Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Discovery of Richard III: A Talk with Dr. Buckley

Portrait of King Richard III. From an artist from the British School. © The Royal Collection. Public domain.

Last night, I attended the Archaeological Institute of America's lecture series, featuring Dr. Richard Buckley. He presented "The King Under the Carpark: Greyfriars, Leicester and the Search for Richard III". It was a real privilege to listen to one of the people who had worked on the excavation that revealed Richard III's body in 2012. I'd like to share what I learned with you, my readers. After all, the demise of Richard III is intrinsically linked to the rise of the Tudor dynasty. Henry Tudor defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22nd, 1485, claiming the throne of England for himself and his descendants. The finding of Richard III's remains is certainly one of the most significant historical discoveries in recent memory.

Leicester's greatest son had long been the infamous Cardinal Wolsey, advisor to King Henry VIII. But now, Leicester is famous for a very different reason: Richard III, the last Plantagenet king. Dr. Richard Buckley was contacted by Philippa Langley, who not only had a hunch as to wear the long-lost Yorkist king was buried, but also had the support (and donations) of the Richard III Society and some members of the Leicester city council, to conduct a dig in the hopes of finding Richard. It was known that Richard III had been buried at Greyfriars in Leicester following his defeat on the battlefield. Greyfriars would later become one of the religious houses dissolved by Henry VIII. It was rumored in town by the locals that Richard III's body had been removed by an angry mob and thrown over Bow Bridge. This was such a strong belief in the area that the Victorians erected a plaque near the bridge saying that it had indeed happened. 

The Greyfriars area in Leicester was largely unexplored. Most of Greyfriars is now covered by 18th and 19th century buildings. Only a small portion would be accessible to archaeologists. This meant that finding Richard III would be a long-shot. But Langley's enthusiasm made up for the skepticism of others on the team. In order to find Richard, the archaeologists would have to first find the Franciscan friary building, then identify specific buildings, locate the friary church, locate the east end of the church, specifically the choir, and then, if possible, locate the remains of Richard III.

On the 19th-20th of August, 1485 Richard III had entered Leicester, in preparation for his showdown with Henry Tudor. Richard and his men traveled from Leicester to Bosworth, where Richard allegedly saw an opening in the field where Henry was, and he rode out to fight him. Richard III was allegedly killed by the Welshman Rhys ap Thomas, and then his body was strapped to a horse and brought back to the Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Leicester. The reason Henry Tudor did this is because he needed people to really see and believe that Richard III was dead. Since Richard had been staying in town before the battle, people there would have known what he looked like and could confirm that he was dead. Declaring a claimant to the throne dead was especially important, if you consider how Henry VII was plagued by pretenders to the throne for the entirety of his reign.

A stained glass of Richard III and Henry Tudor (Henry VII) at the Battle of Bosworth Field. St. James Church, Sutton Cheney. Photo shared for public use by John Taylor.

From the 23rd-24th, Richard III's body was put on display at the Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This was especially insulting, considering that Richard III was a Yorkist king, but his body was lying in a Lancastrian church. On the 25th, the defeated king was buried without pomp at Greyfriars. The Franciscans had a history of taking in the remains of disgraced or executed noblemen, so burying the body of the fallen king was in their wheelhouse. Ten years later, Henry Tudor, now Henry VII, would pay for a tomb for Richard III.

In modern day, most of the Greyfriars site was covered by a social services carpark and modern buildings. The available area for excavation was only between 10-17%. Quite a bit of luck had to be factored in if the archaeological team was going to find Richard III. First, ground penetrating radar was used, which revealed underground cables and pipes, which would be useful to know about for when the team was digging. Three trenches were dug, and various artifacts were found. But at first, no king. 

The team, slightly discouraged, was meeting one particular day when Dr. Buckley was informed that the archaeologists were digging up a body with a curvature of the spine and head trauma. Could this be Richard? Richard was said to have uneven shoulders in many contemporary sources, and was later portrayed as a hunchback by Shakespeare. The discovery sounded promising. 

The body, tentatively thought of as Richard III before it could be officially confirmed, was buried in the choir, not the high altar, as would be expected for a King of England. The grave was roughly dug, with irregular sides. The burial was clearly a hurried job, as the grave was not big enough to fit a coffin, and was too short for the body inside it; the upper half of what was thought to be Richard III was propped up in the grave. The curvature of the spine was very prominent. Based on the placement of his hands, it was surmised that they may have been tied together at the time of his burial, but there was no way of proving that. The feet were missing, not from any sinister activity, but because they had probably been dug up and destroyed during later horticultural activity that happened in the area. The body had been laid to rest with no coffin and no shroud, quite undignified for a monarch.

There was nothing in the grave that would help to date the body, so radiocarbon dating was used. It was determined that there was a 95.4% probability that the body was from between 1450-1540 AD, allowing for it to be Richard III. The bones were brought to a local hospital, where a digital record of them was created, and then they were brought to the University of Leicester for further study. The remains were found to be of a male, between 30-34 years of age. His height was 5ft 8in. He was of a slight build, matching contemporary accounts of Richard III. The body had idiopathic adolescent-onset scoliosis, but there was no evidence of a withered arm or leg.

The skull of the body had endured extensive trauma, both before and after death. There were wounds from a staff weapon, probably a halberd, and there was a penetrating wound, probably from a roundel dagger, that has caused flaps of bone to collapse inside the skull. There were more wounds at the right base of the skull, and one of the wounds had left marks inside the skull. There was also a small penetrating wound on the right cheek, and a slash on the chin bone. All this trauma suggests that Richard III was without his helmet at the time of these injuries. 

In addition to the head injuries, there was a nick on the 10th rib. It was suggested that this was possibly an insult injury, inflicted after Richard's death, perhaps when his body was strapped the horse to be brought back to Leicester. There was also a nick on the pelvis, which could have been caused in battle (as only maille covered that area in a suit of armor), but was most likely another insult injury.

Because Richard III left no direct living descendants, Mitochondrial DNA from the descendants of Richard's sisters was used to confirm the body's identity once and for all. Mitochondrial DNA is from the female line, and can only be passed on by daughters. The genealogy of Richard's sister Anne of York was well mapped, having been traced in 2005 by John Ashdown-Hill, and was later verified in 2013 by Kevin Schurer. Two living descendants of Anne of York, and thus relations of Richard, were found and contacted. The first was Michael Ibsen, a Canadian cabinet maker living in London. The second was Wendy Duldig, a New Zealander. Neither Michael or Wendy had any idea that they were related to royalty! Also, neither have children, so they are the last of their line. 

There was an attempt to map the male line of the Somerset family, who willingly cooperated with tests. However, things got uncomfortable when the DNA revealed several instances of false paternity in the family tree, one historical, and one more recent.

The reconstruction done of Richard III's face was almost identical to his portraits. However, later research has shown that he was blue-eyed, and probably had blonde hair as a child, darkening to russet brown as an adult.

The Archbishop of Canterbury presided over the reburial of Richard III at Leicester Cathedral. Several members of the British royal family were present, and Michael Ibsen and Wendy Duldig were involved in the ceremony*.

*If I remember correctly from watching the funeral coverage, Ibsen made the coffin the king was reburied in, and Duldig made his shroud, touching tributes from Richard III's relatives.

To learn more about Richard III, you can visit: