Rediscovering Richard III: the story of identifying a lost king
Ten years ago a skeleton in a Leicester car park transformed our understanding of a medieval king, and turned him into a media sensation. Mike Pitts tells the remarkable story of the discovery of Richard III’s remains
Ten years ago – from 4 to 6 September 2012, to be precise – an unmarked grave was excavated beneath a car park in Leicester. All that survived of the person interred there was a skeleton.
It might well have belonged to an anonymous medieval friar. After all, it was known that a friary had stood in the area before the Dissolution. Yet the bones bore a number of distinctive features that matched disputed historical details, encouraging researchers to explore another, tantalising possibility: could the remains be those of a more noteworthy and controversial historical figure? Months of intensive scientific study followed, and the world became focused on this unusual excavation.
Then, in February 2013, archaeologist Richard Buckley – leader of the University of Leicester’s Grey Friars Project, which aimed to uncover that lost medieval friary – rose from his seat among a panel of historians and scientists, and addressed the overflowing press conference. “It is the academic conclusion of the University of Leicester,” he announced, “that, beyond reasonable doubt, the individual exhumed at Greyfriars in September 2012 is indeed Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England.”
- Read more | Who were the Plantagenets?
This extraordinary excavation was the culmination of years of effort, and an unlikely dream come true – one that began in a bookshop 15 years earlier.
Philippa Langley was a former newspaper sponsorship manager who wrote film scripts in her spare time. As she tells it, the story began for her when she walked into a Waterstones near her home in Edinburgh to pick up some holiday reading. She felt strangely drawn to a particular shelf where, without thinking, she picked up a book, paid, and left.
It was an old biography of Richard III, which painted the king as a noble legislator besmirched by history. Here, thought Langley, was the big-screen story she had to tell.
A few years later, in 2004, she visited Leicester as part of her research for the screenplay she planned to write about the king. Her last stop was an old wall in a car park on the mooted site of the friary where Richard III was said to have been buried after the battle of Bosworth in 1485. She found nothing of note there but, as she walked away, she spotted another car park across the road. Slipping in past the barrier, she felt a cold shiver.
“I knew then,” she told me. “I absolutely knew I was standing on his grave.” The following year, she returned to the same spot and had the same experience. Curiously, since her previous visit someone had painted a white letter R on the tarmac.
Her mission crystallised, Langley determined to disinter the king’s remains, expose the myth of Shakespeare’s deformed monster, and arrange reburial to honour a wronged monarch. She found encouragement in a book by historian John Ashdown-Hill, which dismissed the local legend that Richard’s grave had been despoiled by an angry mob shortly after the king’s death, his body thrown into the nearby river. Ashdown-Hill also claimed to have identified a living relative of Richard III.
Langley believed that, when she found what she knew would be the king’s remains, this discovery of his family member would enable DNA analysis of the bones to prove the fact to everyone else.
After years of determined searching, in 2011 she contacted Buckley, who had grown up near Leicester and was then co-director of University of Leicester Archaeological Services. At the time, he thought Langley’s plans were “bonkers”, he told me – but he agreed to get involved on the basis that “we’d get the chance to look for the friary”.
None of the many archaeologists I talked to back then were interested in searching for a king’s grave. But Buckley was aware that somewhere in the area of those car parks had once stood an important medieval friary about which almost nothing was known. Because the site was unlikely to be developed, there would be no reason or commercial funding for its excavation. An attempt to find Richard’s remains could provide that reason.
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Meanwhile, the Richard III Society – founded in 1924 to promote research into the maligned king – had long worked to boost the king’s reputation in the city. Commemorative plaques were installed, and a handsome bronze statue bearing flattering historic quotations was unveiled by the Duchess of Gloucester in 1980. Langley joined the society, and it became a key early supporter and, later, official lead of what they called the Looking for Richard Project.
The University of Leicester’s Grey Friars Project was a separate effort. Buckley’s team drew up a list of objectives. First find the friary, then plot its orientation, work out where the church had stood and, finally, locate the choir where, according to a record made around the time of the king’s death, he had been buried.
The team thought they had a reasonable expectation of finding the friary, but only “an outside chance” of locating the choir. If they succeeded, though, they would search for human remains that could be identified as those of the king. This, said the archaeologists, was “not seriously considered possible”. It was, though, all that mattered to Philippa Langley. So while Buckley prepared to excavate – with Mathew Morris, a skilled and experienced field archaeologist, in charge of the dig – she designed a tomb.
Buckley, convinced that Richard III would not be found, was amused. “Every phone call I had with her, I said: ‘You realise we are very unlikely to be successful?’,” he told me. When she mentioned that she was planning to order a coffin, he suggested she get some legs made for it – to use as a novelty sideboard.
Excavation began on 25 August 2012. There were three car parks of interest, but the owner of the largest – the one encompassing that old wall, the only possible evidence of a friary – was unwilling to allow access. Morris was left with two other options: the council car park, where Langley had found the painted R, and the adjacent yard of a former school. He laid out long, narrow trenches in those two car parks – and on that first day found remains of the friary. By the 12th day the team had ticked off all of the architectural features they’d been hunting. It was an absurd result from such small excavations in a place where everything underground might have been destroyed by building works after Henry VIII had dissolved the friary.
By sheer chance, Morris’s first trench had gone straight through the centre of the church. On the first day of the dig, in the same Trench 1, the team also found a burial. This wasn’t entirely unexpected; after all, the friary’s cemetery had to be nearby. They made out two leg bones and named the remains – of still-undetermined sex – Skeleton 1. As they pieced together the friary’s plan, however, they realised that this body had been interred inside the church. Buckley obtained a licence to excavate human remains, and project osteologist Jo Appleby and Turi King, geneticist, donned white hooded overalls and gloves to open up the grave.
A well-nourished friar?
The next day, with King at a prearranged conference in Austria, Appleby was on her own, watched by Morris. He had put the rest of the team, together with the Channel 4 TV crew brought in by Langley, in Trench 3 – in the school yard, beyond a high wall. By the afternoon, Appleby had exposed all of the bones except the ribs and spine. She recognised the skeleton as that of a youngish male – just “a well-nourished friar”, she told a crestfallen Langley, who had already begun calling it Richard III.
Unknown to Appleby, though, on that day visiting friary experts were telling Buckley that the grave was exactly where the king’s would be expected.
Appleby continued delicately cleaning away soil with the tip of her wooden knife, following the spine up from the bottom. She removed more soil and found a vertebra, but not where it should have been. Another appeared, then another, forming an arc that veered away from the centre of the body: the spine was severely curved. “I think this is Richard III,” she mused. Morris, observing, had the same thought – the first time either of them considered the possibility. Appleby texted Turi King. King texted her husband:
“I think we’ve found him”.
“Found who?” he replied. No one had expected the king.
When the university announced that they had excavated the remains of a man with skull wounds and severe scoliosis – a form of spinal curvature – the news exploded around the world. So began one of the most thorough forensic investigations of an ancient skeleton ever conducted. There was public debate, often acrimonious, over how and where the king – if it was him – should be reburied.
The Queen did not want a royal burial, reported The Times, and she favoured Leicester Cathedral over York Minster. But the scientists had yet to answer decisively the pivotal question: was this really Richard III?
Detailed study showed the remains to be those of a man in his late twenties or thirties (Richard was 32 when he died), with a delicate frame and features. He would have stood a little above average height for the times – were it not for the scoliosis, which made him under 5 feet (1.5 metres) tall, and also raised his right shoulder.
These attributes matched contemporary records of Richard III as “small of stature”, “very fine-boned” and with “unequal shoulders, the right higher and the left lower”. The king had been killed in 1485; radiocarbon dating placed the death of the car-park man between 1455 and 1540.
High-resolution images obtained from one of the first-known archaeological applications of micro-CT (micro-computed X-ray tomography) enabled 3D scrutiny of scoliosis-affected bones and injuries. Two of the latter – massive cuts to the back of his head – would have caused almost instant death; at least four others were potentially fatal, among them one inflicted by a dagger thrust into his skull from above.
The wounds had more to say, too. Earlier study of a mass grave at the site of the 1461 battle of Towton in Yorkshire had identified men with healed wounds from previous conflicts, and others that were unhealed on head, neck, arms and hands – but not one among them had wounds in the chest, back or hips. These wounds suggested face-to-face combat between men whose arms and hands were cut when they tried to parry blows.
Skeleton 1, though, had no visible wounds on his arms, legs, hands, shoulders or neck, implying that he wore armour. Conversely, a notch on a rib in his lower back, and another from a dagger thrust into his right buttock, could not have been inflicted through armour.
A likely explanation is that his stripped body had been stabbed while it was draped across a horse. Remarkably, the evidence again matches historical accounts stating that Richard’s body was slung naked over a horse, where it was abused on the way to Leicester.
There was a further twist – metaphorical and literal. Severe as the man’s scoliosis was, careful choice of clothing could have concealed it from all but his inner circle during his life. Dead and naked, it would have been another matter – and being slung ignominiously over a horse would surely have revealed it. When a typical person with scoliosis reaches to touch their toes, ribs rise up on one side of the back to create a bulge known as a “rib hump”, a characteristic used in medical diagnosis. If this man was Richard III, his “crookback” (as it was described in 1491) might have first become public knowledge as his body was carried from the battlefield.
Caroline Wilkinson, then professor of craniofacial identification at the University of Dundee, used digital 3D imagery to reconstruct the man’s face. The result, painted and dressed for the times, looked so uncannily like portraits of Richard III that, astonished, she twice checked her procedures.
There remained one line of evidence that could yet prove or demolish the argument: DNA analysis. If ancient DNA (aDNA) could be retrieved from the man’s remains, it could be compared with the genetic material of someone known to be descended from Richard III’s close family, the king himself having had no grandchildren. Such a living relative had been identified by Ashdown-Hill: a descendant of one of Richard III’s sisters.
Kevin Schürer, the Grey Friars Project’s genealogy expert, checked the largely undocumented family tree to confirm this link. He also found a second maternal line, and was even more successful with a continuous male line, tracing nearly 20 living descendants of Richard’s great-great-grandfather, Edward III. After a lot more research (and expense), Turi King was able to prove that Skeleton 1 was, indeed, Richard III. Combined with the archaeology and history, any last doubts about the identification were swept away.
Philippa Langley had hoped that excavation would show that the king had been an honourable man wrongly censured by posterity. It was an unrealistic goal: material remains provide little evidence to inform moral judgments. But the grave’s discovery inspired global interest and introduced Richard III to a new audience.
The reburial ceremony, in a restyled Leicester Cathedral, was watched live by millions. The excavation, which revealed much about Leicester Grey Friars as well as other burials, showed that Richard’s disabilities had been exaggerated, and a truer picture now informs productions of Shakespeare’s play. The king has new life.
At the end of the project, Buckley’s team made him a cake shaped like a yellow safety helmet. At the start of the excavation, he’d promised that if they found Richard III, he’d eat his hat. He was as good as his word.
Five facts the excavation revealed about Richard III
The king had a curved spine
William Shakespeare gave us a “deformed” Richard III “not shaped for sportive tricks”, with a hunched back, a withered arm and a limp. Archaeology gave us instead a curved spine: a rare form of scoliosis that developed in Richard’s adolescence, resulting in a squat torso and uneven shoulders.
He had no other skeletal conditions, however, and could have been as physically active as others around him, though he was not particularly strong. Osteologist Jo Appleby briefly wondered whether the skeleton was female before concluding that it was that of a man with a delicate frame.
He enjoyed a life of luxury
Studies of the remains showed that Richard ate well, consuming a high-protein diet including plenty of seafood. Towards the end of his life he ate more luxury items such as game birds, freshwater ﬁsh and, possibly, wine. Shortly before his death, he was infected with roundworms.
He was born in the east Midlands, moving west by the age of seven or eight. Such scientific confirmation of historical details is extremely helpful; for archaeologists, these were significant results from a battery of studies more usually applied to prehistoric remains with no alternative historical evidence to test them against.
Richard suffered a violent death
The king’s bones exhibit signs of at least 11 wounds, all received around the time of his death on or near Bosworth Field. A dagger was driven down into the top of his skull, and three slivers were shaved off the side by what was probably a single sword, but he was finished off by two blows at the back of his head just above his neck.
A halberd (a combined axe and pike on a long pole) or heavy sword almost entirely removed the bottom of his skull on the right side, and a blade penetrated 10.5cm into his brain before the skull’s inner wall stopped it short. Either blow would have caused almost instant death.
His burial was simple but respectful
The excavation cleared up much confusion about Richard III’s burial, arguably influencing how we might view the politics of the occasion. The grave was simple and probably hastily dug, being too short for the body. There was no shroud, coffin or evidence for a grand tomb, and his hands may have been tied.
Though lacking public ceremony – a contemporary wrote that there was no “pompe or solemne funeral” – interment was not disrespectful. That much is proved by the location of the burial: a friary church’s choir, which was both inaccessible to the public and appropriate for a prestigious figure. Despite being forgotten, the grave was never disturbed.
Portraits of Richard were largely accurate
Modern concern with improving the king’s image dates from Josephine Tey’s 1951 novel The Daughter of Time. In it a policeman, inspired by a portrait of the king, exposes as myth the long-dead monarch’s alleged crimes and crippled appearance.
More than 20 portraits of Richard survive today, most showing a raised right shoulder. X-ray images of two such paintings suggested they had been altered later to depict uneven shoulders, bolstering the view that Tudor historians invented Richard’s deformities. The skeleton, however, has a raised shoulder, and facial reconstruction based on the skull closely matches the portraits. The paintings show a true likeness – a rare confirmation of historic representation.
Learn more about Richard III
- Did Richard III really kill the Princes in the Tower?
- Richard the radical: was Richard III a champion of the people?
- Like father, like son: Richard Plantagenet and Richard III
- Blood brothers: Richard III’s battle with his siblings
- Did fear drive Richard III to the throne?
- Richard III: A hostage to fortune
- What Happened After The Battle of Bosworth?
- What if Richard III had won at Bosworth?
- Treachery at Bosworth: what really brought down Richard III
- Have we completely misinterpreted Shakespeare’s Richard III?
Mike Pitts is an archaeologist and author of Digging for Richard III: The Search for the Lost King (Thames & Hudson, 2nd edition 2015)
This content first appeared in the October 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine