Archaeologists may have found the remains of King Richard III in Leicester.
The monarch, defeated by Henry Tudor and killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, has gone down in history, literature and legend as a scheming villain and Machiavellian king with a hunchback and withered arm, but his remains have long since been thought lost and truth masked by time and Tudor propaganda.
Legends surrounding him—that he murdered Princes Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury in the Tower of London, that he consulted a seer before the battle, that his corpse was thrown into the River Soar after the Dissolution of the Monasteries—have never been validated, and in August 2012 the Richard III Society joined forces with the University of Leicester Archaeological Services Unit (ULAS) in a bid to uncover the truth about the oft-vilified figure.
Richard Buckley, co-director of ULAS and head of the excavation, was a self-confessed sceptic: ‘I didn’t hold out much hope,’ he admits. ‘So much surrounding Richard III is shrouded in legend that going after him meant going of speculation, guesswork and pure luck!’ Going from sketchy accounts of King Richard III’s final resting place, they chose to dig on the supposed site of Leicester’s Greyfriars Church. ‘A few metres out with our trial trenches and we’d miss him—and the church—completely,’ notes Buckley.
Digging into a car park and laying two long trenches north-south, Buckley’s team uncovered the cloister walk, and what looked like the Chapter House of the friary. ‘A contemporary historian believed Richard III to be buried in the choir of the church,’ Buckley says ‘this would have been between an area called the ‘walking place’ in the middle of the church and the altar at the east end. The archaeologists then dug a third trench and located parallel east west walls of a large building to the north of the Chapter House – which seemed like the best bet to be the east end of the church.’
And sure enough, in this area, the team uncovered human remains remarkably in keeping with the legend: a skeleton with curvature of the spine, head trauma and an iron object between two of the vertebrae. ‘I couldn’t believe it—none of us could,’ Buckley laughs. ‘All of us were hopping round the site, amazed at what we were seeing.’
Could this be King Richard III, then, fabled ‘Son of York’, Shakespearian villain, lost king of England? Certainly, a lot of the evidence seems to suggest so: ‘The skeleton was in the right place and had all of the characteristics associated with accounts of Richard III, so it looks very likely,’ Buckley remarks. ‘Though we are of course waiting on a DNA match between the remains and a descendant of the King’s elder sister, down the female line, tracked down by Dr. John Ashdown-Hill. Then, and only then, will we know!’
If indeed the skeleton does turn out to be Richard III, it will be the biggest archaeological discovery in decades, and Leicester, where it is confirmed the remains will be interred if confirmed to the King Richard III, will no doubt become a Mecca for Ricardians the world over.