The University of Leicester and Leicester City Council, in association with the Richard III Society, are starting an archaeological dig to find the remains of King Richard III, the only English monarch whose resting place remains unknown.
On Saturday 25 August 2012 – five hundred years after King Richard III was buried in Leicester – the historic archaeological project will begin with the aim of discovering whether Britain’s last Plantagenet King lies buried in Leicester City Centre.
Richard was killed in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth (the last significant battle of the War of the Roses that pitched Richard’s Yorkists against the Tudor Lancastrians), just up the road from the City of Leicester. His body was brought back and publicly displayed, then interred by the Grey Friars, a local order of Franciscan monks. A few years later, a tomb was erected within the Grey Friars’ church. Meanwhile the victor of Bosworth, Henry Tudor, was crowned King Henry VII – then in 1538 his son, Henry VIII, split from Rome. Across the land monasteries were demolished and dissolved, and the Grey Friars were no exception.
As Leicester flourished and expanded in the 17th and 18th centuries, the land in the ‘Greyfriars’ area of the city was built on and the precise location of the original church lost underneath houses, although a monument marking Richard’s grave was apparently still on the spot as late as 1612.
Led by University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS), experts will be seeking to locate the Greyfriars site and discover whether the remains of Richard III may still be found.
Richard Buckley, Co-Director of the Archaeology Service at the University of Leicester, said. “The big question for us is determining the whereabouts of the church on the site and also where in the church the body was buried. Although in many ways finding the remains of the king is a long-shot, it is a challenge we shall undertake enthusiastically. There is certainly potential for the discovery of burials within the area, based on previous discoveries and the postulated position of the church.”
The project’s small but dedicated team has undertaken map regression analysis to identify the likely site of the church where Richard was buried – currently in use as a car park for council offices. The car park will be surveyed today using ground-penetrating radar on Friday 24 August. Then on Saturday 25 August – 527 years to the day since Richard was buried – the team will start work on two trenches across the car park.
The trenches will run North-South and should intersect with the church’s East-West walls (helpfully, Christian churches are usually built on the same alignment). The ULAS team shouldn’t have to dig too deep as, although there are hundreds of years of remains to get through, the actual strata are fairly shallow. Previous Leicester excavations have shown that the Roman layer is less than a meter down – and if you reach that, you’ve gone way past 1485.
The work will continue for two weeks and will culminate in an event over the weekend of 8-9 September when the project will be open to the public. It will then take another week or so to fill in the trenches, tarmac over everything and let the Council have their car park back.
For the first time ever there is a small but genuine possibility that Richard’s remains might be located. Or at least, some human remains, because obviously he wasn’t the only person buried in the church. Genealogical research by Dr John Ashdown-Hill, author of The Last Days of Richard III, has uncovered a direct descendant of Richard’s sister, and thus we have access to the King’s mitochondrial DNA sequence. If any human remains turn up under the car park, the resources of our world-leading Department of Genetics will come into play, led by Dr Turi King. Any remains found will be tested to see if the last Plantagenet King has been found.
Should the remains prove to be King Richard III, a massive logistical exercise will come into play to provide him with a burial that is appropriate to his status as an anointed King of England.
Philippa Langley, screenwriter and member of the Richard III Society, is one of the guiding lights behind the project. She commented, “This search for Richard’s grave is only one aspect of the on-going research effort to discover the real Richard III. After his defeat his reputation suffered enormous disparagement at the hands of his opponents and successors, the Tudors. The challenge lies in uncovering the truth behind the myths.
“Richard III is a charismatic figure who attracts tremendous interest. Partly because he has been so much maligned in past centuries, and partly because he occupies a pivotal place in English history.
“The continuing interest in Richard means that many fables have grown up around his grave. Although local people like Alderman Herrick in 1612 knew precisely where he was buried – and Herrick was able to show visitors a handsome stone pillar marking the king’s grave in his garden – nevertheless at the same time unlikely stories were spread of Richard’s bones being dug up and thrown into the river Soar. Other fables, equally discredited, claimed that his coffin was used as a horse-trough.
“This archaeological work offers a golden opportunity to learn more about medieval Leicester as well as about Richard III’s last resting place – and, if he is found, to re-inter his remains with proper solemnity in Leicester Cathedral. A filmed record will be made of the entire historic project.”
Councillor Piara Singh Clair, Assistant Mayor for Culture, Leisure and Sports, said: “Richard III is a key figure in the region’s history. This is an exciting opportunity potentially to discover a missing piece of our historical jigsaw.”
See also our earlier article: Archaeologists seeking to raise £10,000 to search for lost grave of Richard III