This article was originally published in Current Archaeology issue 272.
He has become one of our most celebrated literary villains: a power-crazed child-killer, struck down by bloody nemesis at Bosworth. Shakespeare’s Richard III is a murderous hunchback, twisted both inside and out by the deformity that repels his peers. But while this spectacular character assassination plays fast and loose with historical events, Shakespeare’s monster is merely the fullest flowering of a Tudor drive to discredit the last Plantagenet king. This victor’s history has proven so effective that controversy rages to this day about almost every aspect of the man behind the myth, right down to the true nature – if any – of his famous disability.
Richard III’s short reign ran from 1483 to 1485. Appointed Lord Protector of the 12-year-old son of Edward IV following the king’s death, Richard was soon on the throne himself. After Edward IV’s marriage was declared invalid, Richard’s coronation followed on 6 July 1483. It proved a controversial start to a controversial reign. Dogged by accusations that he had murdered the princes – Edward IV’s sons – in the Tower of London, and facing political unrest, Richard proved unable to consolidate his grip on power. Instead, on 22 August 1485 his army was defeated by Henry Tudor’s at Bosworth Field, west of Leicester. Killed during the battle, Richard III became the last English king to fall in combat.
It is recorded that after the battle Richard was ‘brought dead off the field unto the town of Leicester, and there was laid openly, that every man might see and look upon him’. What happened next is less clear. Many myths have grown up about the fate of Richard’s body, including a tradition that it was hurled off Bow Bridge into the River Soar. In around 1490, however, John Rous noted that Richard ‘finally was buried in the choir of the Friars Minor [Greyfriars] at Leicester’. Further Tudor sources also name Greyfriars, while a sum of £10 1s drawn from Henry VII’s household accounts in September 1495 seemingly paid for Richard’s tomb there. Locating the friary – and in particular its church choir – seemed a promising start for any attempt to find his body.
Finding the friary
Founded by the Franciscans in 1230, Leicester Greyfriars was one of the first friaries built in England, but it suffered the same fate as many other religious buildings during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. In the years following its suppression in 1538, the friary was plundered for building materials – recycled in numerous local construction projects and repairs to nearby St Martin’s church. Over time its precise location was lost. When the Richard III Society approached Richard Buckley of the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) about the possibility of an excavation to find the friary’s church – and Richard III’s grave site – it seemed a long shot. Historic mapping suggested that the most likely location for the religious complex was now covered by modern redevelopment, with just one accessible area: a small car park behind the buildings of Leicester City Council. With no guarantee the body had survived the Dissolution – if it had ever been there – Richard Buckley summed up the odds by offering to eat his hat if they found the missing monarch. But as there had never been an archaeological investigation of the site, the project seemed like an opportunity to examine the friary itself.
Preliminary work in the car park using Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) was not promising, revealing modern service pipes but nothing to suggest the presence of a Medieval religious complex immured beneath the tarmac. This is not an uncommon issue for archaeologists in Leicester, where the deep and complex urban stratigraphy often defies GPR survey. Undeterred, the team decided to excavate two long, narrow trial trenches running 30m north–south. They reasoned that as a religious site is likely to be oriented east–west, cutting trenches across this axis should pick up at least some of its walls. It proved an inspired tactic.
O’erlook the walls
In the second of the two exploratory trenches, the ULAS team found the remains of two parallel walls about 2m apart. Running between these was a mortar floor that clearly preserved the impressions of diagonally laid square tiles. While these had been removed during the friary’s demolition for reuse elsewhere, many broken tiles were dumped as rubble. Some were locally made and feature colourful decorative motifs familiar from ULAS investigations at nearby Medieval sites such as Leicester Abbey. Others came from further afield, with a fine example from the Wessex group of tiles displaying an eagle design.
The narrow walkway was clearly a passage of some kind, and given the religious nature of the site, the team wondered whether they had found part of Greyfriars’ cloisters. If confirmed, the friary church was likely to be nearby – and if they could only establish which side of the cloister range they had unearthed, they would be able to extrapolate the best place to look.
Another key piece of the jigsaw emerged in trench 1: two robbed-out walls from a 5m-wide building that joined the cloister walk at a right angle, and which also had a mortar floor marked with tile imprints. Against each of the wall lines was a large block of stone: the remains of benches where monks sat during meetings about the daily running of the friary. The team had found Greyfriars’ chapter house. By comparing the site’s layout to plans of other friaries, this suggested that they had located the eastern side of the cloister range. The church was likely to be close.
Discarded blocks of masonry pointed to the same conclusion. These included large chunks of window tracery, and a decorated block of stone that may have been part of a frieze – perhaps decorating the screen separating the choir from the rest of the church. A scatter of inlaid floor tiles and distinctive glazed ridge tiles – used to roof high-status Medieval buildings – also suggested that the team were nearing their goal.
Further north in trench 1 were the robbed-out remains of a substantial building with 1.5m- thick walls. Oriented east–west, it was a good candidate for the friary church. To test this, a third trench was cut to the east, and the discovery of another wall 7.5m to the north, together with a mortar floor marked with tile prints, suggested that the team’s suspicions had been correct. When further investigation yielded fragments of a monumental arched window, everything pointed to this being the lost church. But where was the choir?
Once again, floor tiles provided the key. A sudden change from longitudinal to diagonally arranged tiles hinted that the team were looking at two different parts of the church building. Given the large fragments of window found nearby, this was likely to be where the eastern end of the choir met the presbytery – the area reserved for the officiating clergy and the setting for the church’s high altar. Behind it would have stood the church’s great east window.
All signs pointed to the strip of church exposed in trench 1 being part of the choir. Preservation here was not good: all of the floor levels had been destroyed, while the construction of a Victorian outhouse had caused further damage. Directly north of this, the excavators discovered a feature that had narrowly escaped destruction when the 19th-century structure was built: it was a grave cut.
Despite occupying a prestigious position within the church, the burial was a simple one. There was no sign of a coffin, and the grave shaft itself was a tight fit for the body laid to rest within it. On 4 September, following receipt of a Ministry of Justice licence, work began on exhuming the body. At about the same time that Richard Buckley confirmed the team had located the church choir, Jo Appleby noticed the skeleton had some very distinctive physical characteristics. Suddenly, almost impossibly, Richard Buckley’s hat looked to be in jeopardy.
Bloody will be thy end
Analysis of the human remains found within the Greyfriars choir is far from complete. Yet it quickly became apparent that, as well as lying in the general area where John Rous placed the burial, the skeleton bears some striking similarities to accounts of Richard III’s life and death. They provoked considerable media interest.
Dominating the headlines was the discovery that this adult male suffered from severe scoliosis, a condition that features an abnormal sideways curve to the spine (see end of article). Although the angle of curve in the Greyfriars body is yet to be measured, the general character of the scoliosis has been established. Obvious curvature was restricted to the upper (or thoracic) region of the back, with some abnormalities in the lower back. The neck vertebrae appear unaffected, leaving the angle of the individual’s head normal. His right shoulder blade, however, was forced higher than the left. Following examination, Jo Appleby observed that ‘this disability is so marked it is likely to have been a prominent physical characteristic’.
The Greyfriars’ body also displays signs of a battlefield death. A corroded lump of iron was found lodged high in the man’s back, between his 2nd and 3rd thoracic vertebrae. X-rays revealed the telltale silhouette of a barbed arrowhead buried within the concretion. Brutal trauma inflicted on the man’s skull was even more graphic. A bladed weapon appears to have cleaved away a sizable chunk of its base, while a smaller puncture wound was visible on top of the skull. This second injury appears comparatively insignificant from the outside, but internally the force of the blow pushed in two flaps of bone, leaving them dangling. Yet to be fully cleaned, this wound does not appear to have been caused by a blade. Instead something had punched a small squared or round hole in the skull. While the weapon that caused this is still uncertain, a Welsh tradition has it that Richard was felled by a poleaxe blow from the mercenary Wyllyam Gardynyr. Both head wounds would have been fatal.
Indications of the individual’s age are less dramatic. Clearly adult, his bones were fully fused. One of the last bones this happens to is the clavicle, normally between the ages of 22 and 30. His wisdom teeth had also erupted, a development usually occurring between 17 and 25, and had been chewing food long enough to show signs of wear. At the other end of the age range, the skeleton was not of someone elderly and did not display any trace of degenerative disease. Although such remains would fit a wide spectrum, there is nothing that flatly contradicts a man of 32, Richard’s age when he was slain at Bosworth.
Shaped for sportive tricks
So is it him? Given this is an individual interred in the general location where a contemporary source places Richard III’s burial, with a condition that closely matches accounts of his physique, and showing signs of a brutal battlefield death, it is easy to see why people are excited. But archaeologists have learnt to be cautious. The identification of 55-year-old Michael Ibsen as a direct female-line descendent of Richard III’s eldest sister raises the tantalising prospect of a conclusive Plantagenet DNA match. With results due in mid-December, and plans for tooth isotope analysis to investigate where this individual grew up, there is still plenty to learn.
If the tests do come back positive and Richard III’s body has been found, something that seemed impossible only weeks ago, it would be an astonishing coup for the ULAS team. It would also be a discovery of major historic value. For the first time it would be possible to assess independently the lurid claims made by Tudor propagandists. In this context, what the skeleton does not display is just as important as what it does. There is no sign of the kyphosis that would cause a hunchback, or the bone-wasting that would accompany a withered arm. This is the body of a man who did not let his condition prevent him from leading an active life or, seemingly, settling his fate in combat. It has unique potential to expose how the Tudor victors ruthlessly exploited a kernel of truth to brand Richard deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before his time.
Scoliosis is an abnormal sideways curve of the spine, either to the left or right of the body. The spine usually forms either an S- or C-shape, with the neck region and head remaining in their usual central position (a modern example is shown below). As the condition progresses, the vertebrae turn towards the inside of the curve. The most common areas to be affected by scoliosis are the chest area (thoracic scoliosis), and the lower part of the back (lumbar scoliosis).
Within the archaeological record, scoliosis is easily detected if the spine is complete and well preserved. Signs include vertebrae that become wedge-shaped at the apex of the curve, the arch through which the spinal cord runs appearing tilted, and the thin ridge of bone projecting from the back of the spine twisting towards the centre of the body. As the ribs are attached to the spine, changes in their shape are also common.
In a living person, the signs of scoliosis vary depending on its severity. These may include having one shoulder blade higher and more prominent than the other, one hip more prominent than the other, or a slight lean to one side. In the UK today, scoliosis affects around 3-4 children in every 1,000, but in 90% of cases no treatment is ever needed. In severe cases, shortness of breath and heart strain can arise in later life, but usually the only sign is back pain, so most people function well with little impact on their life. Famous people with scoliosis include Usain Bolt, Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Kurt Cobain.
With thanks to Richard Buckley, Jo Appleby, Helen Foxhall Forbes, Colin Brooks, Malin Holst, and Tim Sutherland.
All photos: University of Leicester, unless otherwise stated.