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The last king of the Plantagenet dynasty, Richard was killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field on 22 August 1485, during the War of the Roses. His body was brought to Augustinian Greyfriars Friary in Leicester, where it was buried in a crude grave. Following the friary's dissolution in 1538 and its subsequent demolition, Richard's tomb was lost. An account arose that when the tomb was destroyed Richard's bones were thrown into the River Soar by the nearby Bow Bridge.
This story was not universally accepted, however. In 1975 an article by Mrs Audrey Strange was published in The Ricardian (the journal of the Richard III Society) suggesting that the remains were buried under the car park in Grey Friars, Leicester. This idea was later repeated, when in 1986 historian David Baldwin suggested that the remains were still in the Greyfriars area of the city.
A search for Richard's body began in August 2012, initiated by Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society. The dig was led by the University of Leicester working in partnership with Leicester City Council. On the first day of the dig a human skeleton belonging to a man in his thirties was uncovered. The skeleton showed signs of multiple wounds and had a number of unusual physical features, most notably a severe curvature of the back. It was exhumed to allow scientific analysis, which found that the man had probably been killed either by a blow from a large bladed weapon that cut off the back of his skull, or by a halberd thrust that penetrated his brain. There were signs of other wounds on the body, which had probably been inflicted after death as "humiliation injuries". The bones' age at death matched the age at which Richard died; they were dated to approximately the period of his death and were mostly consistent with physical descriptions of him. DNA analysis also showed that mitochondrial DNA extracted from the bones matched that of two 17th-generation matrilineal descendants of Richard's sister Anne of York. On the basis of these points and other historical, scientific and archaeological evidence, the University of Leicester announced on 4 February 2013 that it believed the skeleton was that of Richard III.
It was subsequently announced that Richard was to be reinterred at Leicester Cathedral in early 2014. However, a legal challenge was launched to change the place of burial. In August 2013 the original decision was successfully challenged in court by a group calling themselves the "Plantagenet Alliance," and the burial decision is now subject to a judicial review. A judge granted the Plantagenet Alliance's request for a judicial review, as the original decision on the place of burial ignored a legal requirement for a public consultation. The Alliance believes Richard's personal desire was to be buried in York Minster, asserting that "It is well documented throughout the centuries that he wanted his remains to be buried in York, amongst his family." Richard's wife Anne Neville is buried within Westminster Abbey. It is uncertain where their only child Edward of Middleham, Prince of Wales, is buried; theories have included Sheriff Hutton Church, or Middleham, both in North Yorkshire. Richard's parents are both buried in Fotheringhay Church, in Northamptonshire.
Richard was killed fighting Henry Tudor in 1485, at the Battle of Bosworth Field: the last major battle of the Wars of the Roses. Welsh poet Guto'r Glyn gave the credit for Richard's death to Sir Rhys ap Thomas. Following his death, Richard was stripped naked and brought to Leicester where his body was displayed for two days before being buried within the town's Franciscan Friary (Greyfriars, Leicester).
In 1495, ten years after the burial, Henry VII made payments of £50 and £10.1s for a marble and alabaster monument to mark Richard's grave. Following the dissolution of Greyfriars in 1538, the monument was either destroyed or left to decay. Richard's body was said to have been "carried out of the city, and to have been thrown off Bow Bridge" into the River Soar. His coffin was reputed to have been given or sold to an innkeeper who used it as a drinking trough for horses. This story was not, however, universally accepted. According to the antiquary Christopher Wren,[note 1] after the monastery was dissolved, the place where it stood was incorporated into a garden which was subsequently purchased by Robert Herrick, the Mayor of Leicester. Herrick erected a monument on the site of the grave, in the form of a stone pillar three feet (1 m) high carved with the words "Here lies the body of Richard III, some time King of England." The pillar was visible in 1612 but had disappeared by 1844.
The site was divided in 1740 and New Street was built across the western part of the Greyfriars site. Many burials were discovered when houses were laid out along the street. 17 Friar Lane was built on the eastern part of the site in 1759. In 1863 the Alderman Newton's Boys' School built a schoolhouse on the site. In 1866 the Leicester Corporation purchased the properties and in 1920 it was acquired by Leicestershire County Council, who built offices on the site in 1936. From 1965 the offices were used by Leicester City Council, while the rest of the site, where Herrick's garden had once been, was turned into a staff car park.
In 2007, a single-storey building dating from the 1950s was demolished on Grey Friars Street in Leicester. This gave archaeologists the opportunity to carry out an excavation over the summer of 2007 to see if any trace of the medieval friary could be found. Very little was unearthed, apart from a fragment of a post-medieval stone coffin lid. The results of the dig suggested that the remains of the friary church were located further west than had previously been thought.
In 2004–2005 independent British historian Dr. John Ashdown-Hill tracked down two 17th-generation matrilineal descendants of Richard III's sister Anne of York. In 2009 Philippa Langley, a screenwriter and secretary of the Scottish Branch of the Richard III Society, having been inspired by Ashdown-Hill's research, launched a project with the working title Looking for Richard: In Search of a King, which she envisaged as "a proposed landmark TV special" with the premise of a search for Richard's grave "while at the same time telling his real story". The project was backed by several key partners – Leicester City Council, Leicester Promotions (responsible for tourist marketing), the University of Leicester, Leicester Cathedral, Darlow Smithson Productions (responsible for the planned TV show) and the Richard III Society.
The project was announced in the June 2012 issue of the Richard III Society's magazine, the Ricardian Bulletin. Only a month later, however, one of the main sponsors of the project pulled out, leaving a £10,000 shortfall in funding for the planned excavation work. An appeal was launched which resulted in members of the several Ricardian groups donating £13,000 in only two weeks.
In March 2011 an assessment of the Greyfriars site began to identify where the monastery had stood, and which land might be available for excavation. A Desk-Based Assessment (DBA) was first conducted to determine the archaeological viability of the site, followed by a survey carried out in August 2011 using ground-penetrating radar. Three possible excavation sites were identified: the staff car park of Leicester City Council Social Services, the disused playground of the former Alderman Newton's School and a public car park on New Street. It was decided to open two trenches in the Social Services car park, with an option for a third in the playground.
The excavation was announced on 24 August 2012 at a press conference in Leicester. Archaeologist Richard Buckley admitted the project was a long shot: "We don't know precisely where the church is, let alone where the burial site is."
Digging began the next day, the first trench measuring 1.6 metres (5.2 ft) wide by 30 metres (98 ft) long along a roughly north-south alignment was cut. A layer of modern building debris was removed before the level of the former monastery was reached. Two parallel human leg bones were discovered about 5 metres (16 ft) from the north end of the trench at a depth of about 1.5 metres (4.9 ft) indicating an undisturbed burial. The bones were covered temporarily to protect them while excavations continued further along the trench. A second parallel trench was dug the following day to the south-west. Over the following days, a series of medieval walls and rooms were uncovered, allowing the archaeologists to pinpoint the area of the friary. It became clear that the bones found on the first day lay inside the eastern part of the church, possibly the choir, where Richard was said to have been buried. On 31 August, the University of Leicester applied for a licence from the Ministry of Justice to permit the exhumation of up to six sets of human remains. To narrow the search, it was planned that only the remains of men in their 30s, buried within the church, would be exhumed.
The bones found on 25 August were uncovered on 4 September and the grave soil dug back further over the next two days. The feet were missing; and the skull found in an unusual propped position, consistent with the body being put into a grave that was slightly too small. The spine was curved in an S-shape. No sign of a coffin was found; the body's posture suggested it had not been put in a shroud, but been hurriedly dumped into the grave and buried. As it was lifted from the ground, a piece of rusted iron was found underneath the vertebrae. The skeleton's hands were in an unusual position, crossed over the right hip, suggesting they were tied together at the time of burial, though this could not be established definitively. After the exhumation, work continued in the trenches over the following week, before the site was covered with soil to protect it from damage and re-surfaced to restore the car park and the playground to their former condition.
On 12 September, the University of Leicester team announced the human remains were a possible candidate for Richard's body, but emphasised the need for caution. The body was of an adult male; it was buried beneath the choir of the church; there was severe scoliosis of the spine, possibly making one shoulder higher than the other (to what extent would depend on the severity of the condition). There was an object that appeared to be an arrowhead embedded in the spine; and there were severe injuries to the skull.
After the exhumation the emphasis shifted "from the archaeological excavation to laboratory analysis". There were several lines of enquiry: Ashdown-Hill had previously used genealogical research to track down matrilineal descendants of Anne of York, Duchess of Exeter, Richard's older sister, whose matrilineal line of descent is extant, through her daughter Anne St Leger. Academic Kevin Schürer subsequently traced a second unnamed individual in the same matriline.
Ashdown-Hill's research came about as a result of a challenge, in 2003, to provide a DNA sequence for Richard's sister Margaret, in order to identify bones which had been found in her burial place, a Franciscan priory church in Mechelen, Belgium. He first tried to extract a mitochondrial DNA sequence from a preserved hair of Edward IV held by the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. This proved unsuccessful due to degradation of the DNA. He turned instead to genealogical research to identify an all-female-line descendant of Cecily Neville, Richard's mother. After two years' work he found that a British-born woman who migrated to Canada after World War II, Joy Ibsen (née Brown), was a 16th-generation great-niece of Richard's in the same direct maternal line. Joy Ibsen's mitochondrial DNA was tested and belongs to mitochondrial DNA Haplogroup J, which by deduction should be Richard's mitochondrial DNA haplogroup. The mtDNA he obtained from her showed that the Mechelen bones were not those of Margaret.
Joy Ibsen died in 2008. On 24 August 2012 her son, Michael Ibsen, gave a mouth-swab sample to the research team so that it could be compared to samples from the human remains found at the excavation. Analysts found a mitochondrial DNA match between the exhumed skeleton, Michael Ibsen, and the second unnamed direct maternal line descendant who shares a relatively rare mitochondrial DNA sequence, mitochondrial DNA haplogroup J1c2c.
Despite the match on the mitochondrial DNA, geneticist Turi King, continues to pursue a link between the paternally-inherited Y-DNA and that of descendants of John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster. Four living descendants of Gaunt have been located, and their results are a match to each other. Although the Y-DNA from the skeleton is somewhat degraded, King said she hoped to amplify it enough to get a match to the four men.
Osteology was employed in order to analyse the condition of the bones. They are generally in good condition and largely complete, apart from the missing feet, which may have been destroyed by Victorian building work. It was immediately apparent the body had suffered major injuries, and further evidence of wounds was found as the skeleton was cleaned. The skull shows signs of two lethal injuries; the base of the back of the skull had been completely cut away by a bladed weapon, exposing the brain, and another bladed weapon had been thrust through the right side of the skull to impact the inside of the left side through the brain. Elsewhere on the skull, a blow from a pointed weapon had penetrated the crown of the head. Bladed weapons had clipped the skull and sheared off layers of bone, without penetrating it. Other holes in the skull and lower jaw were found to be consistent with dagger wounds to the chin and cheek. One of the right ribs had been cut by a sharp implement, as had the pelvis. There was no evidence of the withered arm that afflicted the character in William Shakespeare's play Richard III.
Taken together, the injuries appear to be a combination of battle wounds, which were the cause of death, followed by post-mortem "humiliation wounds" inflicted on the corpse. Notably, the skull wounds would have been prevented if the person had been wearing a helmet. The body wounds indicate the corpse had been stripped of its armour, as the stabbed torso would have been protected by a backplate while the pelvis would have been protected by armour. The wounds were made from behind on the back and buttocks while they were exposed to the elements, consistent with the contemporary descriptions of Richard's naked body being tied across a horse with the legs and arms dangling down on either side. There may have been further flesh wounds but these are not apparent from the bones.
The head wounds are consistent with the description in a 1485 poem by Guto'r Glyn of a Welsh knight, Sir Rhys ap Thomas, having killed Richard and "shaved the boar's head". It had been thought that this was a figurative description of Richard being decapitated, but the skeleton's head had clearly not been severed. Guto's description may instead be a literal account of the injuries that Richard suffered, as the blows sustained to the head would have sliced away much of his scalp and hair as well as slivers of bone.
The severe curvature of the spine was evident as the skeleton was excavated. It has been attributed to adolescent-onset scoliosis. Although it was probably visible in making one shoulder higher than the other and reducing the person's apparent height, it did not preclude an active lifestyle. The bones are those of a male aged in his late twenties to thirties, consistent with Richard, who was 32 when he died.
Radiocarbon dating was used to determine the age of the bones. The results came out at between 1430–1460[note 2] and 1412–1449[note 3] – both too early for Richard's death in 1485. However, mass spectrometry carried out on the bones found that their owner had eaten a good deal of seafood. This is known to distort the apparent age of a sample because marine organisms absorb carbon-14 at a different rate from terrestrial creatures, skewing the dating of any terrestrial organism that consumes a significant proportion of seafood. A Bayesian analysis found that there was a 68.2% probability that the true date of the bones was between 1475 and 1530, rising to 95.4% for between 1450 and 1540. This does not prove by itself that the skeleton is Richard's, but it is consistent with the date of his death.
X-ray analysis was performed on the corroded metal found under the vertebrae, which had been thought to be an arrowhead that might have been embedded in the man's back. The analysis revealed it was a nail, probably Roman, that had been in the ground immediately under the grave by coincidence and had nothing to do with the body.
On 4 February 2013, the University of Leicester confirmed that the skeleton was Richard's. The identification was based on mitochondrial DNA evidence, soil analysis, and dental tests, as well as physical characteristics of the skeleton which are highly consistent with contemporary accounts of Richard's appearance. Osteoarchaeologist, Jo Appleby commented: "The skeleton has a number of unusual features: its slender build, the scoliosis, and the battle-related trauma. All of these are highly consistent with the information that we have about Richard III in life and about the circumstances of his death." Caroline Wilkinson, Professor of Craniofacial Identification at the University of Dundee, led the project to reconstruct the face with a commission from the Richard III Society.
In July 2013 another skeleton, of unknown identity, was discovered in the same area, when an unmarked stone coffin was found with another lead coffin inside it through which the skeleton's feet could be seen.
The initial plan was to reinter Richard's body in Leicester Cathedral. However, the choice of burial site is controversial, as there are proposals for Richard to be buried at Westminster Abbey (alongside 17 other English and British kings), or in York Minster, which some claim was Richard's own preferred burial site. The original decision has been successfully challenged in court and is now subject to a judicial review. The Conservative MP and historian Chris Skidmore proposed a state funeral should be held, while John Mann, the Labour MP for Bassetlaw, suggested the body should be buried in Worksop in his constituency—halfway between York and Leicester. However the Mayor of Leicester has said: "Those bones leave Leicester over my dead body."
The present Royal Family made no claim on the body and so the Ministry of Justice initially confirmed that the University of Leicester would make the final decision on where the bones should be re-buried. David Monteith, Canon Chancellor of Leicester Cathedral, said Richard's skeleton would be reinterred at the cathedral in early 2014 in a "Christian-led but ecumenical service". He said it would not be a formal reburial but rather a service of remembrance, as Richard would already have had a funeral service at the time of burial.
An outcry, and legal action brought by 15 of Richard's distant relatives, known as the "Plantagenet Alliance", has meant that his final resting place has yet to be determined. Those bringing the legal challenge want Richard to be buried within York Minster, which they believe was his "wish". The Dean of Leicester, however, called their challenge "disrespectful", and confirmed the Cathedral would not be investing any more money until the matter was decided. In August 2013 a judge granted permission for a judicial review as the original burial plans ignored the Common Law duty "to consult widely as to how and where Richard III's remains should appropriately be reinterred". Mark Ormrod of the University of York has expressed scepticism over the idea that Richard had devised any clear plans for his own burial. Mathematician Rob Eastaway calculated that Richard III may have millions of living collateral descendants saying that "we should all have the chance to vote on Leicester versus York".
In February–March 2013 Leicester Cathedral announced their procedure and preliminary timetable for the interment. The Cathedral planned that Richard would be buried in a "place of honour" within the cathedral. The cathedral's design brief emphasised reluctance "to site a large memorial in the cathedral which would assume disproportionate significance in a modest building", and favours marking the place of burial with a flat ledger stone; perhaps modifying the existing memorial stone to Richard installed in the chancel in 1982. The plans for the tomb were, however, unpopular. The Richard III Society argued for a table tomb, stating that "a ledger stone is not enough". A table tomb also seems to be the local preference as "in two separate polls, the citizens of Leicester have voted overwhelmingly for a table tomb".
Richard Buckley of the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS), who had previously said that he would "eat his hat" if Richard was discovered, fulfilled his promise by eating a hat-shaped cake baked by a colleague.
Leicester City Council has spent £850,000 to buy the freehold of St Martin's Place, formerly part of Leicester Grammar School, in Peacock Lane, across the road from the cathedral. The site adjoins the car park where the body was found, and overlies the chancel of the Greyfriars Friary Church. The council intends to convert the building into a Richard III museum.
In Norway, archaeologist Øystein Ekroll hoped that the interest after the discovery of the English king would spill over to Norway. In contrast to England where all the kings since the 11th century have now been discovered, in Norway around twenty-five medieval kings are buried in unmarked graves around the country. Ekroll proposed to start with Harald Hardrada, who is most probably buried anonymously in Trondheim, beneath what is today a public road. A previous attempt to exhume Harald in 2006 was blocked by the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage (Riksantikvaren).