremony. The deeply incised cross on Richard’s tomb characterises his grave and echoes the tomb of Jesus. It points east for in the Christian tradition, tombs face east to greet the rising sun.



The discovery of King Richard III has made a remarkable impact on the University of Leicester and the city. The reinterment week alone resulted in more than 2,000 individual UK news articles mentioning the University, with an advertising value equivalent (AVE) of £12 million and 366 million opportunities to see.

And the coverage has continued since this week; on Wednesday 1 April, The Independent announced that the University of Leicester would soon be changing our name to King Richard University ‘to capitalise on its discovery of the bones of Richard III’ from September 2016.

Whilst this was an April Fools on behalf of the paper, the University is immensely proud of our role in the discovery of Richard III and the role we have played in rewriting history. sely proud of e in battle, so watch this space.ichard III to learn even more about hte rsity. d the President and Vice-

“This has been a landmark project,” describes the President and Vice-Chancellor. “It has not only brought together research teams from across the University, but it has engaged students, schools and graduates as well as people from around the world in a project of discovery.

“Academic and professional staff have worked with great dedication under the public gaze, and I pay tribute to them for their endeavour.”

The team now plans to sequence the complete genome of Richard III to learn even more about the last English King to die in battle, so watch this space.