The Greyfriars Project: The search for the last known resting place of King Richard III
Little is known about Grey Friars, the medieval Franciscan friary which once stood in the south-east quarter of Leicester’s historic core but one event of note stands out in its 300 year history. On 25 August, 1485 King Richard III (1483-85) was buried in the friary church, following his defeat and death at the Battle of Bosworth.
During the ensuing centuries, following the demolition of the Grey Friars church in 1538, it has been widely maintained that when the king’s tomb was destroyed, his remains were dug up and paraded through the streets of the town before being thrown unceremoniously into the River Soar from Bow Bridge. This story is first mentioned by John Speed in his History of Great Britaine, seventy-three years after this event reputedly took place but was it true?
In August 2012, on the 527th anniversary of Richard III’s death, ULAS carried out a historic archaeological project, in collaboration with Leicester City Council and the Richard III Society, with the aim of discovering whether England’s last Plantagenet King still lay buried in Leicester City Centre. The originator of the Search project was Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society.
Building on the research of Charles Billson (1920) and David Baldwin (1986), the project focused on the Grey Friars area of Leicester. This broadly covered a block of land bordered by Friar Lane to the south, Grey Friars to the east, St Martin’s to the north and New Street to the west (SK 585 043 centre). This sub-rectangular area of land is, today, largely covered with buildings behind which are two large open spaces – the Leicester City Council Social Services staff car park, and the playground of the former Alderman Newton’s/Leicester Grammar School. Both of these areas have remained largely undisturbed since the friary was demolished in the sixteenth century. The excavation of parts of these spaces was carried out between 25th August and 14th September 2012.
The friary was founded in the mid-thirteenth century. The church was being finished around 1290. In 1402 five of the friars were accused of spreading seditious rumours about the legitimacy of Henry IV’s rule and were executed for treason. In 1414 King Henry V held a parliament in the friary. The only other documented event of note in the friary’s history was that the choir of the church was chosen as the burial place for King Richard III following his death on Bosworth Field in 1485. Ten years later, Henry Tudor, now King Henry VII had a tomb erected over the grave but in 1538 King Henry VIII ordered the demolition of the friary and Richard III’s grave was lost.
In the early 17th century, the land was bought by Robert Herrick, a former mayor of Leicester, who built a house on the site. In his garden, he erected a memorial pillar inscribed with the words ‘Here lies the body of Richard III sometime King of England’. As Leicester flourished and expanded during the ensuing centuries, Herrick’s land became sub-divided and built on and the precise location of the church was also lost.
In 2012, archaeologists were able to use historic discriptions of the friary and old maps to establish a search area in the south-east quarter of Leicester’s town centre. Today much of this area is built over but there is still some open space, primarily car parking, in which an archaeological investigation could be carried out.
What was found
A first attempt to find the friary in 2011 used Ground Penetrating Radar in the hope that this would identify the walls of the church under the ground before digging began. Unfortunately, it proved unsuccessful, the results being too confused by modern activity across the site.
Two trenches were then opened in the Leicester Social Services car park in 2012. These were laid out north to south, the reasoning behind this being that a church would be aligned roughly east to west and that trenches dug at right-angles offered the best opportunity to locate some of its walls.
Medieval archaeology was found over a meter below the ground. In the southern half of Trench 1 was the friary’s Chapter House, containing the remains of a tiled floor and stone benches built against its walls. The Chapter House continued west into Trench 2, where it joined the eastern cloister walk running the length of the trench. This was also once floors with tiles, now missing but their impressions were still preserved on their mortar bedding.
Identification of the benches in the Chapter House was a major breakthrough, providing an important clue to which part of the friary had been found – the Chapter House being the room where friars would gather and sit facing each other to discuss the business of the friary. This room would normally be located within the eastern range and would be accessed via the eastern cloister walk.
However, there was little sign of the friary church in these first two trenches, so archaeologists excavated a third trench to the north of the Chapter House where they thought the church was most likely to be. In Trench 3 they found the remains of the eastern end of the church, including part of the choir where Richard III was reputedly buried. This was 8m wide, had once been floored with decorated tiles and contained the remains of choir stalls and tombs. This meant that the rest of the choir could be projected west back across Trench 1, where a grave had been found on the first day of the project.
Much of the friary appears to have been built of local grey sandstone, with slate roofs decorated with glazed ridge tiles. Inside, walls were plastered and the floors tiled. The tiles were mostly monochrome, except those in the church choir where many were highly decorated. Fragments of window glass and lead window came show that some, if not all, of the windows were glazed. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries the friary was stripped of everything of value, left as a ruin before eventually being demolished.
Evidence of the people who lived in the friary was sparse, some pottery dating from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century was found, along with a medieval silver halfpenny, of Richard III’s elder brother Edward IV (c.1468-9). In the church a small group of Lombardic-style copper-alloy letters (c.1270-1350) was found amongst the rubble. These most likely come from tomb inscriptions.
Post-dissolution, signs of Robert Herrick’s early seventeenth century garden which occupied much of the site after the friary was demolished may be evident in a tiled pavement found to the south of the church. This did not appear to be inside a building and had been made from recycled medieval floor tiles, incorporating randomly at least four different types of tile in its makeup.
Watch this digital reconstruction of what the Grey Friars friary may have looked like shortly after Richard III was buried there in 1485. It has been created by De Montfort University’s Digital Building Heritage Group working closely with archaeologists from ULAS.
The skeleton of King Richard III
The grave of King Richard III was found at the northern end of Trench 1. Once the church had been found, it was clear that the grave was located at the western end of the choir, most likely against the southern choir stall.
The grave appears to have been hastily dug and was too short for the body, which was partially propped up at one end. No evidence for a coffin, shroud or clothing was found. This fits with historical accounts which say that Richard III was buried without pomp or solemn funeral.
The skeleton was in good condition apart from the feet which were missing, almost certainly as a result of later disturbance. Radiocarbon dating provided a date of death of cal. AD 1455-1540, consistent with someone who died in 1485.
The skeleton has been identified as that of a man aged 30-34, comparable with Richard’s age of 32 at death. He had a gracile build and suffered from severe idiopathic adolescent-onset scoliosis (curvature of the spine). He would have stood around 5ft 8in (1.73m) tall. However, the curve of his spine would have reduced his height significantly, making him appear much shorter. The scoliosis may have also lifted his right shoulder higher than his left. This is consistent with the few contemporary reports of Richard III’s appearance.
The man had eleven wounds to his skeleton, consistent with injuries received in battle. These include a puncture wound to the top of the head, most likely caused by a dagger, and evidence that the back of the head had been sliced open by two sharp bladed instruments, probably a halberd and a sword. The latter wounds would have been fatal. Other injuries include a nick to one of his ribs and to the jaw, and damage to his right cheek and the back of his head. There is also evidence that his corpse may have been defiled after the battle, with a sword or dagger thrust through the buttocks.
Analysis of the mitochondrial DNA has revealed a perfect whole-mitochondrial genome match between the Grey Friars skeleton and Michael Ibsen, a direct descendant of Richard III’s sister Anne of York through the female line. A second direct descendant, Wendy Duldig, had a single base difference (mutation). This is not unexpected, given the number of generations separating them, and is consistent with all three being related in the genealogical time span.
Investigation of the skeleton’s Y chromosome found no match with five living male-line relative of Richard III. This shows that a false-paternity event (or events) has occurred somewhere in the 19 generation between Richard III and Henry Somerset, 5th duke of Beaufort. This is not particularly surprising as wider research has shown that historical rates of false-paternity are around 1-2% per generation.
Like any modern forensic investigation, the different strands of evidence must be assessed together. Bayesian analysis of all the evidence came to the conclusion that, even at it’s most conservative, the probability of the Grey Friars skeleton being Richard III was 99.999%. The evidence is overwhelming that the skeleton is indeed that of King Richard III.
Looking like a king…
One aspect of the genetic research aimed to establish Richard III’s hair and eye colour. The DNA results show that Richard had a 96% probability of having blue eyes and a 77% probability of having blond hair (at least in childhood, it may have darkened with age).
There are no contemporary portraits of Richard III, all of them post-dating his death by some 25 years or more. There are two portraits which vie for being the earliest known portrait of the king: one in the Royal Collection and the second in the Society of Antiquaries in London. Based on the genetic evidence, the closest matching portrait appears to be the one in the Society of Antiquaries (below right) which shows Richard with blue eyes and lighter coloured hair than in the other portrait.
Living like a king…
By measuring the different isotopes of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and strontium (13C/12C and 15N/14N, 18O, 87Sr/86Sr) preserved in Richard III’s skeleton, we can find out about the types of food and drink he consumed, as well as where he lived.
Different parts of the skeleton can provide information about particular stages of a person’s life. Samples were taken from Richard’s teeth (which formed during his childhood and early adolescence), a femur (which averages his adulthood) and a rib (which represents the last few years of his life).
Results suggests that Richard moved out of eastern England, where he was born, by the age of seven, residing further west; but moved back into eastern England as an adolescent or young adult. Data also shows that Richard had a protein-rich diet, perhaps a quarter of which derived from seafood.
Such a diet is typical of a late medieval nobleman who could afford to consume plenty of expensive foods like meat and fish. Differences in the values obtained from his femur and rib bone, however, suggest an increase in feasting and in the consumption of imported wine in the last few years of Richard’s life. Kingship had evidently brought about a significant change in lifestyle.
One compelling aspect of Shakespeare’s Richard III is his deformity. In the play the king is described as ‘hunchbacked’ and there has been considerable disagreement since whether this was real or a politically motivated invention of his enemies.
Contemporary descriptions of the king describe him as having ‘unequal shoulders, the right higher and the left lower’. This is comparable with the presence of right-sided scoliosis. Reconstructing Richard III’s spine from CT scans shows that the curve was well-balanced with an angle in the range of 70-90°. Today this is considered a large curvature and many with the condition undergo surgery to stabilise it.
However, the physical disfigurement from Richard’s scoliosis was probably slight. His torso would have been short relative to the length of his limbs, and his right shoulder a little higher than the left. However, a good tailor and custom-made armour could have minimised the visual impact of this. A curve of 70–90° would not have caused impaired exercise tolerance from reduced lung capacity, and there is no evidence that Richard would have walked with an overt limp, because his leg bones are symmetrical and well formed.
As part of the investigation of his diet and health, soil samples were taken from within the gut area of Richard III’s skeleton, to see if any food residues (e.g. pollen grains, seeds or fragments of plant tissue) or the remains of gut parasites (typically their egg casings) in the gut at time of death were preserved.
The results show that Richard had intestinal roundworms. Roundworm is spread when food is prepared or eaten with dirty hands or when human faeces are used to fertilise crops. In medieval England the parasite would have been fairly widespread. In high-status medieval households, hand washing before meals was routinely carried out, but in Richard III’s case this appears to have been inadequate, or was not followed during food preparation. In serious cases intestinal parasites can lead to severe bowel problems, malnutrition and stunted growth. However, minor infestations may be asymptomatic and have had little adverse effect on Richard’s health.
There was no evidence of other intestinal parasites such as tapeworm, which is transmitted by the consumption of infected meat; this suggests that Richard III’s food was being cooked thoroughly, which would have prevented the transmission of this parasite.
‘Bloody will be thine end’ – how Richard III died
On 22 August, 1485, at the Battle of Bosworth, Richard III led a mounted cavalry charge against Henry Tudor in an attempt to kill him and end the conflict. During the ensuing fighting Richard III was surrounded by Tudor’s supporters who cut him down. Contemporary accounts generally agree that a blow, or blows to the head killed Richard III, some crediting Welsh foot soldiers armed with halberds as the killers.
Some of these accounts are supported by the evidence on Richard III’s skeleton, allowing us to explore possible scenarios for his dying moments. This trauma tells us that Richard III sustained multiple blows to the head from a number of different bladed weapons, suggesting he was ferociously attacked from all sides, probably by more than one person.
None of the skull injuries could have been inflicted on someone wearing a helmet of the type favoured in the late 15th century; so it would appear that Richard III lost his helmet, or had it forcibly removed during the battle.
One massive, fatal blow to the base of the skull could have been caused by a weapon such as a halberd.
Interestingly, there are few wounds to the rest of his body. In particular, there are no defensive wounds on his forearms or hands. This may be evidence that he was wearing armour, the metal plate bearing the brunt of the blows.
Some of the wounds would have been difficult or impossible to inflict if Richard III was still wearing his armour and were therefore probably delivered after he was dead.
One wound, a stab through the buttocks, may be a symbolic ‘insult injury’ delivered to the king’s body after death. This would corroborate accounts that his body was treated less than reverently after the battle. Polydore Vergil tells us that after the battle, Richard III’s body ‘naked of clothing’ was ‘laid upon a horse back with the arms and legs hanging down on both sides.’
It is easy to imagine then, the last and most insulting blow being delivered by a victorious Lancastrian soldier to the king’s body as it was paraded back to Leicester.
More detailed accounts of the excavation and scientific results have been published in the following journals:
Buckley, R. et al. (2013) ‘The king in the car park’: new light on the death and burial of Richard III in the Grey Friars church, Leicester, in 1485’ in Antiquity 87:336, pp519-538
Mitchell, P.D. et al. (2013) ‘The intestinal parasites of King Richard III’ in The Lancet 382, p888
Appleby, J. et al. (2014) ‘The scoliosis of Richard III, last Plantagenet King of England: diagnosis and clinical significance’ in The Lancet 383, p1944
Lamb, A.L. et al. (2014) ‘Multi-isotope analysis demonstrates significant lifestyle changes in King Richard III’ in Journal of Archaeological Science 30, pp1-7
Appleby, J. et al. (2014) ‘Peri-mortem skeletal trauma in Richard III’ in The Lancet, online edition 17 Sept 2014
King, T. et al. (2014) ‘Identification of the remains of King Richard III‘ in Nature Communications 5, article 5631, 2 Dec 2014