The discovery of Richard III in a car park

Sally Henshaw, the current secretary of the Richard III Society retold the amazing story behind the discovery of Richard III’s remains beneath a council car park in Leicester. For hundreds of years, the exact whereabouts of his grave thwarted academics however, extensive research and the use of cutting-edge technology eventually led a very loyal band of enthusiasts headed up by Philippa Langley to locate his lost burial site.

When Richard was born in Fotheringhay Castle on 2 October 1452, the Wars of the Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster was ongoing as both families laid claim to the throne. Richard’s eventual coronation occurred under a cloud of controversy and was challenged by Henry Tudor who was leader of the Lancastrian cause. While based in Leicester, Richard met Henry at the Battle of Bosworth Field on 22 August 1485 however, despite being a seasoned combatant and with the larger army, Richard was eventually defeated and killed. His naked body was slung over a horse and brought back to Leicester where it was publicly displayed for two days before being given to a group of Franciscan friars for burial. An account in the financial records of Henry VII reveal that he set money aside to pay for an alabaster tomb to be built over Richard’s grave in the Choir of Greyfriars church but, with the dissolution of the monasteries, the building had disappeared along with any clear record of Richard’s grave.

Conflicting reports of his whereabouts continued to circulate including one which declared that Richard’s bones had been tipped into the local river however, in 2011, the council car park was officially identified as the most likely location and in 2012 the area was excavated. As the dig progressed, remnants of stone walls, stained glass and tiles were found thus confirming that they were most likely from a high status building so things were looking positive; then a male skeleton was found. Not only was it correctly orientated east/west, with its head facing the high altar and the hands crossed over the pelvic region but, most importantly, there were clear signs of severe scoliosis of the spine. Unusually however, the grave was not big enough for the body which suggested that it had been dug in haste and without pomp as there was no sign of a coffin or shroud.

Once permission to exhume the body had been given, it was rigorously examined for cause of death and identification and in 2013, the University of Leicester confirmed that the skeleton was beyond reasonable doubt that of King Richard III. This conclusion was based on mitochondrial DNA evidence, soil analysis and dental tests as well as physical characteristics of the skeleton which were highly consistent with contemporary accounts of Richard’s appearance. The bones had been carbon dated to a period from 1455-1540 and were of a man in his late 20s or early 30s. Richard was 32 when he died. His skeleton had suffered 10 injuries, including eight to the skull, two of which would have proved fatal. Taken as a whole, the skeletal evidence provided a highly convincing case for identification as Richard III.

Richard’s death ended the bloody civil war known as the Wars of the Roses; it also marked the end of the Plantagenet dynasty and the beginning of Tudor rule so, it is not surprising that the royal family which defeated him ensured he was remembered as the black-hearted villain who killed the princes in the Tower. For almost 500 years his body lay hidden until it was eventually found in an unglamorous spot near the city’s ring road.

On 25 March 2015, Richard was reburied in Leicester Cathedral. His tombstone is made from Swaledale fossil stone incised with a cross which sits on a plinth made of Kilkenny marble. His remains are contained in a lead-lined coffin inside an outer English oak coffin which is laid in a brick-lined vault below the floor under the plinth and tombstone.

 

About Nadia Dawson

Retired primary headteacher now working at Lincoln University
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