How the University of Leicester Found the Skeleton of Richard III
In August 2012, the University of Leicester in collaboration with the Richard III Society and Leicester City Council, began an ambitious archaeological project to find the lost grave of King Richard III.
The last English king to die in battle, Richard had been buried five centuries earlier with little pomp in the church of the Grey Friars, all physical trace of which had long since been lost.
Incredibly, the excavation uncovered not only the friary – preserved underneath a council car park – but also a battle-scarred skeleton with spinal curvature. On 4th February 2013, after a battery of scientific tests, the University announced that these were the remains of Richard III. England’s last Plantagenet monarch (the English royal dynasty that held the throne from the accession of Henry II in 1154 until the death of Richard III) had been found.
Who was Richard III?
Although he only ruled for two years – from 1483 to 1485 – Richard III stands out among his peers as one of the most famous (or infamous) Kings of England. Richard was born in Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire on 2 October 1452. Richard and his older brother Edward were the great-great-grandchildren of Edward III, a line of descent which was used to justify the claim to the throne by the House of York during the Wars of the Roses.
Edward ruled as King Edward IV from 1471 until his death in April 1483, when his 12-year-old son succeeded as Edward V, with Richard named Lord Protector. Young Edward and his brother moved into the Tower of London (which was then a royal palace, not a prison) but in June their parents’ marriage was declared invalid, making the princes illegitimate and hence their uncle became the heir apparent. Richard lost no time in being crowned King Richard III and the two boys were not seen again.
Thus began the legend of ‘the Princes in the Tower’ and a long-standing popular belief that Richard had his nephews murdered in order to remove any competing claim to the throne. This has been widely debated for many years, with passionate arguments made both for and against Richard. [Source: University of Leicester]
Death and disappearance
After defeating an unsuccessful rebellion in October 1483, Richard led his army to Bosworth in Leicestershire two years later to face Henry Tudor (whose somewhat tenuous claim to the throne was also through descent from Edward III). On 22 August 1485, Richard was killed at Bosworth Field, the last English King to die in battle, thereby bringing to an end both the Plantagenet dynasty and the Wars of the Roses. Henry Tudor was crowned King Henry VII.
Richard’s body was brought back to Leicester, publicly displayed and then given for burial to a group of Franciscan friars. An alabaster tomb monument was constructed over the grave in 1495, paid for by the new King. With the dissolution of the monasteries (by Henry Tudor’s son, Henry VIII) that friary disappeared and along with it any clear record of Richard’s grave.
Tudor writers and artists had no qualms about depicting Richard III as an evil tyrant and child-murderer, as well as a crippled hunchback. Shakespeare’s eponymous play, written 106 years after Richard’s death, cemented the King’s bad reputation (and appearance) among the general public for centuries. [Source: University of Leicester]
The Greyfriars Project had a series of five progressive research objectives:
1. Find the remains of the Franciscan friary.
2. Identify clues to the position/orientation of the buildings.
3. Within the friary, locate the church.
4. Within the church, locate the choir.
5. Within the choir, locate the mortal remains of Richard III.
Radiocarbon dating, radiological evidence, DNA and bone analysis and archaeological results, confirms identity of last Plantagenet king who died over 500 years ago:
– DNA from skeleton matches two of Richard III’s maternal line relatives– Canadian-born furniture maker Michael Ibsen and a second person who wishes to remain anonymous
– Radiocarbon dating reveals individual had a high protein diet – including significant amounts of seafood – meaning he was likely to be of high status
– Radiocarbon dating reveals individual died in the second half of the 15th or in the early 16th century – consistent with Richard’s death in 1485
– Skeletal analysis carried out by University of Leicester osteoarchaeologist Dr Jo Appleby showed that the individual was male and in his late 20s to late 30s. Richard III was 32 when he was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485
– The individual had a slender physique and severe scoliosis – a curvature of the spine – possibly with one shoulder visibly higher than the other. This is consistent with descriptions of Richard III’s appearance from the time
[Source: University of Leicester Press Release]
– Individual likely to have been killed by one of two fatal injuries to the skull – one possibly from a sword and one possibly from a halberd
– 10 wounds discovered on skeleton – Richard III killed by trauma to the back of the head. Part of the skull sliced off
– Although around 5 feet 8 inches tall (1.72m), condition meant King Richard III would have stood significantly shorter and his right shoulder may have been higher than the left
– Feet were truncated at an unknown point in the past, but a significant time after the burial
– Corpse was subjected to ‘humiliation injuries’ –including a sword through the right buttock
– No evidence for ‘withered arm’ –as portrayed by Shakespeare – found
– Possibility that the individual’s hands were tied
– Grave was hastily dug, was not big enough and there was no shroud or coffin
[Source: University of Leicester Press Release]
Sources and Additional Information
For a full recount of the project, visit the official University of Leicester page at:
To read the official February 4, 2013 press release, please visit:
For additional media resources, information and evidence, please visit:
To see more pictures of the archaeological dig, there is a 37-picture gallery by the University of Leicester on Flickr:
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