King Richard III - From Lost Grave to Modern Forensics
Exhumation and reburial of Richard III of England – Kris1973, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The discovery of the remains of King Richard III in 2012 beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England, is a narrative that intertwines medieval history with modern archaeology and forensic science. It’s a story that not only provides closure to a historical mystery but also rewrites a chapter of English history that has been shrouded in myth and speculation for centuries.

Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England, met a brutal end at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, a pivotal moment that marked the conclusion of the Wars of the Roses and the rise of the Tudor dynasty. His death was the subject of much historical intrigue, not least because of the disappearance of his mortal remains. For over 500 years, the location of his grave was unknown, leading to speculation and legends about the fate of his body.

The quest to find Richard III’s remains was led by the University of Leicester, in collaboration with the Richard III Society and Leicester City Council. The search was based on historical records suggesting that Richard was buried in the choir of the Greyfriars Church in Leicester, a Franciscan friary that was demolished during the Reformation in the 16th century.

In August 2012, an archaeological dig was initiated in a city council car park, the site of the former friary. In a remarkable stroke of luck, the team discovered human remains within days of starting the excavation. The skeleton bore signs of severe injuries, including a brutal blow to the skull, consistent with accounts of Richard’s death. Perhaps most tellingly, the spine of the skeleton showed significant scoliosis, aligning with historical descriptions of Richard as having a hunched back.

The identification of the remains as those of Richard III involved a multidisciplinary approach, combining archaeology, history, and modern forensic science. Radiocarbon dating placed the age of the bones around the time of Richard’s death. Further, a comparison of mitochondrial DNA extracted from the skeleton with that of living descendants of Richard III’s family confirmed the identity of the remains.

The discovery was groundbreaking in several respects. It not only located the final resting place of a long-lost king but also provided new insights into his life and death. The skeleton’s study revealed that Richard had suffered ten injuries at or near the time of death, including two potentially fatal skull wounds, painting a vivid picture of the brutality of medieval combat and the likely circumstances of his demise.

Moreover, the discovery challenged the traditional image of Richard III as a villainous, hunchbacked figure, a portrayal popularized by William Shakespeare’s eponymous play. The actual spinal condition, while severe, did not suggest the grotesque figure of literary imagination. This finding, along with the context of his burial, offered a more nuanced view of Richard—a king who was respected enough to be given a proper, though somewhat hurried, burial in a consecrated space.

The reburial of Richard III in Leicester Cathedral in 2015 was a moment of historical reconciliation and a public spectacle, drawing international attention. It was a rare instance where modern science and historical research collaborated to resolve a mystery from the distant past.

The story of Richard III’s rediscovery is a testament to the power of interdisciplinary research and the enduring fascination with the medieval past. It bridges the gap between historical legend and scientific fact, bringing a touch of humanity to a figure long enshrined in myth and controversy. In a car park in Leicester, beneath layers of concrete and centuries of history, lay a king who had been lost to time, his story waiting to be told through the lens of modern science.

Don Leith

By Don Leith

Retired from the real world. A love of research left over from my days on the debate team in college long ago led me to work on this website. Granted, not all these stories are "fun" or even "trivial" But they all are either weird, unusual or even extraordinary. Working on this website is "fun" in any case. Hope you enjoy it!