The story of The Greyfriars search starts with Philippa Langley. A screenwriter and member of the Richard III Society, she is a Ricardian with a strong sense of the injustice done to Richard III.
In later years disparaging stories were spread that Richard's bones had been thrown into the River Soar. Read the historical story of Richard's death and burial site.
As long as people continued believing that Richard III was a wicked tyrant, there was little hope of disproving such myths. Maybe that is why it was thought Richard's body would never be found.
People who have an active interest in Richard III call themselves Ricardians, and Philippa Langley is proud to be one. Ricardians read, research, question old ideas, develop theories, and aren't afraid to challenge traditional ways of thinking. It's a tough mountain to climb, and you get used to people suggesting you might be a little odd.
Philippa was convinced that Richard's grave had not been desecrated during the dissolution of the monastery. Richard had made good laws and earned respect as a ruler. His death had been lamented. There was no reason why he should not have been left to rest in peace at the site of the old friary known as The Greyfriars.
It was this belief that underpinned her determination to fly in the face of accepted opinion. King Richard was waiting to be found, and in 2009 Philippa decided to find him.
How do you go about searching for a king's lost grave?
Philippa's first task was to generate interest from the people in Leicester who could say yea or nay. She had to convince them that Richard III could still be found, that this was an historic quest for an anointed king, and that it was worth disrupting city life to search for him.
You need people with vision to embrace a scheme like that, and Philippa found them in the city council. Yes, they understood it was a gamble and a potential headache … but in Leicester they already commemorated Richard III with plaques and place-names in his honour. They were willing to give the go-ahead, but couldn't underwrite the cost. How to proceed now?
So began Philippa's long road which lasted three years. Selling the concept, raising the funds, planning the logistics, recruiting the participants, commissioning the archaeological work and overseeing the whole process – in person – in Leicester – hundreds of miles from her home in Edinburgh.
Not every archaeologist jumps at every suggestion for a dig.
The good news was that one of the UK's leading archaeological teams, University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS), operated locally. Not such good news was that from start to finish, they categorised the idea of finding King Richard as 'a long shot'. What tipped the balance, fortunately, was that they considered it valuable to go in search of the lost mediaeval site of The Greyfriars.
Philippa got busy finding the money to pay for desk-based research by ULAS. The Richard III Society, under the leadership of chairman Phil Stone, stepped up to fund it … and the results, which included consulting a 1741 map of Leicester, confirmed that the history of The Greyfriars site, as discovered by Ricardian researchers over the years, was 100 per cent accurate. The next step was a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) survey, and Phil made sure this also reached its funding target.
The years ticked by, and the project moved forward – 2011 for the GPR – would it be 2012 for the dig? This was the big one, and serious funding was needed to commission ULAS to do a full archaeological excavation. Equipment had to be paid for, disruption of services had to be paid for, restitution of the ground afterwards had to be paid for … and Philippa found a sponsor. The dig was on for April 2012 – but then the sponsorship fell through!
It was back to the drawing board, and with the city council's help a new date was set for August 2012. Phil Stone and the Richard III Society stepped up again with a financial contribution, as did the original sponsor, and the University of Leicester also came in with some funding. Furthermore, should DNA testing be required to identify any remains found, this would be undertaken by Dr Turi King and her team at the University, who are renowned pioneers in this area.
By this time Philippa had acquired two supporters whose recent books had helped inspire her quest. There was John Ashdown-Hill (find out about his input under Greyfriars and DNA), and Annette Carson, who happened to be a communications professional as well as an author. These skills were suddenly desperately needed as the search hit a last-minute funding disaster – the original sponsor had once again hit difficulties, £10,000 had to be found within 3 weeks or the dig was off!
Within 2 days Annette had orchestrated an appeal campaign and leaflet. In one day Philippa had emailed Ricardians all over the world. Within 2 weeks Richard's army of Ricardian donors had more than made good the shortfall. Who'd have believed it possible? Ricardians and the Richard III Society now constituted the main sponsors of the Looking For Richard project.
The dig was saved, but there was no time to rest on laurels. A new campaign was now needed to alert media interest while keeping the focus firmly on Richard III – not the oh-so-familiar caricature, but the real historical Richard III whose body had remained in obscurity for too long.
The launch was on 24th August and the media came in droves. They loved the idea of the impossible quest. They interviewed everyone and photographed everything.
Greatly in demand was the authentically garbed knight in shining armour Dominic Sewell, a leading exponent of living history who travelled to Leicester with his comrade-in-arms, Henry Sherrey, to explain and demonstrate the absurdity of that infamous hunched back and withered arm. Toby Capwell was there, too from the Wallace Collection. An expert on arms and armour and of Metalworks TV fame, he made time in his busy schedule to come and talk about Richard's last battle.
Support poured in from so many Ricardians that sadly it's impossible to name them all. A significant contribution was made by Karen Ladniuk who travelled all the way from Brazil to assist the archaeological team as a volunteer. Several media photographers depicted Karen at the dig.
The news quickly circled the world and went viral on Twitter. Channel 4 had been considering commissioning a TV documentary, and they hesitated no longer!
"By the time you read this, you will know that our search was successful. It's amazing to look back on the events as they unfolded, because of course very few of us thought it was more than an impossible, crazy dream.
"I never saw it like that. My passion for the search was based on personal intuition, which only became stronger and stronger. The moment I walked into that car park in Leicester the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and something told me this was where we must look. A year later I revisited the same place, not believing what I had first felt. And this time I saw a roughly painted letter 'R' on the ground (for 'reserved parking space', obviously!). Believe it or not, it was almost directly under that 'R' that King Richard was found.
"This was the first area we excavated in fact, and it proved to be the choir of the church, the very place where we knew he was buried. And it was on the very first day, the anniversary of Richard's burial, that we came across his remains. We couldn't know it then, of course. We simply stared in disbelief and wondered just how lucky you could get on the first day of a dig! By the time he had been freed from his surroundings, and we saw his curved spine and battle wounds, I needed no further proof. We had to wait for the scientific tests, of course … but for me, my quest was over."
In 1485 King Richard III, fighting courageously to defend his crown, was defeated and killed by Henry Tudor's invading forces at the battle of Bosworth. Following his death Richard's body was stripped, despoiled, and brought to nearby Leicester to be put on display to show that he was dead.
At this point the intrigue begins. There is some evidence that his body was placed in the Newarke at Leicester, i.e. the Church of the Annunciation of Mary the Virgin. There is an eighteenth century tradition that the Franciscans – The Greyfriars – asked for permission to bury the late king in their friary church, where he was afforded a place of honour in the choir, i.e. the area before the holy altar.
The church at the Newarke had long-standing Lancastrian associations. So perhaps the new King Henry VII (who considered himself a member of the House of Lancaster) moved Richard's body because he thought it an inappropriate place for a member of England's ruling House of York. Certainly it was at The Greyfriars, ten years later, that Henry VII decided to have a tomb erected marking Richard's burial site.
In 1538, the Tudor king's son Henry VIII decreed the Dissolution of the Monasteries. England's beautiful abbeys and other religious houses were destroyed, among them the Leicester Greyfriars.
Their valuable sites were sold off to swell the royal revenues, and in due course The Greyfriars site, now named Beaumanor, came into the hands of Alderman Robert Herrick. A reliable account by the father of the architect Christopher Wren in 1612 records that Herrick had a handsome stone pillar in his garden, marking the spot where the body of King Richard III lay.
All this was pieced together and published by Ricardians over the years, demonstrating that although Richard's memorial tomb had obviously disappeared by then, Alderman Herrick's garden still contained a commemoration of his grave site. This garden (quite a large one) was to be seen on old maps of Leicester, and indeed it lay within the general area still known as The Greyfriars.
By great good fortune, only parts of this area had actually been built on over the years. Three separate sections of what was once Herrick's garden had now been covered in tarmac and were used by the city council as parking areas. It was here that the archaeological dig would be concentrated.
Under the letter 'R' the remains of Richard III
were found. Picture taken summer 2011, a year before
the dig, by John Ashdown-Hill.The University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS), the leading archaeological team in Leicester, had already done some excavation work nearby. This was during the demolition of a small single- storey 1950s extension in Grey Friars Street, which was examined owing to the historical significance of the area. Great excitement had been aroused – not by what this excavation found, but by what it failed to find. Contrary to expectations, there was no evidence of the mediaeval church having been obliterated by later buildings: they recovered only a fragment of a stone coffin lid in a post-mediaeval drain. This meant that for Philippa there were valid grounds for seeking the church elsewhere.
Some important information then came from Dr John Ashdown-Hill. From John's knowledge of comparable mediaeval religious houses he was able to assert with some confidence, in his book The Last Days of Richard III (The History Press, 2010), that the church of The Greyfriars was more than likely situated to the north of the site of Herrick's garden, rather than to the south which was a possibility entertained by local archaeologists. This was good news for the search, as the northern side was largely free of subsequent building work.
In addition, John found that the map-maker John Speede started the story about Richard's remains being dug up and removed from The Greyfriars. Speede cited it to explain why, when looking for Richard's grave in Leicester, he could find no surviving trace. But Speede's maps showed that he had been looking for the grave at the Blackfriars site, not at The Greyfriars!
This story was later embellished by locals so that in time the legend grew up that Richard's bones had been exhumed by a jeering mob and thrown contemptuously into the River Soar. Another tall story claimed that an old stone coffin—supposedly Richard's—had been put to use as a horse-trough – although, if a coffin at all, it was likely to have been of a much earlier date. Fortunately we can now expose all these tales as fiction.
Whilst Philippa was pursuing her goal of locating Richard III's burial site, John Ashdown-Hill made a most remarkable discovery. He had traced an all-female line of direct descent from Richard's sister, Anne of York, which meant that Joy Ibsen, a lady currently living in Canada, and her son Michael living in England, possessed King Richard III's mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). This represented a strong argument when enlisting support for the search, because if remains were found which were fragmentary or inconclusive, it might come down to DNA matching when trying to identify them. Michael Ibsen was incredibly supportive and offered his help unreservedly.
On the first day of the dig, 25 August 2012, with the first trench being carefully excavated down to mediaeval levels, work suddenly came to a halt. Human remains had clearly been encountered. This meant that until an exhumation licence was obtained, no further action could be taken other than to protect them.
Medieval floor tile from the friaryMeanwhile other areas were explored, and after a fortnight two complete trenches revealed that the church of The Greyfriars had certainly been uncovered. A third trench, cut into another, separate car park next door, now confirmed that the church was indeed in the northern end of the site. By now Philippa had convinced the archaeologists to exhume this grave as she had £800 remaining in the kitty from the international appeal, and she was ready to use it. Those human remains, now safely and respectfully removed, had been found in a grave in the centre of the choir, a place of singular honour which one would expect to be accorded to a king.
This was such a breakthrough that the dig was extended into a third week. With the excavation of the third trench now well under way, more materials from the church were found, such as floor tiles and tracery, and the position of the altar was identified.
Evidence of a garden was also discovered here – the lost garden of Robert Herrick – wherein, historically, there stood a memorial to Richard III. The later history of Herrick's mansion house was that his descendants sold the property in 1711, after which it passed through various owners until the house was eventually pulled down some time in the 1870s, and municipal buildings were erected.
Some members of the 'Tomb Team'
From left to right: Richard Buckley, Annette Carson,
Philippa Langley, Michael Ibsen, Turi King and John Ashdown-HillHowever, Herrick's garden seems to have remained a garden, or wasteland, up until the 1930s–1940s, when parts of it were surfaced in tarmac to become two distinct car parks separated by a wall.
It was the greatest of good fortune that Alderman Herrick had left what remained of the ruined Greyfriars church virtually undisturbed when he laid out his garden, and in later years the choir had never been built over.
By 12 September a preliminary examination had been made, and at last the discovery of human remains could be announced to the world.
It was early days yet, and much testing still remained to be done. But there was circumstantial evidence from obvious battle wounds and a curvature of the spine known as scoliosis. This differs from kyphosis, a form of curvature, nastily described as 'hunchbacked' which Tudor sources attributed to Richard III, along with a 'withered arm'. These latter deformities were not in the least apparent in the remains. Although a positive identification was not yet possible, many points of significant interest were noted:
In this context it was remarked that 'contemporary accounts of Richard's appearance' had noted this disparity in shoulder height, but of course Ricardians know this is not true. It was only after his death that stories of Richard III began to be embroidered with descriptions of disfigurements. Now, from this evidence, far from being a distorted monster his only physical problem appeared to be unequal shoulders.
©GettyThe Richard III Society today unveiled the world's only facial reconstruction of the human remains found at the Greyfriars in Leicester, yesterday confirmed as belonging to Richard III. The reconstruction project, led by Professor Caroline Wilkinson, Professor of Craniofacial Identification at the University of Dundee, was commissioned and funded by the Richard III Society.
To those who have seen so many portrayals of Richard III with contorted body and facial features, this calm and apparently thoughtful face could be a shock. After his death, many portraits deliberately added narrowed eyes and mean lines. We have already discovered he had no kyphosis or withered arm - now we know he had a warm face, young, earnest and rather serious. How many scales will drop from how many eyes! This likeness is so real, it is a remarkable tribute to Professor Wilkinson and her reconstruction team. Congratulations and thanks are in order, but these words somehow don't seem adequate to recognise such art, skill and loving craftsmanship.
Dr. Phil Stone, Richard III Society Chairman, said: "It's an interesting face, younger and fuller than we have been used to seeing, less careworn, and with the hint of a smile. When I first saw it, I thought there is enough of the portraits about it for it to be King Richard but not enough to suggest they have been copied. I think people will like it. He's a man who lived. Indeed, when I looked him in the eye, 'Good King Richard' seemed alive and about to speak. At last, it seems, we have the true image of Richard III - is this the face that launched a thousand myths?"
"Today marks the culmination of an extraordinary journey of discovery. When I embarked on the Looking For Richard project four years ago – the quest to find a king in a car park – almost everyone thought I was mad. Let's face it, it's not the easiest pitch in the world – to look for a king under a council car park – but luckily the Richard III Society,Leicester City Council, and the University, as well as Channel 4 and Darlow Smithson Productions, partners with vision, came on board.
"But, as we got ready to look for Richard, at the 11th hour one of our funding bodies pulled. The dig was to be cancelled so, together with writer Annette Carson we launched an international appeal. The search for Richard was saved by donations from around the world, but they also gave the project its mandate when they said – search for him - find him - honour him.
"Strange thing to say for Richard III – honour him …?
"Richard III gave us the system of bail, and opened up the printing industry, giving us books and the freedom of information. He also initiated, and applied, the legal principles of the Presumption of Innocence and Blind Justice. It is ironic then that Richard is still presumed guilty of the murder of his nephews, until proven innocent, even though there is no evidence that points to him having killed them.
"The Richard III Society is founded on a simple principle, that truth is more powerful than lies. It also considers that, when investigating someone, if you have two sources, those who knew him and those who didn't, your primary source must always be those who knew him.
"After Richard's death at Bosworth the men of the north who had known Richard , man and boy, described him thus: The most famous Prince of blessed memory.
"In the intervening centuries since King Richard's death, many have told his story, not least Shakespeare and the Tudor writers. But now, here today, it is Richard who has finally been able to reveal himself. When Richard's body was stripped naked at Bosworth his physical condition, his scoliosis, became known, and it was used to insult and degrade him. Today we know that a physical abnormality is not a sign of evil. We find this idea abhorrent. We are no longer in the Tudor mind-set.
"On Channel 4 this evening, and tomorrow morning at the Richard III Society conference, you will see Richard's face for the very first time through the facial reconstruction by Professor Caroline Wilkinson of the University of Dundee. The two-dimensional caricature promoted by the Tudors, will be no more.
"In September 2010, the Looking For Richard project commissioned the design of a tomb based upon Richard's life and what was important and meaningful to him. Undertaken by a team of Ricardians, it has been welcomed by the Cathedral, Council and Richard III Society and will be revealed in the next few weeks. The first donation of £10,000 has already been received.
"The discovery of King Richard is an historic moment when the history books will be rewritten. A wind of change is blowing, one that will now seek out the truth about the real Richard III.
"And as regards our mandate from those around the world: We have searched for Richard, and we have found him - it is now time to honour him.
"The text on the screen is the Act of Parliament that settled the crown upon King Richard and his heirs - all copies of which Henry Tudor tried to destroy:
'Be it pronounced, decreed, and declared, that our said Sovereign Lord, the King was, and is, very and undoubted King of England.' Titulus Regis 1484.
Richard Buckley, the lead archaeologist for the Search for Richard III project said: 'It is the academic conclusion of the University of Leicester that the individual exhumed at The Greyfriars in August 2012 is indeed King Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England.'
For more information visit the University's website.