Human remains found at Richard III burial site

The archaeologists digging under the Leicester parking lot for the Greyfriars church where King Richard III was buried in 1485 started out with a long list of ifs and maybes. They weren’t sure they had the right location for the church which had been destroyed during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1538 and built over for centuries. Even if their research on the location did turn out to be have been correct, there might be no remains left after the Tudor destruction and subsequent development. If there were physical remains of the abbey and church left to be found, they might not have found them in the two trenches they planned to dig. If they did find physical remains of the church, they might not have been sufficient to map an accurate ground plan and find the choir area where Richard was buried. If they did locate the choir area, there might be nothing there. If they did find human remains, they wouldn’t necessarily be significant since many people were buried in abbeys in churches.

Knowing how the long the odds were of discovering anything pertinent at all, the University of Leicester’s excavation team was not so much cautiously optimistic as just plain cautious. They underscored that the archaeological search would nonetheless provide a fascinating window into the long-lost history of Leicester even when/if nothing Richard-specific was discovered. It was an exercise in managing expectations, as they say in the corporate world, not just the public’s but their own.

Then something completely unexpected happened: everything went right. The two trenches immediately revealed the remains of tiled walkways which proved to be the eastern cloister walk of the friary. They found part of the wall of the chapter house abutting it. Spurred by these promising discoveries, the archaeological team dug a third unplanned trench into a neighboring parking lot and found the walls of the church within the friary.

The next discovery was more than anyone had dared hope, or at least voice. Outside of the church perimeter to the south, the team unearthed a stretch of paving made of recycled medieval tiles of different sizes and wears laid in a random pattern. They believe these are the remains of the garden of Sir Robert Herrick, mayor of Leicester. Herrick bought the abbey land in the early 1600s and built a mansion and gardens on the site. Christopher Wren, future father of the famous architect, was tutor to Herrick’s nephew. He recorded that there was a pillar on the grounds inscribed “Here lies the body of Richard III, some time King of England.”

Meanwhile, in the third trench inside the church area, archaeologists found large chunks of window tracery and a lead window H-section (part of the support for a stained glass window). There was a large window behind the high altar in the east of the church. The choir where Richard III was buried was in the east side of the church. They also found a medieval silver penny, a stone frieze they think was part of the choir stalls and copper alloy letters that might have come from tomb inscriptions.

Given these giant glaring exes marking the spot, and the huge turnout of 1,500 people who lined up to see the dig during the three hours it was open this past Saturday, the Leicester City Council agreed to extend the dig for at least one more week. It was supposed to have stopped Monday, but they couldn’t quit when they were so close, and the dig has been a huge boon for Leicester making the press all over the world.

Then, early this morning, the University of Leicester announced that human remains have been found. That’s all they said. No further details until the press conference today at 11:00 AM BST which is being tweeted live on @uniofleicester. If you don’t want to follow on Twitter, the UoL website will be posting live updates on this page. The press conference will be carried on BBC and Sky television and will be streamed live on the BBC website. I’ve tweeted Leicester to ask for a link to the live stream because I can’t find it.

Wake up, everyone! This is too exciting to sleep through. :boogie:

Okay I’m doing my own version of live updates just because I’m nerding out like a crazy person. UL is tweeting that they’ll be referring to people at the press conference using their initials so they just posted a bunch of names with their initials. One of the people listed is Dr. Turi King (TK), from UL’s Department of Genetics. Does that mean they’ve got something to DNA test?

BBC News live stream here! And it works in the US too! Head asploding!

* Richard Taylor: the search has resembled something out of a Dan Brown novel in terms of the twists and turns it has taken.

* Peter Soulsby, Mayor of Leicester went over a couple of historical highlights of the city. Thanks the public employees for giving up their parking and says given today’s announcement, they are going to have to go without their parking lot a little longer.

* Richard Buckley, co director of University of Leicester Archaeological Services, is describing the site, the layout of the trenches and what was found where.

* Richard Taylor, Director of Corporate Affairs: They have found the remains of two people: one fully articulated skeleton of an adult male found in the choir of the church and one disarticulated human skeleton, one female found in the presbytery.


* Now Richard is telling me to calm the hell down because this isn’t any kind of sure thing, but it is exciting circumstantial evidence. Next up extensive testing and analysis.

* The location and modesty of the burial is in keeping with the historical sources, but the skeleton was not hunchbacked as Richard was described by Shakespeare and other sources. He was strong and appears to have died in battle. Historical sources invested physical deformity with spiritual deformity and could well have exaggerated Richard’s disability.

* Philippa Langley, lead for the Richard III society, had a dream, y’all. She says we should strive to make our dreams come true. She’s very composed, but I think she’s losing it on the inside.

* Exhumation of the male skeleton began Tuesday, September 4th.

* The archaeological site is not really display quality, so it sounds like the parking lot is going right back on top when they’re through.

* Next up is laboratory analysis at the University of Leicester. They’re hoping to recover mitochondrial DNA that can be compared to the DNA of Michael Ibsen, 17th generation nephew of Richard III. DNA analysis will take up to 12 weeks.

* Only DNA can confirm that these are the remains of Richard III. Osteology can confirm that the skeletal remains matches very well what we know of Richard from historical sources.

* The arrowhead found in the skeleton’s spine was barbed. They can’t say anything more than that right now since the find is so new. The barbed arrowhead was found between two vertebrae, not embedded in the bone.

* They haven’t cleaned the skull yet, but there are a couple of injuries to it visible. They don’t know if the head injuries or the arrow were the fatal blow. The only historical source to give details on how he died was the Ballad of Bosworth Field, widely considered unreliable. In the Ballad, Richard died of a poleaxe to the head.

* Philippa Langley thinks the Tudors constructed a mythological Richard, that to get closer to the truth of what kind of person he was, see the pre-Tudor sources from before he became king.

* She hopes the archaeology of Greyfriars will bring Richard’s story to an accurate and truthful conclusion.

And that’s all folks. Amazing. A. May. Zing.

92 thoughts on “Human remains found at Richard III burial site

  1. Hehe, by “here” I just meant our local station, not all of them nationally. I expect different communities prefer different things. It does sound interesting though. 🙂 I have also never seen too much Mr. Bean, just a minute or two long clip of him giving a bunch of balloons to a baby in a stroller and the baby floating away.

    1. I don’t know if it’s ever aired on US television. Maybe PBS? It’s decades old by now. I’ve only ever seen them on video.

      I’m proud to say I’ve only seen a clip or two of Mr. Bean myself. That sort of comedy is not my bag.

  2. The only reason I had ever heard of Blackadder is because in some places (not my local PBS station) they do have PBS ads for it, and the last time I saw the ads I was a small child. I have seen the series for sale, but had no idea what it was about, so had no reason to investigate.

  3. If there are surviving records they may well indicate gifts to a particular cult. City records might also show a related holy day. Leicester’s department of archaeology is extremely good; be v surprised if they’re not on this track already.

    1. It’s whether any records survived the scourge of dissolution that’s the key. Like you said, I am sure the researchers are on it like white on rice. There are at least two professors of literature on the team who were made available for press questions and interviews. That’s definitely their bailiwick.

  4. see i am the only one in my family who even cares about history so i come here and feel cool chatting with you guys about this kind of stuff all day long 😎

    1. Maybe you’ll convert them someday. I’ve seen family genealogy, for example, turn the most disinterested people into history freaks. Next thing you know, you’ll be introducing them to your history nerd family here. 😉

  5. Incidentally, they will not need the DNA of the “17th generation nephew of Richard III”. When the tomb of Edward IV, Richard’s brother, was opened in 1789, quantities of his hair were removed from the grave. The Society of Antiquaries owns a lock, presented by the then dean of Windsor in 1790, and according to the “Ricardian Archive”, John Ashdown-Hill arranged in 2007 for a DNA test to be conducted on a sample of Edward’s hair at the Ashmolean. I believe this was done in the context of a possible test on the Westminster “Princes in the Tower” remains, but the Leicester skeleton would give the results of that test a more immediate relevance.

    1. Were they able to extract DNA from the hair, do you know? It’s easy for hair samples to become contaminated and degraded when you’re trying to secure DNA from archaeological remains. The bone marrow and dental pulp is more protected and therefore more likely to produce results.

  6. That DNA will still be usefull. The more DNA relatives you have on the list then fewer people can say the one test could be wrong. There are people out there who will say that one DNA test doesn’t prove much, since it could have been done incorrectly, but if you have the person related to 20 different people all 20 of those tests are less likely to be wrong. That is what they are doing with mummies in Egypt, figuring out who is who, and related to who and how, especially with unidentified individuals, through DNA tests, if the DNA is still viable. 🙂

  7. I was just directed to your blog today, through a link to this post. I expect I will be visiting again, as it’s a very interesting and well-written blog.

    And this is SUCH exciting news! Unless the DNA testing were to exclude Richard, I must say, as a retired trial lawyer, that the circumstantial evidence is quite convincing.

    1. It really is. I’m having a hard time being properly circumspect. One of the reporters at the press conference just out and out said it: “Scientific proprieties aside, you guys totally think you found him, don’t you?” The panel sort of tittered and hedged, but yeah, the case is solid and they know it.

      Welcome to the blog!

  8. If it turns out to be the King, I wonder if they eventually would also do a facial reconstruction based on the skull. If DNA analysis is not possible, a comparison of facial features to Richard’s portraits might help in the identification, even though that would be a subjective judgement about any supposed resemblance.

  9. Oh man, when I read the news in the Belfast Telegraph last night before bed I was hoping you would have something written today. :boogie:

    I talked to a co-worker from Leicester who has been in the US now for years, but still has family there. He has been vaguely following the story. He told me that everyone is taught that Richard III was tossed into the River Soar.

    I am hoping I have piqued his interest.

    Now to try to be patient whilst waiting the DNA testing results!

    1. The River Soar story comes to us from mapmaker and historian John Speede’s History of Great Britain published in 1610. He probably had sources that have not survived, but in any case the story comes long after the events it purports to describe, and other historians who documented the dissolution era who you would expect to say something about a mob throwing Richard’s remains into the river are silent on the subject. Besides, Speede is known to have searched for Richard’s burial site himself, so maybe even he didn’t quite believe the story.

      I can’t believe your co-worker from Leicester is only following the story vaguely! I’d have been lined up at the dig from the crack of dawn on Saturday, man. Give me a little folding chair, a loaf of bread, a hunk of cheese and I’ll wait all day. 😀

  10. I don’t. The report I found only said that Ashdown-Hill had arranged for the test. He is, incidentally, on the current team and apparently located the thistant nephew. Tantalizingly, the dean of Windsor also presented the Society of Antiquaries with a vial of the three inches of liquid that was sloshing around in Edward IV’s coffin, when it was opened – apparently degraded matter from the decomposing king. This has since vanished. No doubt it stank, but it would have been invaluable in the DNA Age.

  11. I don’t. The report I found only said that Ashdown-Hill had arranged for the test. He is, incidentally, on the current team and apparently located the thistant nephew. Tantalizingly, the dean of Windsor also presented the Society of Antiquaries with a vial of the three inches of liquid that was sloshing around in Edward IV’s coffin, when it was opened – apparently degraded matter from the decomposing king. This has since vanished. No doubt it stank, but it would have been invaluable in the DNA Age.

  12. Great blog!! Seems to be a good way to keep up on the most recent news. This is beyond my wildest dreams. I had never read the chronicles that talked about his burial still existing. I’ve gone thru 40 years believing he was at the bottom of the river, never to be found. Thanks again for givin us a place to share.

  13. I am so excited for this find! I am a Canadian that is somewhat distracted by anything Archaeological, Historically accurate (as best one can get) Celtic histories, and Genealogy.

    This just blasts me off the planet, the vindication of King Richard the Third….how truly exciting!

    I can’t wait for more tid bits on this…!!!

    Congratulations !

    Lenora :0)

    1. Nope. Anne Neville died in March of 1485 when Richard III was still king. She was buried in Westminster Abbey. Her tomb wasn’t marked, but it was never broken into or desecrated or anything. Being in Westminster Abbey kept her remains safe.

  14. who knows how many more famous people and treasure are left inside that church. There is something about history it gets cooler with age 😆

  15. Read these out of order, but I have to say this almost convinces me there is life after death; someone long thought lost is suddenly on a particular persons mind, who suddenly feels driven to dig in a particular place, puts huge effort into raising money and talks a city into giving up precious parking for some indefinite period on an oh-so-tiny chance of finding the bones of a murdered king whose murderers defamed and attempted to wipe from history. Maybe some dreams were tampered with, some pressure was applied from beyond the grave, and someone who was treated abominably in life got some “post-mortem” satisfaction. Please keep this blog up for as long as you can, they are full of info, but short enough for me to keep up with.

  16. Hello all. I live in Leicester, five minutes walk away from the digs. They are very interesting. I was stunned at how small his place of burial was. He could not have been very big. It is really exciting being in a city that could reveal the burial and the remains of Richard III. It makes every thing I have read about in history books come to life. (pardon the pun) I can’t wait for the results!

  17. Two have been filled in so to try to preserve the sites., but the one iwhere the supposed bones were found is under a protective tent, until they have decided what to do with it. Our Mayor seems to be sure that the bones are Richard III’s.

  18. This find is really interesting. My mum was born in Leicester and as a child I stayed quite often with my great aunt and uncle who lived on Castle View in the city centre. was wondering if that’s near the car park? Good luck to Leicester – hope it brings lots and lots of tourists!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.