Richard III is a highly controversial figure from English history, and this legacy continues today. Shakespeare wrote of him as a villain, exaggerating his scoliosis and writing his malicious dialogue.“And thus I clothe my naked villainy. With odd old ends stol’n out of holy writ; And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.” (Richard III, Shakespeare). On the other side is the Richard III Society, who’s aim is to “secure a more balanced assessment of the king and to support research into his life and times. The recent Greyfriars excavation has raised the king’s profile and provided us with new opportunities to make the case for ‘Good King Richard‘.” With the discovery of the remains of the king, news sources have debated both sides of the argument using the skeletal evidence to support Shakespeare’s portrayal or to deny this long running misperception. In the middle is the evidence itself. With the publication of a journal article, we can assess it outside of the debate and make our own decisions regarding Richard III.
Historic and Project Background: Richard III was King of England from 1483 to 1485. He was killed during the Battle of Bosworth, part of the Wars of the Roses. The newly crowned Henry VII of the Tudors brought the remains backt o Leicester for a brief public display and burial at the Grey Friars Church. Ten years later an alabaster tomb was erected over it, and in 1538 the church was demolished. In 2012, a public archaeology project initiated by the Richard III Society excavated the Grey Friars site and recovered a set of human remains thought to be those of Richard III. Months of speculation and debate were waged both on and offline as to whether these remains could possibly be the lost monarch. In February 2013, the “king in the car park” was officially identified as Richard III. The archaeological report was recently published in Antiquity, and is currently open access: “The King in the Car Park” by Buckley et al. (2013).
Archaeological method: The site of Grey Friars had previously been identified, but the actual layout of the buildings and structures was not known. However, knowledge about use and reuse of medieval structures aided in discovery. They knew that it would have been located on a major road and likely portions of the building would be absent due to reuse of the building material. Assessment of maps from earlier periods aided in narrowing down location. GPR did not aid in determining location, but did identify modern utilities to be avoided. Trenches were opened up in a car park in order to assess the area.
Archaeological evidence: Trench 3 contained remains of a buttressed building, likely the church. Three graves were found here, one of which was in a stone coffin. All three of these burials were in well cut rectangular graves with vertical sides and careful laying out of the bodies within coffins. None of these were Richard III and complete excavation wasn’t possible due to time constraints. Artifacts found include highly decorated floor tiles, lead window came, copper alloy letters and fragments from a large perpendicular window of the 15th century, all of which suggests this was part of the church’s eastern end. Trench 1 and 3 were extended further to assess the extent of the church.
Within Trench 1 at what would have been the south-west corner of the church, located within it’s choir, was a single grave. The grave was lozenge shaped with a concave base and sloped sides. The body was not carefully laid out, evidenced by the torso being twisted to the north and head propped up against the corner of the grave. In comparison to the other burials, which are well made and careful, Buckley et al. (2013) suggest that this burial was either done in haste or with minimal reverence. Burial in the choir of the friary however does suggest higher status. There is no evidence of a shroud or coffin, though these would have been standard for medieval Christian burials. Lack of artifacts within the grave is not a sign of status, but was standard practice and therefore not anomalous.
Buckley et al. (2013) argue that the position of the body suggests that the deceased was lowered feet first into the grave, followed by torso and head, which accounts for the elongated lower body and twisted upper body. The head was propped up against the side because the body was too long for the grave. The lack of effort to rearrange the body suggests haste in burial, which could be explained by the poor condition of the body which had been on display in the summer sun for several days. Hands were crossed at the pelvis, an uncommon position for this area, and may potentially be due to the fact that the hands could have been bound. The alabaster tomb was not recovered, but evidence of destruction of the church floor and removal of other grave markers means that it was likely removed during demolition in the 16th century.
Skeletal Evidence: The remains were in good condition, thought the feet bones were missing due to post-burial disturbance. Stable isotope analysis revealed a high protein diet and significant amounts of seafood, suggestive of a high status individual. Dating placed the remains between 1456 and 1530 CE. The individual is male, about 5’8″ in height and died during his late 20’s to late 30’s. Pathology showed severe idiopathic adolescent-onset scoliosis. Trauma included 10 peri-mortem wounds: 8 on the skull consisting of sword and dagger blows that would have been fatal, and other superficial injuries, and 2 post-cranial sharp force trauma injuries to the ribs and pelvis (Further information on the trauma to be released in another journal article). Initial analysis of the mtDNA found a match between the skeleton and two direct descendants of Anne of York, Richard III’s sister.
Archaeology and Skeletal Analysis Compared to History: The location of the remains, the hastily dug grave and the time frame all fit the history of Richard III’s final burial. Richard III died at 32 years, was shorter with bad scoliosis, and died during a battle- the skeletal evidence fits the historical image of the king. Buckley et al. (2013) are confident in stating that this is the grave and skeleton of Richard III.
Despite the essential awesomeness of this find, what impressed me most was the author’s concluding discussion over what the burial means. They worked with city authorities and historical enthusiasts in order to complete this excavation that they knew had potentially sensationalist results. They acknowledge that the project goals were different for each stakeholder involved, but argue “that does not mean that we as archaeologists should dismiss the questions of wider audiences as not worth asking” (Buckley et al. 2013). We can work with the audience, local authorities, and community to do meaningful and also accurate archaeology.
Richard Buckley, Mathew Morris, Jo Appleby, Turi King, Deirdre O’Sullivan, & Lin Foxhall (2013). ‘The king in the car park’: new light on the death and burial of Richard III in the Grey Friars church, Leicester, in 1485 Antiquity, 87, 519-538