The Discovery of King Richard III

In 2011, the University of Leicester joined an initiative brought by Philippa Langley, of the Richard III Society, to search for the grave of the lost Plantagenet king. The University of Leicester led on the archaeological work– and the rest, as they say, is history…

Click to view a visual timeline of the discovery

The archaeology

In the summer of 2012, Richard Buckley led a team of archaeologists and other University of Leicester specialists on an excavation of the Grey Friars friary, which is covered, in part, by a Leicester City Council car park.

Using historic maps of the city, in particular one drawn by Thomas Roberts in 1741 which is believed to be the first accurately surveyed map of Leicester, the archaeologists were able to narrow down the location of the lost friary.

The full grounds of the friary – most of it lost beneath buildings, walls, roads, electrical cables, phone lines and gas pipes – stretches for 13,500sq m underground and is close to impossible to reach.

Only a fraction of the friary precinct was reachable – about one sixth – and within that, nobody knew precisely where the buildings lay, so Richard Buckley and his team’s odds of pinpointing the choir of the church, where they believed the remains would be found, were long.

There has been a lot written about the location of Richard III’s final resting place. John Rous, a contemporary of Richard III tells us he was buried in the choir of the friary’s church. Later sources mention that he was buried beneath an alabaster tomb, paid for by Henry VII.

And unhelpfully, some claimed his bones had been unceremoniously dug up and tossed into the nearby River Soar in the 16th century.

It was a claim dismissed by many including a University of Leicester historian David Baldwin. David Baldwin published a paper in 1986 in which he also predicted that at some point in the turn of the 21st century a dig could take place that might uncover the king.

It was a prediction that turned out to be prophetic.

On the day before the dig, surrounded by television cameras and scribbling reporters, Richard Buckley stated on more than occasion that he would eat his hat if they ever found the lost Plantagenet monarch.

He should have more faith in his abilities…

The discovery

Six hours and thirty-four minutes after breaking ground on the first day of the excavation, site director Mathew Morris happened upon a human leg bone.

Mathew Morris on site.
A left leg to precise, then a right leg; proof that the bones were articulated and in a grave.

Without knowing precisely where the grave was situated within the friary, further investigation of the remains was put on hold and attention focussed instead on archaeology elsewhere on the site.

Over that first week crucial evidence of the friary’s chapter house and eastern cloistral range was identified. By the beginning of the second week the friary’s church had also been found, then the choir.

By midway through the second week it was clear that the human remains were in the right area of the church.

With an exhumation licence from the Ministry of Justice in place, archaeologists resumed their work on the remains and found that attached to that leg was a hip – a rather royal hip as it would happen.

But it is what was attached to that hip that would cause more than just a flutter of excitement. It was a curved spine – an indication that these bones belonged to someone with scoliosis – and a skull showing signs of battle trauma

Mathew's colleague and osteological expert Dr Jo Appleby carefully and meticulously exhumed the remains and sent them back to her lab at the University for further investigation.

Copyright: University of Leicester

It was positive start and although the team did not want to get its hopes up, the excitement was palpable. Richard Buckley made a phone call to Press Office director Ather Mirza who did his utmost to not sound too surprised as he was in an open plan office.  Ather then had to contact his boss Richard Taylor – who had been pivotal in engaging the University in the project – to disclose the news of the discovery.

Back at the University, DNA samples were taken by Dr Turi King and the bones were cleaned and examined by Dr Appleby, who found numerous battle scars and evidence of a chaotic and brutal death.

The skeleton – which wouldn't be confirmed as that of Richard III for another six months – showed signs that it had received several blows from a sharp weapon, possibly a halberd, which had visibly sliced sections of the skull away – one of wounds was a candidate for being the fatal 'killing blow'.

But the facial injuries were not as severe as the ones to the back of the head.

Dr Richard Buckley
And Dr Appleby has a theory for why. “They're causing fairly minor disfigurement,” she said. “They're not completely destroying the face. And that was important because it was important for Henry's side to show that Richard actually was dead.

“There's always a potential with these things that somebody is going to turn up six-months down the line with an army at their back claiming to be the person.

“So it was very important that Henry VII really could show that he had killed Richard.”

So the remains found at Grey Friars now had a few things going for them.

They had been found in the choir of the friary – a place reserved for nobility and a place where Richard III had been reported to have been buried by the Franciscan friars.

The skeleton had scoliosis – which tallied with an historical account of Richard.

It also had fatal battle injuries, which proved that this person had died fighting – as Richard had done at Bosworth.

Those small flutters felt earlier by the team were starting to grow.

And Dr Buckley looked as if he might have a hat to eat.

But all this evidence was fairly circumstantial.

Research evidence

The University needed something more concrete and, after the exhumation of the remains, various lines of academic enquiry were put into operation to prove the identity of the king

The identification was made by combining different lines of evidence, including:

  • The location of the grave matches the information provided by John Rous, a contemporary of Richard III’s.
  • The nature of the skeleton – including the age of the man, his general build, the injuries inflicted around the time of death and the scoliosis (spinal condition) - are also in agreement with historical accounts.
  • The radiocarbon dating places the date of the skeleton to the period of Richard III’s death.
  • Isotope analysis suggests an individual with a high-quality diet.
  • The nature of his burial /grave is also highly unusual for Leicester at the time, but fits with the known facts around Richard’s burial.
  • Two direct female-line descendants of Richard’s sister, Anne, were found to share a rare mitochondrial DNA type with the skeletal remains.

The strength of the identification is that different kinds of evidence all point to the same result.

An interesting dimension of the research was discovering living descendants of the Plantagenets. Due to earlier work by Dr John Ashdown-Hill the University had access to Canadian-born cabinet-maker Michael Ibsen.

Professor Kevin Schϋrer
Pro-Vice-Chancellor and historian Professor Kevin Schürer was able to carry out independent research to confirm that Michael, who now lives in Paddington, London, was Richard III's nephew in the 17th generation.

Professor Schürer also co-ordinated research to uncover a new descendant of the Plantagenet dynasty- Wendy Duldig, a niece in the 19th generation.

Dr Turi King, who was leading the genetic analysis, had two strands to her work.  First she had to conduct the DNA analysis of the living relatives and then, if she could retrieve sufficient amounts of DNA from skeletal remains, carry out the ancient DNA work

She said: “In short, I was looking for a match between the mitochondrial DNA from the skeletal remains with Michael Ibsen and Wendy Duldig. Mitochondrial DNA was important in this for two reasons - first of all, it’s the segment of our DNA which is most likely to be retrieved from ancient remains.

Dr Turi King
“Two - it’s one of two segments of our DNA which, unlike the vast majority of our DNA, is passed down in a very simple way down through the generations. Mitochondrial DNA is in the egg and therefore a mother passes it to all of her children, but only daughters pass it on.

“Therefore, while no one would carry Richard’s DNA (only Richard can do that), relatives of Richard through the female line would be expected to share the same or similar mitochondrial DNA type.

“So essentially what I did was analyse the DNA from the skeletal remains - this was a rather long process as DNA in ancient remains is highly degraded - and compare it with that from Michael and Wendy.

“There was a match between the three of them which again pointed to these being the remains of Richard III. But the DNA would always be just one strand of evidence.”

Professor Schürer also conducted extensive research of Richard’s kin network to elimante the possibility of the skeleton being mistaken for someone else with the same mitochondrial DNA type who could have been at Bosworth.

Battle Injuries

New research led by the University of Leicester also uncovered the nature of the injuries Richard sustained. Using modern forensic analysis of the King’s skeletal remains,  researchers revealed that three of his injuries had the potential to cause death quickly—two to the skull and one to the pelvis.

The forensic imaging team from the Forensic Pathology Unit and the Department of Engineering at the University of Leicester used whole body CT scans and micro-CT imaging of injured bones to analyse trauma to the 500-year-old skeleton carefully, and to determine which of the King’s wounds might have proved fatal. They also analysed tool marks on bone to identify the medieval weapons potentially responsible for his injuries.

The results, published in The Lancet, show that Richard’s skeleton sustained eleven wounds at or near the time of his death—nine of them to the skull, clearly inflicted in battle and suggesting he had removed or lost his helmet, and two to the postcranial skeleton.

Professor Sarah Hainsworth
Sarah Hainsworth, one of the study’s authors and Professor of Materials and Forensic Engineering at the University of Leicester explains, “Richard’s injuries represent a sustained attack or an attack by several assailants with weapons from the later medieval period. The wounds to the skull suggest that he was not wearing a helmet, and the absence of defensive wounds on his arms and hands indicate that he was otherwise still armoured at the time of his death.”

The investigators, led by Dr Jo Appleby, surmise that the postcranial injuries, including the potentially fatal one to the pelvis, might have been inflicted after Richard’s death, on the basis that had he been alive he would have been wearing a specific type of armour worn in the late 15th century that would have prevented such wounds.

According to Professor Guy Rutty, study co-author, from the East Midlands Pathology Unit at the University of Leicester, “The most likely injuries to have caused the King’s death are the two to the inferior aspect of the skull—a large sharp force trauma possibly from a sword or staff weapon, such as a halberd or bill, and a penetrating injury from the tip of an edged weapon. Richard’s head injuries are consistent with some near-contemporary accounts of the battle, which suggest that Richard abandoned his horse after it became stuck in a mire and was killed while fighting his enemies.”

Conclusive evidence

© Society of Antiquaries of London
On December 2 2014, international research led by the University of Leicester published in Nature Communications revealed:

  • Analysis of all the available evidence confirms identity of King Richard III to the point of 99.999%  (at its most conservative).
  • Analysis of the mitochondrial DNA shows a match between Richard III and modern female-line relatives, Michael Ibsen and Wendy Duldig.
  • The male line of descent is broken at one or more points in the line between Richard III and living male-line relatives descended from Henry Somerset, 5th Duke of Beaufort.
  • King Richard was almost certainly blue-eyed and probably had blond hair at least during his childhood.
  • The portrait which appears to most closely match the genetically-determined hair and eye colour is the Arched-Frame Portrait in the Society of Antiquaries (right).

Dr King said:

“Our paper covers all the genetic and genealogical analysis involved in the identification of the remains of Skeleton 1 from the Greyfriars site in Leicester and is the first to draw together all the strands of evidence to come to a conclusion about the identity of those remains. Even with our highly conservative analysis, the evidence is overwhelming that these are indeed the remains of King Richard III, thereby closing an over 500 year old missing person’s case.”

Professor Schürer added:

“The combination of evidence confirms the remains as those of Richard III. Especially important is the triangulation of the maternal line descendants. The break in the Y-chromosome line is not overly surprising given the incidence of non-paternity, but does pose interesting speculative questions over succession as a result.”


Credit - Emma Vieceli, Kate Brown, Paul Duffield
In order to fill the media void that emerged while research continued, a steady drip-feed of relevant stories maintained the public/media interest. The University cannily commissioned artwork of the King which provided a consistent visual brand across our publications and advertising. (Serendipitously, our recruitment campaign was already based around ‘What could you discover?’).

In the months between the announcement of the discovery of remains and the final press conference, the press office was harangued on a constant basis for more information.  Some media reported that we had discovered Richard on the basis of fragments of information and we used social media to assert that a final decision would only be made when all the strands of evidence had been collected and assessed.

A news blackout was put in place in the final week before the media conference and a number of  media were ‘embedded’ with the press office under non-disclosure agreements. Then on February 4 2013, the University of Leicester announced to the world that we had indeed discovered King Richard III.

The Dig for Richard III represented the first ever search for the lost grave of an anointed King of England.  The discovery of the King under a car park in Leicester made headlines across the world and captured the imagination of the public. That such a remarkable archaeological discovery was possible is testament to the skill and experience of the team that led the search. Dr Mark Gardiner, president of the Society for Medieval Archaeology described their work as “Faultless...absolutely stunning”. “Astonishing archaeological detective work”, wrote historian and broadcaster Helen Castor.

This project is exceptional because:

  • It deployed multidisciplinary research activity in an unprecedented way. Geneticists, osteologists, archaeologists, weapon experts, engineers, latinists, forensic pathologists, historians and genealogists all played key roles in the project. Nature wrote “The University of Leicester has managed to unite the two cultures of science and humanities in a way that few have before.”
  • It used cutting edge scientific technique in novel ways – particularly the use of ancient DNA. It is the first time that DNA and genealogy have been used to conclusively identify a skeleton of this age.
  • It excited and engaged the public and media. Over 1,500 news and web articles appeared about the find. At its peak, Richard III held the top spot on Twitter trends hitting 13,000 tweets a minute.
  • It spoke to different people across the world for different reasons including academic, heritage and archaeological communities;  staff and students; Parliament where members debated the significance of the find; but above all the public –who thronged to the site, poured over our website, watched our videos and followed the events via the media and through social media.

The archaeological dig cost £45,000 with the University of Leicester the largest single contributor.  The scientific search thereafter was funded entirely by the University of Leicester.

In 2011, the University of Leicester joined an initiative brought by Philippa Langley, of the Richard III Society, to search for the grave of the lost Plantagenet king.  The University of Leicester led on the archaeological work– and the rest, as they say, is history…The tourism value of this discovery to the City of Leicester, where King Richard is being reinterred, has been estimated at £140 million.

In addition to the worldwide attention, the discovery has placed the University at the heart of the city’s narrative and economic regeneration projects. Ten front pages of the local paper and four editorials over five months praised the “excellence” of the University’s work.

A £4million Richard III visitor attraction opposite  the Cathedral where Richard III will be reinterred has now opened providing access for public viewing of the gravesite in a suitably reflective setting.

The University has definitively and unequivocally delivered “one of the dramatic archaeological discoveries of modern times”, according to the Daily Telegraph.

But there was more.

Dr Philip Shaw from the university’s School of English analysed the spelling and grammar in letters penned by the last Plantagenet to recreate what he might have sounded like. After more than 500 years we were able to look the King in the face and hear what he may have sounded like.

Credit: Leicester CathedralThe University did not just rescue King Richard III from an ignominious hole. We cast light on his story in front of a fascinated world. The debates about whether he was a good king will continue to rage, perhaps now more fiercely than ever, but they showed us there was a lot more to Richard than Shakespeare’s “poisonous hunchbacked toad”.

In 2011, the University of Leicester joined an initiative brought by Philippa Langley, of the Richard III Society, to search for the grave of the lost Plantagenet king.  The University of Leicester led on the archaeological work– and the rest, as they say, is history…“They didn’t just find bones,” says Dr Gardiner. “They have contributed to a broader historic narrative about what happened to the King, his life and his health. They converged the latest forensic methods with immaculate archaeology and put all the discoveries together in the context of the historical record.

“More than that, they have done something unique,” he adds. “They have altered the public perception of archaeology…That’s very significant.”

30 years of expertise, of detailed knowledge of the city’s archaeology and the deployment of skilled cutting edge technique, were key to finding and identifying Richard. In doing so the team constructed and shared a compelling, original and archaeologically immaculate narrative about his life and times.

A timeline of discovery

The University embarked on the dig for Richard III in August 2012 and this timeline provides a snapshot of our discovery.

  • 24 August 2012 – Dig is officially launched on site by University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS)
  • 4 – 5 September 2012 – Complete skeleton thought to be Richard III is uncovered and removed
  • 12 September 2012 – Press conference announces the discovery of human remains consistent with being those of Richard- but further tests required
  • 4 February 2013 – University confirms the remains are indeed Richard III following extensive scientific tests on the bones
  • 1 June 2013 – Academic paper reveals new light on the death and burial of Richard III in the Grey Friars church.
  • 4 September 2013 – Academic paper reveals Richard suffered from roundworm
  • 22 November 2013 – University receives Royal recognition for its work with the award of the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education
  • 23 May 2014 – High Court upholds Ministry of Justice licence granted to University to reinter King Richard at Leicester Cathedral
  • 30 May 2014 – Further evidence reveals extent of Richard III’s scoliosis
  • 26 July 2014 – Richard III Visitor Centre opens on the site of the Grey Friars church charting the University’s discovery
  • 17 August 2014 – Bone chemistry reveals clues of Richard’s diet and lifestyle
  • 17 September 2014 – Most likely cause of Richard’s death identified
  • 2 December 2014 – University releases the complete DNA evidence to confirm identity of skeleton as well as a statistical analysis to come to a conclusion about the probability of these being the remains of King Richard III.
  • 15 March 2015 – the coffining of the mortal remains of King Richard III takes place.
  • 21 March 2015- University of Leicester Richard III Open Day
  • 22 March 2015 – Richard III’s remains leave University to journey through the county and city
  • 26 March 2015- Reinterment


Whilst we were able to make use of considerable expertise within the University of Leicester, the project would have been impossible without collaborations with outside individuals and institutions, to whom we cannot sufficiently express our gratitude. Sadly, they are too numerous to list individually, but more details of their involvement can be found here as well as here


A list of suggested reading, including links to the six peer-reviewed articles can be found here:

Mathew Morris MA ACIfA is Site Director for the Grey Friars Project, University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS). You can read a blog by him here:

More details and films about the project on the University of Leicester’s Richard III website

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