Richard III – The King in the Car Park

Three and a half years ago Philippa Langley, head of the Richard III Society, started the search for the body of the lost King. After thorough research that led her to the Social Services car park in Leicester city centre, she needed a team of archaeologists, permission for the dig and £10,000 funding to begin excavation.

When funding fell through she took it on herself to try and raise the money from the Richard III society. There are 3,500 members worldwide, devoted to dispelling the rumours surrounding the King and within two weeks, more than the required mount had been raised. Under the car park, lie the remains of Greyfriars the second English Franciscan monastery (the first being in Canterbury, Kent) established in 1230 a.d. It was rumoured that King Richard III may be buried in the church within the monastery grounds, but no maps exist that gave the exact location of this in relation the the car park and current buildings. As a preliminary investigation two trenches were dug in the car park, to help with orientation and the eventual location of the church. In the first part of the first pit, some bones were immediately uncovered, believed to be human leg bones. As they were still unsure of the location within the monastery grounds, the team covered these again and continued with the trenches. When they found walls and floor tiles, they used maps to work out that the church was in fact directly under the car park and the body found earlier must have been buried within the Choir – the part reserved for important burials. Attention turned back to the body.

Depicted by Shakespeare as a hunchback with a withered arm, who killed his nephews in order to claim his place on the throne and died on Bosworth field crying for a horse, Richard III is perhaps one of England’s most notorious monarchs. It is believed once he died, that his naked body was retrieved from the battlefield and thrown over the back of a horse, to be taken to Leicester where it was displayed before the public, giving Henry VII the right to the throne. Some evidence even points to his body being thrown into a river rather than being buried at all. However, there are conflicting reports from the time – the city of York on the day after his death reported that King Richard III “late mercifully reigning upon us, has been piteously slain and murdered to the great heaviness of this city… he was the most famous prince of blessed memory”. He was apparently well regarded and admired during his lifetime, which greatly contradicts the well-known figure known today.

Uncovering the skeleton that lay 27 inches beneath the tarmac, archaeologists found a skull, lying higher than the rest of the body and that was likely to belong to another skeleton lying on top of the one whose legs had initially been discovered. However, further excavation revealed a deformed spine that caused the skull of the body to lie at an unusual angle. It was all one body, and the presence of spinal deformity made it all the more interesting. There was also evidence of head wounds consistent with battle injuries and beneath the body lay a metal object that could be an arrowhead. The body was removed from the ground and sent for testing.

Examination of the skeleton was initially worrying, as a wide sciatic notch and slim radius bones pointed to it being a female, however skull features were more consistent with that of a male. There is a scoliosis of the spine, which would have caused one shoulder to be higher than the other, as depicted in portraits. Carbon dating identified the years 1450-1540 with 95.4% accuracy – within the right time frame. It was also able to show that he had a high protein diet, unusual for the time, and only obtainable for high status individuals.

The skeleton of Richard III, which was discovered at the Grey Friars excavation site in Leicester, central England, is seen in this photograph provided by the University of Leicester and received in London

An x-ray of the metal object revealed that it was more likely a Roman nail, coincidentally below the body, than an arrowhead. However examination of the bones pointed to several injuries including a slice from the top of the head made with an axe or sword, a puncture wound in the top of the head likely made with a rondel dagger and a large slice from the back of the head that would have revealed the brain. The smaller two injuries show that he was not wearing a helmet at the time, nor was he on a horse, whilst the largest injury was the most likely cause of death. The position of a detached portion of skull, is evidence that it was attached by a flap of skin at the time of burial. The face of the man was preserved, which if he was in fact Richard III, would have been needed in order for identification. One final injury is present, and was probably made after his death, it is on the inside of his pelvis, made by a penetrating wound from the back. As it is recorded that Richard III’s body was thrown over a horse, this would have given plenty of opportunity for people to disturb it, one explanation for this injury is that he was stabbed in the buttocks whilst bent over the horse.

To identify the body as that of Richard III, DNA testing was required. Michael Ibsen is a cabinet maker born in Canada, he is the 17th generation descendant of Richard IIIs sister Anne of York. As his mother was the only matrineal descendent, he carries the mitchondrial DNA that can be used for the DNA match. He provided DNA which was compared to that of the skeleton, they matched.

With testing finished and identity confirmed, the argument remained as to where the final resting place of his body should be. It has now been decided that Richard III shall be interred in Leicester Cathedral in early 2014.

The Channel 4 programme was presented by comedy actor Simon Farnaby, perhaps an odd choice, although he was clearly interested in the discovery and had a love in childhood of impersonating Richard III after seeing the 1955 film. The documentary also focussed heavily on Philippa Langley – without her research it seems unlikely that this discovery would have been made. She was clearly heavily invested in the find, struggling with her emotions throughout the investigation. When the remains were first transported from their resting place she covered the cardboard box with the colours of Richard III. Something that the archaeologist who had uncovered the bones was not particularly happy with, as she had pointed out, it may have been inappropriate had the body turned out not to be him. Scrabbling for the humanity amongst the clinicalised, scientific process, Philippa struggled to accept the indignity of the Kings bones being laid out upon a laboratory table. The Richard III Society is full of members, arguing strongly against the characteristics portrayed by Shakespeare, including the physical disability. When the extent of the scoliosis was clearly evident for the first time, Philippa was so upset she had to leave the room. It is perhaps a reflection of the level that our society still does not accept disability, when she had to be reminded that the physical disability did not mean that he was not a good person. For her they all came part and parcel.

Working on a different aspect of the project in Dundee Caroline Wilkinson, who was a member of the BBC ‘History Cold Case’ team, facially reconstructed the King. Using scans of the skull she built up layers of muscle and skin until she had created a possible face for the skeleton under the car park.

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