Richard III, Archaeological Discovery and DNA Testing
On 22 March 2015 King Richard III’s body arrived at Leicester Cathedral, and was re interred in a tomb.
In the summer of 2012 archaeologists at the University of Leicester embarked on a search for King Richard III’s remains. It seemed unlikely that they would find the long lost body of King Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet Kings under a city council car park, but with some careful research and a large dose of luck, they did.
There wasn’t much hope of finding King Richard’s body as local legend held that his body was hacked, battered and thrown into the River Soar after his death. The historical record stated that Richard III was buried at Greyfriars’ monastery in the city, but this church was destroyed around 50 years after his death, and it had been built over several times since.
The story of the find was improbable, and the science behind proving that the bones found really did belong to Richard III was fascinating. This summer the University of Leicester archaeologists are digging again, and next year Richard III will be interred in Leicester Cathedral. It’s an exciting time for historians.
Latest: Richard III’s burial will take place in Leicester. A small group of people claiming to be relatives of the King were insisting that he should be buried in York. This could have been embarrassing as Richard III had no grandchildren, they are not in any direct line. The two people proved to be related to Richard have not supported the York claim. Their insistence could have seen them proved not to be related, or could turn up the estimated 17 million equally related people. Here’s a news link.
A 600 year old stone coffin found on the site has been opened to reveal a lead tomb. X-rays and other scanning technologies won’t work through the lead, so the university must now decide what to do next. There’s some speculation as to who could be in the tomb. Read the local news report here, or see what the National Geographic has to say, along with a good picture. The plan is to pop an endoscope into a gap in the lead and see what the camera can reveal.
Year 12 pupil Emma Link, working as an intern on the site has found some medieval remains, quite a boost to the resume of any 17 year old. Here’s the press release.
Alternate Views Of Richard III
Richard III In A Car Park
Richard III’s body was found largely due to the obsessive passion of Philippa Langley, of the Richard III Society. She pulled together the funding for the dig, using money from the City of Leicester, historical societies and from selling the rights to a TV documentary of the project.
The site of the church was largely under buildings, but a staff car park for the city’s social services department and the playground of a disused school provided easier places to dig. Three trench options were identified, and work began on two of them.
On the first day, just after the tarmac and modern rubble had been removed, two leg bones were found. This wasn’t expected as the archaeologists were looking for walls. They covered them over to protect them whilst they moved further along to look for evidence of the church.
It became clear that they’d found the choir of Greyfriars, a high status area, and that the legs they’d found was in the middle of it. This was exciting. It could be Richard III’s bones.The archaeologists were skeptical, but Phillipa Langley was convinced.
Careful excavation revealed an almost intact skeleton, with a curved spine. Could it be the hunchback King? The skeleton’s hands were bound, and pieces of metal in the grave looked like arrow heads. The archaeologists suddenly needed more time, and more funding for a bigger dig.
Interest from historians was huge, and security of the site became important. The University agreed with the City that people should be permitted access, so for one weekend they opened the site to visitors. Much to their surprise people queued around the block for free entry, hours were extended and although I got sunburned in the queue, it was well worth the trip.
Where Is Richard III Now Buried?
King Richard is now buried at Leicester Cathedral, the nearest church to where he was found. This is in accordance with best archaeological practice. It was also a provision of the licence required to disinter the body, it is a legal requirement that any body unearthed in this way is given a burial at the nearest consecrated ground. This ensures that any remains are treated decently.
There was some controversy. Richard III was Catholic, the Tudors who killed him separated from the Catholic Church and created their own Church of England, so that Henry VIII could divorce, and so they could claim all of the wealth of the Church. Some people feel that he should be afforded a Catholic requiem.
Richard III was of course a King of England, and so some people would have liked him to be buried at Westminster Abbey in England. The current Queen was not one of those people, so that option was unlikely to be taken up.
Some people would like him to have been buried at York Minster. He was from the House of York, but was the Duke of Gloucester, so Gloucester could put in a bid. York Minster is a beautiful church, with a well organized tourist industry, but it has no legal claim.
Shakespeare’s Richard III
Our picture of Richard III as a mean hunchbacked King who murdered the two young Princes in the Tower was largely placed there by William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare was in the pay of the Tudors, the family that had killed King Richard III for his throne. His unsympathetic portrayal of Richard III may have been affected by this, and by the Tudors’ tendency to kill people who disagreed with their version of history.
The classic portrayal of Richard III was by Laurence Olivier. His film fixed the idea of a hunchback King in everyone’s mind. A more recent film adaptation with Sir Ian McKellen, Annette Bening and Jim Broadbent is worth looking out for.
The Tudors said a lot of mean things about Richard, and as anyone who disagreed was likely to have their head cut off, those stories passed into history as fact.
The good people at Horrible Histories have put together a cheery song to help restore Richard’s character.
I’m not sure Richard III sounded quite as much like Tony Blair as this rendition implies.
Add this book to your list, so you get it as soon as it’s available. This book is written by the woman who made the discovery possible. She may be obsessed to the point of bonkers, but that’s what it took to find King Richard’s Grave.
Richard III DNA Testing
The circumstantial evidence pointed to the skeleton belonging to King Richard III – it was in the right church, it was the right age, it was from the right period, there were battle wounds on the body, particularly head wounds which would have been fatal, and the spine was curved.
There were some questions – it had some feminine characteristics, the hands were bound, there was no withered arm, and the burial looked to be a rushed, botched affair in a shallow grave just two feet below the church floor, hardly befitting an anointed King of England.
Leicester University pioneered DNA Fingerprinting, and despite what CSI might have you believe, this process takes time, and extracting the DNA out of 500 year old bones is a delicate process.
Equally delicate is the process of finding living descendants to test the DNA against. Over 500 years the only sure way is to follow the female line, as paternity is never certain and one illicit affair would break the chain of evidence. Two descendants of Richard’s sister were found, and the DNA proved a close enough match to both to declare the bones to be those of King Richard III beyond reasonable doubt.
The Cousins’ War
The Wars of the Roses were brutal, and the story is usually told from the perspective of the men involved. Philippa Gregory’s “The Cousins’ War” series of books explores the period from a female perspective. Think “Game of Thrones” led by women. The focus is far more on the behind the scenes political maneuvering, making for a new and original take on history, in novel saga form.
The first three books are available in one boxed set. Prepare to get hooked on the series.
The BBC has started dramatizing the first book, so watch out for an appearance on your local public service broadcaster.