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Finders keepers: reinterment of Richard III’s remains
King Richard III was killed in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Credit: Mary Evans Picture Library/Alamy
In 2012 the skeleton of King Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet kings, was discovered under a car park in Leicester – one of the biggest archaeological finds of modern times.
In August of that year experts had set out to locate his remains by searching for the site of the former Greyfriars Church where Richard’s body had been hastily buried without pomp in 1485. Incredibly, in September, the excavators found a human skeleton beneath the Church’s choir. Then on 4 February 2013, after much careful analysis, the University announced to the world’s press that these were the remains of King Richard III and the long and drawn out debate on where he should be buried began.
The battle over Richard’s body
The ensuing battle over Richard III’s remains developed into a drama of Shakespearean proportions. A petition, set up by the Plantagenet Alliance and calling for a parliamentary debate on the final resting place of the reviled monarch, garnered 31,276 signatures in 2013, and even now the issue continues to be a divisive one.
The licence to carry out the dig, conducted by archaeologists from the University of Leicester, was issued by the Ministry of Justice and gave the University of Leicester the authority to decide where to rebury the king. But descendants of the House of York rose up in outcry, calling this a childish ‘finders-keepers’ agreement and writing an open letter demanding that his remains be buried in York.
After a lengthy debate, in May 2014 the High Court ruled that Richard III’s body should be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral and plans are now well underway for events to mark his reinterment, which will begin on 22 March 2015.
Richard III © Alvan Kranzer / Alamy
King Richard III was King of England from 1483 until his death in 1485 in the Battle of Bosworth Field. He was the last king of the House of York and the last of the Plantagenet dynasty, but his accession was shrouded in darkness.
As Lord Protector of the Realm, following the death his brother King Edward IV, Richard was responsible for his 12-year-old nephew King Edward V and his younger brother, Richard of York, aged nine. However, Richard soon manoeuvred himself onto the throne and more or less immediately after his coronation, the two young princes disappeared from the Tower of London.
Though the mystery has never been solved, Richard’s name was blackened by his assumed guilt in ordering the murder of the Princes in the Tower this blight on his character was not helped by Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard III as an evil hook-nosed hunchback in his eponymous play.
Following a short reign of unrest, including two major rebellions, Richard and the Royal army met the forces of Henry Tudor in the Battle of Bosworth Field. At this, the last decisive battle of the Wars of the Roses, Richard was killed, making him the last English king to die in battle on home soil. After the battle, his body, stripped and slung across a horse’s back, was carried back to Leicester, where, on King Henry VII’s instructions, it was exposed to the public gaze so that all might know for certain that Richard was dead.
Richard III’s reinterment
The reinterment of the last Plantagenet King will be a hugely significant historical event. Below is the timetable of planned events:
Sunday, March 22
A procession around Leicester will culminate in evening worship in Leicester Cathedral.
Monday 23-Wednesday 25 March
The remains of King Richard III will lie in repose in Leicester Cathedral. The public is welcome to pray and pay their respects during scheduled hours.
Thursday 26 March
The remains of Richard III will be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral, with an invited congregation and in the presence of the Most Rt. Revd. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, senior clergy, and representatives of the World Faiths.
Friday 27 March
People from across the city of Leicester and the county of Leicestershire will be invited to gather in the Cathedral to see the tomb revealed.
For further information and latest updates please visit the Leicester Cathedral website.
We speak to one of King Richard III’s descendants in the March/April 2015 issue of BRITAIN magazine (May 2015 issue in the US).
How Twisted Was King Richard III's Spine? New Models Reveal His Condition
Shakespeare called him a hunchback, but a new three-dimensional model of King Richard III's spiraling spine shows his true disability: adolescent idiopathic scoliosis.
Richard III, who ruled England from 1483 to 1485, died in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. His body was buried in a hastily dug grave in Leicester, where it was then lost to time. In 2012, archaeologists rediscovered the bones under a city council parking lot, and exhumed them for study.
The curve in Richard's spine was immediately obvious, confirming an anatomical anomaly that had long been controversial. No paintings made during the king's lifetime survive, according to the Richard III Society (though some exist from soon after his death that were likely copied from originals, and modern researchers have reconstructed the king's face). The popular image of Richard III came from Shakespeare, who describe the king as a "poisonous bunch-backed toad" in his 1593 play. Shakespeare's Richard III had a hunchback and a withered arm, and modern historians were uncertain whether the depiction held any truth or was simply designed to please the political enemies of the king's Plantagenet family line. [Gallery: The Spine of Richard III]
In 1490, just five years after Richard's death in battle, however, medieval historian John Rous described the king as a small man with "unequal shoulders, the right higher and the left lower." This description is consistent with scoliosis, a condition in which the spine curves sideways.
Richard III's rediscovered skeleton revealed that the king did, in fact, have scoliosis. Now, researchers led by University of Leicester bioarchaeologist Jo Appleby reveals the details of his condition.
Appleby and her colleagues conducted computed tomography scans of the king's individual vertebrae. These CT scans use X-rays to image the inside of the bone, creating virtual slices that can be explored digitally. Using the scans, the researchers then created polymer copies of each vertebra, piecing them together into a 3D model of Richard III's spine.
The scans and model showed that Richard III had a right-sided, spiral-shaped curve that peaked at thoracic vertebrae 8 and 9, approximately at his mid-back. The curve was well-balanced, meaning that Richard III's spine got back in line by the time it hit his pelvis. As a result, his hips were even, the researchers report today (May 29) in the journal The Lancet. Richard III would not have limped or had trouble breathing due to his condition, which are common side effects of severe scoliosis. [Images: New Dig at Richard III's Rediscovered Grave]
"Obviously, the skeleton was flattened out when it was in the ground," Appleby said in a statement. "We had a good idea of the sideways aspect of the curve, but we didn't know the precise nature of the spiral aspect of the condition."
Scoliosis can be caused by muscular imbalances that pull the spine out of alignment, but the rest of Richard III's skeleton showed no evidence of such problems, Appleby and her colleagues found. Nor were there any malformed hemivertebrae, which are wedge-shaped vertebrae that can cause the spine to twist and turn.
Instead, the researchers concluded, Richard III likely had adolescent-onset idiopathic scoliosis. Idiopathic means the cause is unknown, which is the case in the majority of people with scoliosis. The abnormal curve probably appeared in Richard after age 10.
The curve itself had a spiral appearance, and an angle that would be considered large today. Doctors use a measurement called the Cobb angle to gauge spine deformity. On an X-ray, they draw a line outward from the top of the highest vertebra on the curve and then do the same for the bottom of the lowest vertebra. They then measure the angle where the two lines meet. Richard III's Cobb angle was between 70 degrees and 90 degrees in life, the researchers determined.
Without scoliosis, Richard III would have stood about 5 feet, 8 inches (1.7 meters), average for a medieval European man. The curvature would have taken a few inches off his height, and it would have caused the shoulder imbalance that Rous described. Nevertheless, it would not have kept Richard III from being an active individual, Appleby said.
"The condition would have meant that his trunk was short in comparison to the length of his limbs and his right shoulder would have been slightly higher than the left," she said, "but this could have been disguised by custom-made armor and by having a good tailor."
Though scientists can't be sure whether or not Richard III underwent any treatment for his scoliosis, Mary Ann Lund of the University of Leicester said painful traction was widely available at the time. Not only would Richard have been able to afford traction, but also, Lund found, his doctors would have been well aware of the method, as the 11th-century polymath Avicenna described such traction in treatises on medicine and philosophy.
Osteology - reading the bones
Remarkably, after over 500 years in the ground, Richard III&rsquos skeleton is still almost complete. Archaeologists discovered that the feet and one lower leg bone (left fibula) were missing &ndash these had been removed long after burial, perhaps when a Victorian outhouse was built on top of the grave &ndash otherwise, apart from a few small hand bones and teeth, the skeleton was intact.
It is amazing that there was so little damage, as in places the 19th century brickwork was just 90mm above the skeleton. If the Victorian workmen had dug any deeper or wider, Richard III&rsquos remains might have been severely damaged or even completely destroyed.
Once the skeleton was safely removed from the ground, archaeologists were able to examine the grave in great detail, learning much about how Richard III was buried in 1485.
Back at the University of Leicester, specialists analyse the skeleton. As well as determining the age and sex of the individual, the spinal abnormalities are identified and the wounds characterised.
The Grave of Richard III
In August 2012 a team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester unearthed the remains of Richard III, king of England between 1483 and his death in battle in 1485. As news of this unexpected discovery spread around the world, all headlines revolved around the triumph of modern science in identifying the skeletal remains, and the resolve of those determined individuals who had set out to find them. What became lost in the clamour of media attention however, was the story of the grave itself, where the king had lain for over 500 years.
Although buried in the prestigious Choir of a Franciscan friary, there was little respect accorded to the grave’s preparation. When looking down into the grave – now preserved beneath glass flooring at Leicester’s King Richard III Visitor Centre – one aspect becomes startlingly clear: its size. When the projection of Richard III’s skeleton fades into view, one can see exactly how small the grave was. Indeed, it is so short that the former king’s head was forced forwards and upward at an awkward angle.
The skeleton of King Richard III in-situ, showing the awkward upward angle of his skull owing to the grave’s insufficient length.
Other graves excavated in medieval Leicester have neatly squared sides, as do the other graves uncovered by archaeologists during the dig for Richard III. The king’s grave however, is smaller at the bottom than the top, and is rounded where the sides meet the base. Another difference with other graves from medieval Leicester is the lack of shroud or coffin. In truth, the whole grave was poorly done, as though the earth were scooped out in a hurry.
In 2013 the archaeologists returned to expand their excavation around the grave site. During this dig they uncovered medieval floor tiles a mere 2m from the grave, which would have covered the floor of the Choir. When looked at in relation to the level of these tiles, it becomes obvious that the grave was so shallow as to be barely below ground level.
Nothing in the historical record explains why the grave of Richard III was so narrow, shallow and short. It could simply be that it was dug in a hurry, with Henry Tudor wishing to depart from Leicester for London as soon as possible in order to claim the throne. In this scenario, it seems likely that the harassed friars dug the earth themselves, overseen by Henry’s impatient soldiers.
Section view of the excavated trench. A light projection of Richard III’s skeleton can be seen between the two yellow pegs. The brick and rubble in the centre of the image show how close later building works came to disturbing the body.
An amazing historical detective story it its own right, the modern rediscovery of the king’s grave could, however, so easily have turned out otherwise. During the excavation, archaeologists also found a robber trench beside the monarch’s skull. Robber trenches are essentially voids made when something is removed – in this case likely a foundation stone taken during the Dissolution in the 1530s – which then backfills with the soil of the day.
The robber trench beside Richard’s skull was in fact so close that whoever removed the foundation stone would likely have exposed the bone as it was lifted. Whether the stone-thief was too engrossed in removing the weighty object to look back down into the pit, or whether he decided to leave the remains well alone, we’ll never know.
If this was not enough, a mere 90mm above the king’s legs the archaeologists hit upon the foundations of an 18th century outhouse, containing a coal store, a toilet, and storage space. Little did the labourers know that half a spade’s depth below their feet lay the body of Richard III. In the early-to-mid 20th century these outhouses were cleared, with a garage and new coal store taking their place. Luckily again, the builders simply built on top of the earlier construction, and didn’t sink deeper foundations which would have destroyed the medieval archaeology – and the bones of the king.
Whilst excavating the skeleton, it was noted that the feet were nowhere to be found. However, the condition of the tibia indicates that the feet were in place when the king’s body was laid to rest. Their whereabouts is still a mystery today.
The grave-site as it is today, where visitors to the King Richard III Visitor Centre can see through the glass floor to the grave itself.
Had the bones of the king been uncovered before the modern era, their most likely fate would have been a small reburial somewhere out of the way perhaps even in a pit alongside numerous other disturbed remains. Had this been the case, the king’s bones – along with the grave which tells us so much about the circumstances of his burial – would have been lost to history forever.
Joseph Hall works in Heritage Interpretation for the University of Leicester and contributes to numerous history magazines. During its first two years of opening he also worked as part of the historical interpretation team at the King Richard III Visitor Centre in Leicester, where the original grave of Richard III, and its archaeology, can be seen.
Isotopes and Richard III
Isotopic analysis has greatly expanded our knowledge of the past. Isotopes, put simply, are variations of elements based on the number of neutrons. Different numbers of neutrons will yield different atomic masses which can be identified by a mass spectrometer. Isotopic ratios allow archaeologists and historians to date objects as well as provide key insights into past climates, diets and migration patterns.
King Richard III
An interesting case study for the use of isotopes is that of Richard III whose skeleton was discovered in a car park in the English city of Leicester in 2013. The skeleton displayed the distinguished spinal curvature the king was famous for as well as pathologies that suggest a violent death. Shortly after the skeleton’s discovery, there was disagreement amongst historians of whether it belonged to the last Plantagenet king. Luckily, isotopic analysis was on hand to help resolve this issue.
The skeleton of King Richard III as it was found.
The best-known use of isotopes in archaeological research is radiocarbon dating, a radiometric dating method used on carbonaceous (organic) materials such as wood and bones/teeth up to 60,000 years old. Carbon has three isotopes: 12C, 13C and 14C. 12C and 13C are stable isotopes meaning that the number of electrons, and therefore the atomic placement, does not change overtime. 14C is a radioactive isotope meaning that over time electrons decay to a stable form (in the case of 14C to the non-radioactive 14N) at a constant rate, a process termed nuclear decay. The half-life, when 50% of radioactive isotopes have decay to a stable variant, of 14C is 5730 years. This relatively short half-life makes it an ideal dating method for archaeologists and historians.
14C makes its way into human remains via diet. 14C is formed by cosmic rays interacting with nitrogen (N) in the upper atmosphere. The newly formed 14C is then absorbed by plants by photosynthesis and is then transferred on to animals that eat them and then on to animals that eat them so on and so forth.
The Battle of Bosworth Field
Radiocarbon dating of the bones by Oxford University yielded a date of death between 1412-49 CE, and the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre gave a date of 1430-60 CE. Both sets of dates are much older than the Battle of Bosworth Field, 1485 CE when Richard III died. This may seem like the end of the debate but organisms further along the food chain (higher tropic levels) are depleted in 14C. Because of this, marine animals incorporate “dead” carbon and this can give radiocarbon dates up to 800 years older than the actual time of death in a process known as the marine reservoir effect. This “dead” carbon is then passed on to individuals with a diet high in fish and other marine life giving them much older radiocarbon dates.
Stable isotope analysis of 15N, which gives off a distinctive signal if the diet came from a marine source, suggests that seafood made up a substantial part of his diet – that in of itself is indicative of a high-status individual. As discussed previously, marine foods are depleted in 14C thus “dead” carbon became incorporated in his bones and teeth giving radiocarbon dates much older than the actual time of death. The marine reservoir effect is corrected by analysing stable isotope ratios, and the recalibrated date of the skeleton was 1450-1530 CE which overlaps the date of Richard III’s death. This is not conclusive proof that the skeleton found in the carpark belonged to the last Plantagenet king but this, coupled with DNA evidence, certainly makes a compelling case.
About the Author
Jack Wilkin is a graduate researcher at the Camborne School of Mines in the United Kingdom. His research focuses on the isotopic geochemistry of fossils from the Jurassic of Germany for palaeoclimate studies.
King Richard III Bones Found, Scientists Say
Scientists say DNA and other tests confirm skeletal remains are an English king’s.
The search for the long-vilified English King Richard III, who died in battle in 1485 and whose image as a nasty tyrant was immortalized by William Shakespeare, appears to have ended.
In a dramatic Monday morning press conference, researchers from England's University of Leicester announced they had identified "beyond all reasonable doubt" Richard III's skeletal remains. The remains had been unearthed last August by an archaeological team from beneath a parking lot where the friary that reportedly held Richard III's body once stood.
For nearly 40 minutes on Monday, a team of scientists and historians reported the results of detailed medical, historical, genealogical, and genetic studies conducted after archaeologists discovered a skeleton that they believed to be Richard III. (Related: "Shakespeare's Coined Words Now Common Currency.")
Turi King, a geneticist at the University of Leicester, and Kevin Schürer, a genealogist at the school, turned up the most compelling evidence. By poring over historical records and documents, Schürer conclusively identified two of Richard III's living descendants: Michael Ibsen, a furniture maker in London, England, and a second individual who now wishes to remain anonymous.
King took DNA samples from the two descendants and compared them to a sample of ancient DNA obtained from the skeleton from the friary. "There is a DNA match," King told reporters, "so the DNA evidence points to these being the remains of Richard III."
Richard III died at age 32 of injuries he sustained at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485, and the new evidence fits closely with these records.
University of Leicester osteologist Jo Appleby showed two gruesome head injuries that Richard received in his last moments—one likely inflicted from behind by an assailant bearing a halberd, a medieval weapon consisting of an axe blade topped with a spike. In addition, Appleby found several other wounds that she described as "humiliation injuries," likely inflicted on Richard's dead body.
Historical accounts suggest that Richard's enemies stripped his body after the battle and threw his corpse over a horse "and this," says Appeleby, "would have left his body exposed to [humiliation] injuries."
The osteologist's studies also revealed that Richard was a man of slight build who suffered from a medical condition known as idiopathic adolescent scolosis, a curvature of the spine that developed after ten years of age and that may have brought back pain to the future king.
This emerging scientific picture of Richard fits with a description of the king written by John Rous, a medieval English historian, in the late 15th century. According to Rous, Richard III "was slight in body and weak in strength."
The King's enduring image as a cruel despot was cemented by Shakespeare, who portrayed him as a glowering monster so repugnant "that dogs bark at me as I halt by them."
In Shakespeare's famous play, the hunchbacked king claws his way to the throne and methodically murders most of his immediate family—his wife, older brother, and two young nephews—until he suffers defeat and death on the battlefield at the hands of a young Tudor hero, Henry VII.
"Precise circumstantial detail"
One of the most compelling works to argue the king's culpability is Sir Thomas More's "History of King Richard the Third." Published after More's execution by King Henry VIII in 1535, it outlined "a coherent and detailed narrative of the murders, of personnel involved and orders given," Thornton wrote in the study. More provided "precise circumstantial detail" describing the king's appointment of Sir James Tyrell, a member of King Richard's inner circle, to end the princes' lives.
Tyrell then assigned his horsekeeper, John Dighton, and a Tower guard named Miles Forest to commit the deadly act, Thornton reported. According to More, Dighton and Forest entered the princes' bedchamber late at night and smothered the sleeping boys with their pillows and featherbed.
In the centuries that followed, More's book "rapidly became the dominant account of Richard's seizure of the throne and fate of the princes," even inspiring William Shakespeare's depiction of King Richard as a craven, bloodthirsty tyrant in the play "Richard III," Thornton said in the email. But More never disclosed who told him about these grisly details.
Now, Thornton's study suggests the source of this information: the sons of one of the killers.
Little is known about Dighton and Forest, and both were dead when More began writing his account of the alleged murders. However, Forest had two sons — Edward and Miles — who were still alive at the time. What's more, both men were favored members of King Henry VIII's court throughout the early decades of the 16th century, and that would have placed them in the same social circles as More, Thornton discovered.
"More had direct access to the sons of a man who was in the Tower with the princes in 1483, and who More says was the chief murderer," he explained. The new revelation provides a plausible source for More's claims that King Richard III gave the original order for the princes' execution, Thornton said.
"This evidence opens up the strong possibility that Edward and Miles junior were the channel for information about the murders," which was given to them by their father or mother, Thornton wrote in the study. "Far from being purely propaganda or a much later embroidery of earlier vague stories, More's account therefore potentially drew on very immediate access to members of the family of one of the alleged murderers," he said.
Leicester car park where Richard III was buried given protected status
The scruffy council car park in Leicester that was revealed in 2012 to an astonished world as the site where Richard III was buried in 1485 is being given scheduled monument status by the government.
The listing is to protect “one of the most important sites in our national history”, the remains of the medieval friary where the battered, naked body of the last Plantagenet king was buried after he lost the Battle of Bosworth, his life and his crown to Henry Tudor.
Part of the site, including the grave, has been preserved within the new Richard III centre, converted from an old school whose playground helped preserve the archaeology. However, many traces of the lost Greyfriars church and the friary buildings are believed to lie under the car park.
The heritage minister, John Glenn, said: “The discovery of Richard III’s skeleton was an extraordinary archaeological find and an incredible moment in British history.
“By protecting this site as a scheduled monument, we are ensuring the remains of this once lost medieval friary buried under Leicester are preserved for future generations.”
The grave was found in August 2012 by the University of Leicester in an excavation prompted by Philippa Langley, a screenwriter and amateur historian, who was convinced Richard’s remains still lay under the car park. To the astonishment of many who had believed that the jibe of “Richard Crookback” was Tudor and Shakespearean propaganda, the spine was twisted like a shepherd’s crook.
Months of scientific tests preceded a press conference in February 2013, which was front page news and was relayed live around the world. The dating of the bones, the battlefield injuries including a gaping hole in the skull and the matching of DNA handed down from his mother through the unbroken female line with two living relatives established “beyond reasonable doubt” that the body really was Richard’s.
The city mayor, Peter Soulsby, said the listing would protect the site for future generations. “We’re very proud of Leicester’s rich history, which spans over 2,000 years. The discovery and identification of King Richard III’s remains was a remarkable achievement. These events marked an unforgettable time for our city.”
In March 2015, with the words “King Richard, may you rest in peace in Leicester”, Soulsby welcomed the coffined bones, carried on a horse-drawn hearse, back into the city. It was a key moment in a remarkable day, when a solemn cortege including knights on horseback accompanied the remains back to the battlefield and other sites associated with the king’s last day.
The face of King Richard III, the last Plantagenet king, at the Society of Antiquaries in London. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA
Soulsby was standing on Bow Bridge where, according to local legend, Richard knocked his heel against a stone as he rode out to his last battle on 22 August 1485. The legend says the same stone was struck by his bloodied head when he was carried back as “a miserable spectacle”, according to Thomas More, slung “like a hogge or a calfe, the head and armes hangyng on the one side of the horse and the legs on the other side”.
In the politically charged atmosphere of regime change, the clergy of Greyfriars accepted the responsibility of finding the final resting place for a toppled king. They buried Richard in a hastily dug grave without coffin or shroud, but in a position of honour near their high altar.
Over the centuries, the friary was demolished, apart from one small stretch of wall, and its exact site lost. Although the area was still known as Greyfriars, it was believed that all trace of the grave had been destroyed in later construction on the site: in fact, a crucial section had remained open ground and preserved the gardens of large houses and later a school yard.
The skeleton with the twisted spine no longer lies in the roughly dug hole, too small even for the king’s slight frame. It was reburied in March 2015 in a new tomb in Leicester Cathedral, just across the road from the site, in an extraordinary ceremony attended by representatives of royalty, descendants of Plantagenet and Tudor aristocracy, families whose ancestors fought at Bosworth, the distant cousins whose DNA helped identify the bones, the archaeologists who found him and the academics who worked for two years to identify him, and as many of the people of Leicester as could be crammed into the building.
The honour of listed status has been given by the government on the advice of Historic England, whose chief executive, Duncan Wilson, said the area to be scheduled had been carefully considered and would be managed through planning controls with Leicester city council.
The grave is displayed as it was found, protected by a stone and glass pavilion within the Richard III centre. The discovery has transformed the once shabby area around the cathedral, which now welcomes visitors from all over the world, but although newly erected signs explain its extraordinary significance to visitors, the car park remains as tatty as ever.
– 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