Discovery: The Bones of King Richard III

It was hunting for a needle in a haystack and pulling out the needle on the first reach

One of History’s Great Mysteries Solved in Leicester

Yes, a skeleton found underneath a car park in Leicester is the body of King Richard III.

“Working down the spine there were vertebrae missing,” said Jo Appleby, the osteologist uncovering the bones. “Then, there they were to the side, where they’d be with severe scoliosis.” That was the ah-ha moment.

“Up until then, I had convinced myself that it wasn’t Richard,” Appleby recalled. “Then, I knew.”

“I think we’re all still reeling from it, totally reeling,” enthused Lin Foxhall, chair of the Department of Ancient History and Archaeology at the University of Leicester. After all, archaeologists don’t normally find historic people, let alone lost kings.

This is big news; it’s one of the most important archaeological discoveries in decades, solving one of the great mysteries of British history. Richard III, the last Plantagenet, was the only king since the Norman Conquest whose mortal whereabouts were unknown and who was not buried in a royal tomb.

Some 527 years after Richard’s gruesome death on the battlefield, the body’s discovery has been all the more exciting because of its sheer unlikelihood and the extraordinary way such a collection of evidence has so easily and clearly corroborated the identity of the fallen king. The discovery was akin to hunting for the proverbial needle in a haystack and pulling out the needle on the first reach.

It all happened late last summer, when a team from the University of Leicester dug three exploratory trenches in a local council car park within sight of Leicester Cathedral. They were digging for the remains of Greyfriars, a Franciscan friary that was demolished in 1538 with Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. It was here that the battle-scarred, abused and naked body of the dead king had been unceremoniously carried in the aftermath of the Battle of Bosworth Field. The Tudor victors wanted the carcass of the king disposed of quietly and surreptitiously, if respectfully. Appropriately, the friars buried the king in the chancel of the friary church. Over the centuries, a growing Leicester built and rebuilt over the site, and its location became lost in time.

A few years ago it came to light that the assumed location of Greyfriars in a heavily built-up part of the city center had been wrong. It had, in fact, been located in part underneath what was a council parking lot. That wasn’t much of a clue, but it was a place to dig.

After the licensing, funding and planning, it didn’t take long. In just three weeks, the excavation of the exploratory trenches had located Greyfriars, the church, the chancel and the rude tomb that has proved to be the grave of the lost monarch.

“We were incredibly fortunate,” said Richard Buckley, lead archaeologist on the project. “A lot of the Greyfriars site runs under streets and buildings, so to find the church and what we were looking for in the car park excavation was tremendous.

“There’s a map by John Steed in the early 17th century that mistakenly labeled Blackfriars as Greyfriars. When we found that Greyfriars was down by the river, we knew its precinct, but ultimately, we knew zero about the location of the friary buildings.”

I visited with the trio of academics at the University of Leicester over coffee in the library a few weeks after the body’s discovery in September. They were understandably excited. After all, scholars and historians generally lead fairly quiet lives. They’re not accustomed to creating headline news and becoming media darlings.

“The head wounds, the arrow in the spine and the severe scoliosis all provide strong circumstantial evidence that this is Richard’s body,” said Lin Foxhall.

At that time, however, though news of the find had broken, the evidence was just that—circumstantial. A generation ago, the evidence would have provided a verdict that they had indeed found the missing king. But there is a great difference between evidence and proof.

Today, radiocarbon dating and DNA testing can provide the proof. So, historians, archaeologists, residents of Leicester, Richard III fans everywhere and British Heritage readers waited for the results of those scientific tests. Fortuitously, a 17th-generation descendent of Richard’s Yorkist family provided what proved to be the DNA match.

* * *

At a press conference in early February (covered by media from 130 countries), Richard Buckley, Jo Appleby, university geneticist Turi King and others involved in the work announced the findings. Poor Richard it is, with 10 wounds to his body, including two mortal head wounds. There are two DNA matches and carbon dating says the bones are the right age. “It’s beyond reasonable doubt,” concluded Buckley.

It is unknown yet, what further examination of the remains may reveal. The significance of the find, however, is undeniable. As Foxhall explained, “What’s critical about this is that we now have an additional body of evidence against which historians can go back and reread all those very polemic accounts of Richard III at the time.”

The last Plantagenet king’s story, of course, is well known; his villainy legendary; his partisans loyal. It would be premature to speculate how the king’s body and the solution to this centuries-old mystery will impact the tide of 15th-century history.

In Leicester, however, the effect is real and exciting. After some contention, it was decided that Leicester would remain the king’s last resting place. All the attention is certainly creating new interest in Leicester as a visitor destination, with real economic benefits, and the University of Leicester itself is basking in the worldwide attention.

More important, the find has energized the diverse communities of the city. “There’s a real Leicester groundswell about it,” Foxhall said. “The people who live in Leicester have really taken this to heart as part of their heritage and their sense of place. Everyone is buying in and owning it.”

The license issued under British law to the University of Leicester for the dig provides that the university has up to two years to study the finds. The body of King Richard III will be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral in May next year. Plans for a tomb are well underway. Because the king would have been buried with full church rites, the service at the cathedral will be one of remembrance.

For those who have been involved in the project, it may also be a service of thanksgiving for the providential way events unfolded and the lost anointed king recovered. As Lin Foxhall marveled, even the heavens cooperated during the rainiest year in English history, “The one moment all summer when it wasn’t raining was when they were excavating the site.”



  1. Anna M. Towns on

    I got goose bumps when I read this; I had never believed his remains would be found. Truly incredible! And I agree, congratulations!!

  2. Marlette van der Merwe on

    Of all the discoveries, information, and evidence on anything, in English history, that could have been uncovered, this is truly the most exciting, in my time. As I have always taken a deep interest in Richard III, and have several books on him, plus a thick file of info, this is the answer to one of my three questions.
    All that remains is to know whether he indeed had the two little princes killed, and whether the two sets of bones in the urn in Westminster Abbey are those of the two royal children. The first issue may never be resolved, but the second one – perhaps. According to the Richard III Society, the Palace has up to now refused to grant permission for DNA tests to be done. I am hoping that with a new royal dispensation pending (William, etc.), things will change, and a centuries’ old uncertainty will soon be cleared up. Perhaps the discovery of Richard will give the matter a boost.

  3. Jon Gilchrist on

    Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York!
    Good work! Are they going to move his remains and inter him in Westminster with the others? Or is Tudor anomosity still alive?

  4. Marlette van der Merwe on

    The plan is to let Leicester have him, and I don’t think anything is going to change that decision.
    In my personal opinion he belongs to York, as he was deeply connected to that city, and loved by its citizens at that time. And, after all, he was Duke of York.
    But in the long run, it doesn’t really matter, because HE, IS, FOUND!! YESSS!
    Have you ever read ‘The daughter of time’, by Josephine Tey? A delightful little book, proving that Richard did not kill the little princes, and that the dastardly deed was perpetrated by Henry VII. (Truth being the daughter of time, indeed!).

  5. Jonathan A. Hayes on

    Full disclosure: I am the President of the American Branch of the Richard III Society. This story is woefully incomplete. The search was instigated by Philippa Langley of the Scottish Branch of the Richard III Society. Without her dedicated perseverance (and heavy financial support from the Society and its members), the dig would never have occurred. Richard III’s DNA sequence was put together by Prof. John Ashdown-Hill. Without that, a positive identification could not have been made.

    I certainly do not want to disparage the sterling work done by Drs. Buckley, Appleby, King and others (isn’t it marvelous that the University of Leicester has been in the forefront of DNA research?), but the systematic ignoring of the seminal contributions of Ms. Langley and Prof. Ashdown-Hill by the University of Leicester and others is really unconscionable and a serious breach of academic ethics. I’m personally acquainted with Philippa Langley and can definitely state that without her singleminded pushing, the dig would never have happened.

    If anyone wishes more details: [email protected] will find me.

    Best Ricardian regards,

    Jonathan Hayes

  6. For someone who has such an interest in Richard I am surprised that you don’t know he was Duke of Gloucester not Duke of York. So by your definition he should be buried in Gloucester! Actually these titles do not signify any connection with either city.

  7. A better king than many, villified by those who defeated himand their aides. He deserves a royal burial where he fell with those who served him well and valiently.

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