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The Luckiest Dig in Archaeological History

Written by Chris Lake


Archaeology, despite what you might have seen on television, is really difficult. Tonnes of dirt can be moved, multiple square meters of concrete broken, and dozens of diggers and volunteers scorched, soaked, or frozen for weeks on end, all to uncover three stones in a row or some dark patches in the soil. So, when Phillipa Langley of the Richard III Society lobbied Leicester [LES-ter][1] City Council and the university to look for King Richard’s burial site, everyone concerned was justly pessimistic about the prospects for success. But the dig for Richard was attended from start to finish with the kind of freakish good luck not really seen since the city of Troy, where Heinrich Schliemann was pointed to the exact site by a mysterious American. Or perhaps it was more like Sutton Hoo, where a lady called Edith Pretty became convinced she was having prophetic dreams about a Saxon king being buried under one of the mounds on her property. There was. As chief archaeologist Richard Buckley said, “People have these great dreams of finding things, because it’s archaeology, but the chance of finding Richard was a million to one.”


Richard III was unique in the annals of English royalty for a number of reasons. He’s often called the last mediaeval king, his death being the rather arbitrary marking point for the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Tudor period. He’s the last English king to die on the battlefield, and he was also, until recently, the only English king not to be buried in a royal tomb. As well as these distinctions, he’s also one of the most well-known kings of the mediaeval years. Almost everybody knows a couple of his lines from Shakespeare’s play Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent” and “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”. He’s popularly imagined as a hunchbacked, twisted figure of evil, and the murder of his young nephews in the Tower of London has dogged his reputation for half a millennium. Given the popular tendency towards historical amnesia, it’s worth asking why Richard III is so well remembered. Objectively, he should really be as obscure as Henry VII or The Empress Matilda – historically noteworthy, but otherwise largely forgotten. He only ruled for two years, and the skulduggery he’s accused of is quite minor compared to his forebears, or even some of the monarchs who came after him. Matilda and her rival Stephen, for example, were responsible for literal anarchy for eighteen whole years, but are less well known than Richard. The answer is complex, but one of the main reasons is deliberate psychological warfare.

The Wars of the Roses is a blanket term used to describe a battle for succession which raged across a couple of generations in the fifteenth century. The Hundred Years’ War, dysfunctionally strong feudalism, and the astonishingly weak kingship of Henry VI meant that Richard Duke of York, Richard III’s father, felt empowered to renew his claim to the throne. This brought about the famous series of battles between the House of Lancaster – Henry’s side – and the House of York. After a series of battles and reverses, Henry VI and his heirs were killed or exiled, Richard’s older brother Edward was installed as King Edward IV, and Richard himself became Duke of Gloucester. Edward eventually died while his two sons were only nine and twelve respectively. Richard had his elder brother George executed and then declared himself Lord Protector, which basically amounted to being the adult supervision for the young Edward V, who was housed in the Tower of London with his younger brother. Very shortly after this, however, Richard succeeded in murdering his way through the young king’s supporters before claiming his older brother Edward IV had been illegitimate and taking the crown for himself. The two boys stopped being seen in and around The Tower, and the vast majority of historians both then and now believe that Richard had them murdered.


Despite all this, it seems Richard wasn’t that bad a king, but like all new kings he was somewhat insecure. This presented a chance for one Henry Tudor, a man with an extremely tenuous claim to the throne who was in exile in France at the time. Henry gathered up a little army of mercenaries and supporters, crossed into his home territory of Wales and then headed for London. Richard assembled his own army and they famously clashed at Bosworth Field in a complex and interesting battle worthy of a post on its own. Somewhat unexpectedly, Henry won, and Richard was killed while charging directly for Henry Tudor himself. His body was stripped, mutilated, and paraded naked on the back of a horse or mule. According to local legend, it was then tossed in the river, though some accounts said it had been buried in Greyfriars Monastery for a period before being dumped. Henry Tudor became King Henry VII, but he was keenly aware of both his status as a usurper and his very poor claim to the throne. The only royal blood in his veins came from a matrilineal line of descent which had actually been banned from the English succession, and his father had been a manservant. After the battle he quickly married Richard’s niece, Elizabeth, for a rapid injection of royal blood and then hired a set of respected chroniclers to blacken Richard’s name, as well as artists to alter Richard’s portraits to make him look hunchbacked and mean. The histories written during this period became the authoritative texts for four hundred years, and when Shakespeare wrote his play, Richard III, he was living under the reign of Henry VII’s granddaughter. Shakespeare’s villainous portrayal of Richard was to sit in the popular consciousness from then onwards. And so it is that to this day, because of Henry’s careful spin, 1485 is the year the mediaeval period ended in England. And Richard III went down in history as the cartoon villain Henry had saved England from. These are the two major components of what was later called “The Tudor Myth”.


Now, all this talk about luck really shouldn’t take away from the immense amount of work done by the archaeologists and associated experts, and especially by one Phillipa Langley. Phillipa was a member of the Richard III Society, a dedicated group of individuals whose mission in life is to prove that Richard’s disastrous reputation is nothing more than politically motivated slander solidified into history. Like many of these sorts of groups, they’re an eclectic, charmingly eccentric bunch who nevertheless pursue their goals with a steely-eyed determination and fervour. Phillipa was a founding member of the Scottish branch of the society, and more than anyone else, acted as lightning rod and central command for the effort to find Richard’s body. In 2005, Phillipa had come across the work of a historian named Dr John Ashdowne-Hill, who had managed to trace the line of the King’s mitochondrial DNA – the matrimonial or female line of descent. This made her realise that if a body were found, it would now be possible to identify it. Excited by this, she began combing through the archives of the Richard III Society and found papers speculating that the choir of the Greyfriars Monastery might be under the carpark of the Leicester Social Services building. This was broadly consistent with academic consensus on the approximate location of Greyfriars, so Phillipa and her team got to work.


First up, she got Dr John Ashdowne-Hill to begin looking into the story of Richard’s remains being chucked in the Soar River. In particular, she was interested in the analysis of a lady named Audrey Strange, who pointed out more than coincidental similarities between this story and an earlier one about famous Protestant John Wycliffe, whose bones were burnt and thrown into a different, nearby river. Audrey believed that Wycliffe’s story had been transposed onto Richard, and Dr Ashdowne-Hill’s research made it clear that, in Richard’s case, there was no factual basis to the story. Which meant that he was almost certainly buried in the monastery grounds and, since he was a high-status individual, he would have been buried in the part of the monastery known as the choir. The choir is that part of the building where the altar and choir stalls are located. When Phillipa went to Leicester Social Services carpark to contemplate her next moves, she noticed that one particular parking spot had been marked with an “R”. In her mind, this was a sign. R for “Rex” (King) or even for “Richard”. It was, in fact, R for “Reserved”, but it’s important to remember this little detail for later.

In 2007, the first of the project’s lucky breaks occurred. A fifties era block of flats was being demolished, which meant that under UK law an archaeological dig had to take place. The location was Greyfriars Street, which a couple of local researchers had concluded was a prime contender for the site of the Greyfriars church. The dig came up empty, which meant that there was really only one other potential site left – the Leicester Social Services building. Over the next couple of years, Phillipa went into overdrive, and it was in 2009 that she decided to form a project and embark on a serious attempt to find Richard’s body. She was up against a lot of obstacles. First, there was the still widely popular belief that the King’s body had been dumped, which made many dismiss the search as pointless. Then there was the fact that the whole idea sounded, to most archaeologists, like lunacy. As dig supervisor Dr Leon Huntley said, “It seemed utterly bonkers. One of the things you don’t do in archaeology is you don’t go looking for a specific thing, because chances are you’ll never find it. And you don’t go looking for famous people.” On top of all this, there’s the densely packed nature of these kinds of urban spaces in modern day England. Phillipa had to spend months doorknocking and cold calling to get permission for surveys and investigation pits, as well as for the dig. And of course, there was the money – archaeology is expensive, and Phillipa had to put together a fully researched plan, organise costly ground penetrating radar surveys, and raise £10000 to contract ULAS, the University of Leicester Archaeological Services. And of course, she had to do all the paperwork required to get permission from Leicester City Council, who were the landowners. Anybody who’s ever tried to get anything through any layer of government will know what a formidable achievement it must have been to get a busy Social Services carpark shut down for three weeks so some folks could dig it up to look for the body of a five-hundred-year-old king.


So far this has been much more a story of passionate dedication, hard graft, and possibly some harmless eccentricity, rather than one of amazing luck. Phillipa and her dedicated team, as well as the “Ricardians” of the Richard III Society, had spent literally years jumping through hoops and over hurdles, conducting painstaking research, and feverishly fundraising in order to get to the point where they could break ground on the dig. Thanks to the support of the Ricardians, as well as Dr Ashdowne-Hill and author Annette Carson, the day finally came on the 24th of August 2012. The very first trench was cut through that same parking space marked with an “R” that had spurred Phillipa on years earlier. Dr Ashdowne-Hill recalls that they were “very much on tenterhooks”, hoping that once the surface layers were off, they’d see some floor tiles or wall foundations which would indicate they were somewhere in the church – hopefully even the choir. This was not to be. As Dr Ashdowne-Hill said, “No, we didn’t see walls, and no, we didn’t see church floor tiles. We found leg bones.” Astoundingly, the very first cut of the dig, on the very first day, had uncovered a body buried under the parking spot right next to the one marked with an “R”. The archaeologists themselves, who were still mainly looking for the Greyfriars choir, covered the body back up and got on with the rest of their dig plan. Within minutes of the discovery of the body, a massive tempest blasted the dig site, which Phillipa herself took as another sign.

Ten days later, and the dig was proving astonishingly successful. Dr Ashdowne-Hill’s floor tiles did get found, as did the walls they were all hoping for, and by this time they’d determined that they’d found not only the friary, but the church and choir, and the body they’d found on the first day was inside it. This led them to begin intensive investigation of the body, undertaken by osteologist Dr Jo Appleby. At first, it seemed that the levels were all wrong – the head was much higher than the rest of the body, which indicated that this might not be an articulated body, but rather a random collection of bones. Further excavation uncovered, however, that the head’s position was owing to the grave having been hastily dug. Furthermore, there were serious wounds on the skull and elsewhere, major battlefield traumas which even the unluckiest fifteenth century monk would have been unlikely to sustain. And then the spine was uncovered and shown to have a significant, almost eighty-degree scoliosis. Scoliosis is a curvature of the spine which, in some rare cases, can cause a hunchback. In most cases, however, it causes asymmetry in the torso, usually with one shoulder being slightly higher than the other. This was actually a bit of a blow for Phillipa and the Ricardians, many of whom had argued passionately that Richard’s supposed spinal defects were all Tudor lies. For the archaeologists, however, this was all compelling evidence that the body they had might, incredibly, be that of Richard III. The bones were carefully lifted by Dr Appleby and placed in a cardboard box. Phillipa Langley insisted the box be draped with the royal standard, just in case it was Richard’s body, and Dr John Ashdowne-Hill agreed to carry the box in state into the white van which would take it to the lab.

The analysis of the bones showed that the individual in question had eaten a high protein diet. The chemical analysis showed that he came from the right areas, and that later in his life had possibly drunk a great deal of French and Spanish wine. All of this was exactly consistent with the upbringing and lifestyle of a high-status individual. Even the initial doubts as to the body’s gender, the forearm bones being quite slender, matched contemporary physical descriptions of Richard at the time. And then the carbon dating put the bones smack bang in the middle of exactly the right date range for a death and burial in 1485, the year of the Battle of Bosworth Field. Even so, nobody but Phillipa seemed quite ready to believe they’d had such astounding luck, and a years’ long DNA investigation was kicked off by Professor Turi King of the University of Leicester.


Apart from the amazing good fortune of finding a solid contender for the body of Richard III in the very first hole they dug, the coincidences kept piling up. Professor Turi King, the geneticist for the project, painstakingly worked on piecing together both matrilineal and patrilineal genetic lines in order to come up with candidates for the DNA matching. Professor King, a Canadian herself, found that one of the most direct descendants was another Canadian, Michael Ibsen, who was working as a cabinet maker. As well as this, both test subjects were the last of their line – if the body had been found just a generation later, identification would have been impossible. When the DNA results came through and it was found that the body was indeed a match for all the living descendants, Michael Ibsen was the natural choice to make the last Plantagenet king’s coffin.


Once the announcement had been made that the overwhelming weight of evidence pointed to the body being that of Richard III, ULAS, Phillipa, and the UK in general were then confronted with the problem of what to do with it. The university was keen on keeping the remains on public display, but strong arguments were made against this. Phillipa, of course, had been dead set from the very start on restoring human dignity to the King, even exhuming him under the royal standard when they’d first found him. And then there was the fact that, whatever anyone might have thought of him, this was an anointed king of England. There was an obligation to bury him in state, and the people of Leicester, and of England in general, had followed the story with immense interest and were vocal in their demands for a proper burial. Which presented another problem. Not only had there been no Catholic royal burial for over five hundred years, there also hadn’t been a royal re-burial for almost as long, and nobody had the first clue as to how this should be done. By an incredible coincidence, just two months before the carpark dig, Oxford University academic Dr Alexandra Buckle had been searching for documentation of re-internment ceremonies. She found one, and not only was it exactly the document needed for the case at hand, the document itself was a description of the re-burial of Richard III’s grandfather in law.

Once the body had been confirmed as Richard, other researchers began trying to piece together elements of Richard’s life. One team in particular was very curious as to how he would have performed in battle, given his severe scoliosis. One thing even Richard’s enemies agreed on was that he was brave and highly effective in battle, and a team led by Dr Tobias Capwell decided to attempt a bit of experimental archaeology. First, however, they’d need to find a body double – a living person between twenty and thirty with a similar scoliosis. The chances of this were miniscule, as the majority of people with any scoliosis over fifty degrees routinely have their spines surgically corrected. Unbelievably, almost immediately after the team announced their intentions, a volunteer came forward. The young man was named Dominic Smee, an unemployed IT teacher, who spent most of his free time participating in historical re-enactments of the Battle of Bosworth Field – the very battle in which Richard was killed. Dominic had a near identical scoliosis, and a near identical physical build. The Channel 4 documentary Richard III, The New Evidence, documents the time Dominic spent participating in the reconstruction of Richard’s armour, and re-enactments of his actions on Bosworth field.


Phillipa Langley was awarded an MBE for her efforts in the discovery and reburial of Richard III. As a screenwriter and author, she’s co-authored multiple books, as well as writing a screenplay for Richard’s biography. Her documentary, The King in the Carpark, was also immensely successful and an excellent piece of documentary filmmaking. Phillipa was also made president of the Richard III Society in honour of her achievements. By her own account, though, she felt the greatest honour to be her part in the reburial of Richard III, where she played a leading role in both the public ceremonial and the mass in Leicester Cathedral.

Channel 4 broadcasted the ceremony live, and it was by all measures a funeral fit for a king, with 21-gun salute, a tombstone made of Swaledale Fossil Stone, and a congregation full of dignitaries, celebrities, and of course, the relatives. The Poet Laureate at the time, Carol Ann-Duffy, wrote the poem Richard to mark the occasion, and it was read at the service by Benedict Cumberbatch, who turns out to have been a distant relative of the last Plantagenet King. Perhaps not the most incredible of the coincidences associated with Richard’s discovery, but certainly a pleasing one to end on.

[1] I know you’re English, but I include this just in case.

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