What has the discovery of Richard III’s remains taught us?

As Richard III is set to be buried in Leicester Cathedral, experts share their views on what the discovery of his remains – and the ensuing debate – have taught us

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The discovery of Richard III’s remains beneath a Leicester car park in 2012 is one of the biggest historical stories of the past decade. Carried out by the Looking for Richard Project and archaeologists from the University of Leicester, the dig and subsequent research sparked debate about what new details the bones could reveal about the man, his life and legacy – and whether these bones were even the king’s. Here, historians and experts share their views on the implications of the investigation, and why laying the body to rest may not be the end of the saga.

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Dan Jones: “This discovery shows what 21st- century science has to offer historians” 

The wealth of information harvested from Richard’s bones and grave is amazing, and shows just how much 21st- century science has to offer historians. I don’t just mean the DNA work that identified the remains as the king’s. Careful analysis of the skeleton diagnosed Richard’s spinal deformity as idiopathic scoliosis, and told us much about the wounds he suffered at the battle of Bosworth in 1485. We learned that the king probably had blue eyes, and was a blond-haired child. Soil analysis told us he had roundworm in his gut. Dental examination suggests he ground his teeth. Isotope analysis of his ribs revealed that his diet got richer in later life.

It’s a great interdisciplinary case study – and it offers a tantalising glimpse of what we could learn if we opened other monarchs’ tombs. The 18th- and 19th-century vogue for peering into ancient royal graves is long gone. Yet how much more we could find out today! Paradoxically, at a time when we could know so much about the dead, we have grown incredibly prissy about disturbing them. Shame.

Dan Jones is the author of The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors (Faber and Faber, 2014) 

Philippa Langley: “We were able to disprove myths that had become truths”

The Looking For Richard Project began where the study of our past always begins: with open minds and questions. Everyone in Leicester told us that the king’s body had been dug up and thrown into the river Soar; we proved that the age-old story was false, dreamed up to suit a reputation that people had been led to believe. We questioned that reputation, too, by commissioning a psychological analysis of the king by two leading academics, Mark Lansdale and Julian Boon, which is available to read online here.

By questioning, we were able to uncover the real Richard and disprove many of the myths that surrounded him – myths that had, over time, become ‘truths’. Our years of work brought extraordinary results, demonstrating what can be achieved when preconceptions are set aside. This year we commemorate finding Richard III; who knows what still waits to be discovered? It’s my prediction that the study of late medieval England will never be the same again.

Philippa Langley led the search for Richard III through the Looking For Richard Project, and co-authored The King’s Grave: The Search for Richard III (2013), and Finding Richard III: The Official Account (2014)

Mike Pitts: “A distant medieval monarch has been revealed as one of us”

There was great excitement when archaeologists announced that a king’s remains had been found in Leicester. Many experts, however, were sceptical: what new would we learn? The historian and broadcaster Mary Beard, for instance, wondered on Twitter whether the discovery had “any HISTORICAL significance?”

To counter such doubts, we might note the positive, practical outcomes. The Richard III Society, Channel 4, the University of Leicester and the city of Leicester itself, to name but a few of those closely involved, have all benefited. The university, for example, estimated that immediate press coverage was worth £2m to it.

Such things matter. But we have, in fact, also gained new insights into Richard III and contemporary historical documents. And I think that we have understood something greater still. The tawdry details of Richard’s grave, and the immediacy of bones, wounds and dirt, have touched people in ways beyond the reach of history or Shakespeare. Archaeology has made a historical cypher real, and humanised a fictional monster. A distant medieval monarch has been revealed as one of us.

Mike Pitts is the author of Digging for Richard III: How Archaeology Found the King (Thames and Hudson, 2014)

Michael Hicks: “This quest funded a massive research effort. Yet it failed”

This quest generated worldwide knowledge of Richard III, of modern science and of Leicester University, funded a massive multi-disciplinary research effort and potentially taught much about Richard and his age. Yet it failed – perhaps because these bones were not Richard’s*, but those of a non-Plantagenet slain between 1455 and 1530; certainly because the issue was prejudged. Researchers sought only to confirm the remains as Richard’s. Suspect radiocarbon dating, discrepancies in the evidence found in the wounds and grave, and contrary Y chromosome results – all of these were brushed aside.

Much remains unknown – about Richard’s maternal ancestors; mortality in the Wars of the Roses; where that conflict’s slain were buried; the identities of the other internees at the Leicester friary; and paternity breaks among late medieval English aristocrats. This cannot be the end of the research.

* Michael Hicks queried the identification of the remains in the April 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

Michael Hicks is the former head of history at the University of Winchester

Phil Stone: “Richard III will be buried with dignity and honour”

After Bosworth, Richard III was taken to Leicester, exposed and then buried in the Grey Friars with much haste and little honour. It is not known where he wished to be buried – his will has not survived – but there has been much (and sometimes very passionate) debate about where his remains should go. Standard archaeological practice is to rebury remains close to where they were found, reflected in the exhumation licence upheld in the High Court. Richard III will be buried in Leicester Cathedral, very close to the Grey Friars.

All of the suggested alternatives had their drawbacks. The family mausoleum at Fotheringhay is too small, and it is my understanding that the authorities would not give permission to use St George’s Chapel, Windsor or Westminster Abbey. Besides, there is no room in the latter for another burial, especially that of a king.

York Minster was also suggested, since Richard III had ordered the building of a chantry there – yet that does not mean that he intended it to be the location of his burial (and, in any case, burials in the minster were halted by law some 170 years ago).

Despite demands to do otherwise, the Richard III Society has maintained impartiality throughout the entirety of the burial debate. Our stance was that we would work with whichever religious house was chosen in order to ensure that Richard III could be buried with dignity, solemnity and honour, giving him what he was denied in 1485. I’m very pleased to say that this is what is to be done.

Phil Stone is chairman of the Richard III Society

Francis Pryor: “The project was a great achievement for archaeology”

The archaeological excavation and the historical reconstruction were enormously successful. They provided splendid examples of close teamwork and showed why archaeology is still the best general training for life after university that any student could hope to acquire. The Richard III project combined so many useful skills: hands-on practical experience, advanced computing and surveying, but also ‘softer’ aspects such as interpretation, communication, PR and outreach. The project showed well how modern archaeology can bridge the divide between the worlds of art and science better than any other academic subject. All in all, it was a huge achievement and a great advertisement for the expert research being carried out by institutions such as the University of Leicester.

Francis Pryor is the author of Home: A Time Traveller’s Tales from Britain’s Prehistory (Allen Lane, 2014)

Dr Turi King: “We will be able to learn even more in coming years”

he identification of Richard III’s remains was based on strands of evidence drawn from experts from the fields of history, archaeology, osteology, forensics, engineering, medicine, genealogy and genetics. The genetic analysis has thrown up some particularly interesting results, showing that there isn’t a match with living male-line relatives. This is not particularly surprising given the known possibility of a false paternity (in other words, the biological father is not the recorded father) somewhere in the 19 links in the genealogical chain – though where the break occurred is still not known.

We now know that Richard almost certainly had blue eyes and probably light-coloured hair, at least in childhood, allowing us to show which of the two earliest portraits of Richard most closely matches the genetically predicted results (the ‘arched-frame portrait’ in the Society of Antiquaries of London). As we continue to learn more about which gene or genes may be involved in particular traits, the current whole-genome analysis will allow us to use this knowledge to learn even more about Richard in the coming years.

Dr Turi King is lecturer in genetics and archaeology at the University of Leicester

Chris Skidmore: “This evidence needs to be the beginning, not the final word”

I will never forget the moment when I found out that Richard’s remains had been unearthed beneath a Leicester car park. Sitting at my desk in the sweltering August heat back in 2012, I had nearly finished the first draft of my book on Bosworth when, with BBC News playing in the background, I caught a sight of the red ‘breaking news’ banner flashing across the screen. Since then, there seems to have been barely a day when Richard III has been out of the news.

The discovery has revealed much about the final wounds sustained by Richard during his final moments on the battlefield, in what seems nothing less than a staged execution rather than death by fighting. Scientific tests on the remains have taught us more about Richard: perhaps most importantly, we now know that Thomas More was right, and that Richard did have a curved spine, though hardly of ‘hunchback’ proportions. Yet all of this new evidence needs to be the start, not the last word, in a reassessment of Richard’s life. And to do this, the evidence will no longer be found in the ground but in the countless pages of undisturbed documentary evidence lying under our noses in the archives.

Richard is finally to be laid to rest – yet the search for new evidence must continue. I’m confident that the controversies surrounding one of England’s most famous monarchs will remain alive for years to come.

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Chris Skidmore is the author of Bosworth: The Birth of the Tudors (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2013)