Search for Richard III: momentous day as University announces discovery

Freelance writer Mark Cardwell's account of the day the University revealed its Richard III findings to a rapt global audience

It was always going to be a big day for the University of Leicester.

Its September announcement – revealing that Leicester archaeologists had discovered a skeleton with a curved spine and battle injuries at the site of Richard III’s possible burial place - produced a flurry of international media attention.

But the prospect of the press conference on February 4 – which would uncover the results of months of scientific investigations into the identity of the bones – was met with an absolute tempest of enthusiasm.

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Richard Buckley gives the final verdict

First on the scene at 5am was BBC Radio Leicester, who broadcast live from the Fielding Johnson South Wing car park for the station’s morning shows.

It didn’t take long for the University to fill up with crowds of more than 150 reporters, TV crews and radio vans from the world’s news outlets, eagerly gathering to hear the verdict.

And as the tension and excitement grew on campus, a wave of anticipation was also growing online - with ‘Richard III’ beginning to trend heavily on Twitter. Before long, it had become the highest trending topic in the UK – and within the top ten of trends worldwide.

There was a real sense that history was unfolding – could today’s announcement answer centuries-old questions about what happened to one of our most controversial kings? 

As the start of the press conference loomed, the journalists, presenters and cameramen squeezed into the Council Chamber to hear from the panel of academics who led the Search. At the same time, guests were ushered in to watch the conference live on video monitors set up in the Haldane Room. Staff and students also gathered to watch on the big screen in the Queen’s Hall in the Students’ Union. 

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TV cameras filming the conference

Vice-Chancellor Professor Robert Burgess began the proceedings by paying tribute to the successes of the project so far. An anxious silence took over the room as Richard Buckley, Dr Turi King, Dr Jo Appleby, Professor Kevin Schürer, Professor Lin Foxhall and Richard Taylor took to the stage, ready to present their findings.

The tension grew in the room as each academic took the stand to describe the findings from each strand of the investigation.

First up was lead archaeologist Richard Buckley – who presented the archaeological evidence from the dig site as well as the grave itself. Cameras snapped away as Richard unveiled the map of the Grey Friars dig site against historical maps of the church.

But this was nothing compared to the torrent of camera shutter clicks that greeted the first image of the skeleton in the grave - the shot the world had been waiting to see.

Osteoarchaeologist Dr Jo Appleby, who carried out extensive analysis of the skeleton, produced a wave of scribbled shorthand around the room when she concluded: “The skeletal evidence provides a highly convincing case for identification as Richard III.”

The last – and perhaps most eagerly awaited – evidence came from Dr Turi King, of the School of Genetics, who carried out the DNA tests on the skeleton. After explaining the potential difficulties of extracting DNA from the 500-year-old skeleton, Dr King revealed that the mitochondrial DNA sequences from the two female line descendents did indeed match that of the skeleton.

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Turi King explains the DNA findings

This paved the way for the conclusive verdict from Richard Buckley: “The individual exhumed at Grey Friars, Leicester in August 2012 is indeed Richard III.”

This provoked cheers, whoops and applause from the press and viewers, as the world took in the momentous news that the remains of the King had indeed been found.

The revelation was immediately followed by warm words from other partners in the Search, including Leicester city mayor Sir Peter Soulsby, Channel 4’s Head of Factual Ralph Lee – who introduced the documentary due to be shown that evening – and David Monteith, Leicester Cathedral Canon Chancellor.

Dr Sarah Knight and Dr Mary Ann Lund from the School of English, were also on hand to explain how the findings relate to Shakespeare’s depiction of the King.

The final words of the press conference fell to Philippa Langley, screenwriter and Richard III Society member, who was the driving force of the quest for the King.

“Wow,” she said. “When I first embarked on the search for Richard III, everyone thought that I was mad. We have searched for Richard and we have found him. It is now time to honour him.

Philippa Langley

The academics answered questions from the floor, before leaving the stage. At this point, reporters flocked to speak to any member of the team they could reach.

After several hours of non-stop interviews, the journalists were invited to bear witness to the skeleton itself – which had been respectfully put on display in the David Wilson Library.

The yellowed bones filled the room with an ominous calm in contrast to the excitement elsewhere on campus. Although shielded beneath a transparent cover, every curve, line, and injury was visible.

You could get a sense of both the integrity and the age of the remains – while also appreciating for the first time the intensity of the wounds he must have sustained.

“I think you could see how moved people were,” said Louise Carr, student recruitment officer at the University who organised the display of the remains.

“It is one thing to read about the remains but another to see it for yourself.”

Slowly, journalists began to disperse from the council chamber to speak to their editors, file copy for the next days’ front pages and record pieces to be broadcast on afternoon and evening news shows.

The unanimous consensus among the academics, staff, guests and journalists was that today had been an enormous success.

“I am absolutely delighted because it is a wonderful opportunity to display the expertise at the University,” said city mayor Sir Peter Soulsby.

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Reporters interview Richard Buckley

Describing the moment he whooped after hearing the final verdict, Radio Leicester presenter Jim Davis said: “I kept telling myself ‘I’m not going to whoop, I’m not going to whoop – oh, it’s out!”

“I was stuck by the real excitement in the room,” said Maev Kennedy, a writer for The Guardian who specialises in the arts and archaeology. “There was this real feeling that people were avid to hear what the story was. We were all astonished to hear the news when it came.

“Archaeology is my great love. Very often I find stories very interesting, but have to sell them quite hard to convince my news desk. That wasn’t the case this time!”

Maev first began covering the progress of the Search after the discovery of the skeleton in September, and struck up a strong friendship with Professor Lin Foxhall.

“I have hugely covering enjoyed it. It is fantastic for the University and fantastic for archaeology.”

Peter Warzynski, a Leicester Mercury reporter who spent a week embedded with the University before the findings, joined two other Mercury reporters and editor Richard Bettsworth at the conference. The paper dedicated 12 pages to the findings in the next day’s paper.

“Today we want to congratulate the academics who have made all this possible, and the remarkable Miss Langley,” said the Mercury’s editorial team. “This discovery now belongs to the whole of Leicester; but it will always be theirs.”

It also seemed to be a tremendous relief for the Search team to get their news out in the open.

“Once I knew the result of the mitochondrial DNA tests, it was very hard not to tell friends and family,” admitted Dr Turi King.

The one concession she had made was to wear a necklace given to her as a birthday present by her father.

“I wore this as a signal to my dad that it was good news,” she added.

"It went well,” said Mathew Morris, the site director for the Grey Friars dig. “It felt like a good closure. I hope we are invited to the re-internment ceremony - that would be a nice end to the project.”

Mathew is now hoping to finalise the write-up of the dig – and maybe even move on to some non-Richard III related work for the first time in six months. However, he will have to fit this around the growing list of requests for him to speak at conferences and archaeological society meetings.

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Richard III - the main story on the BBC's website on February 4

“It’s fantastic news,” said Richard Taylor, deputy registrar and director of corporate affairs, who championed the University’s involvement in the project. “I am so pleased that we have been able to come up with a conclusive answer.”

Amid all of this, calls came flooding in to the University’s News Centre as news outlets around the world cottoned on to the story.

But there was also an unprecedented number of calls from members of the public wishing to congratulate the University on its discovery. The very first call after the announcement came from an 83-year-old woman from Johannesburg, who had been in tears after the announcement.

Let’s hope the excitement continues over the coming weeks and months as the science investigations continue and the Search team publish papers on the research which has been carried out.

Listen to and download the full press conference online:

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