© Richard III Society - Leicestershire Branch
Richard III Society
Leicestershire Branch

The Re-interment Story - Discovery

How King Richard’s grave was found

It could be argued that the search for Richard really began with historian and Richard III Society member Dr John Ashdown-Hill, who started researching the location of the Grey Friars church, where the king’s body had been buried following his defeat at the Battle of Bosworth. John also wanted to know if there was any truth in the legend that it had been dug up later and thrown in the River Soar. This legend stemmed from an account by John Speede in 1611 that Richard’s body had been dug up following the dissolution of the monasteries. The legend was reinforced in 1856 when local builder Benjamin Broadbent erected a large stone plaque close to Bow Bridge which read: “Near this spot lie the remains of Richard III the last of the Plantagenets.” However, thanks to John Ashdown-Hill’s research, which now suggested Richard’s remains still lay at the Greyfriars, the Richard III Society arranged for the erection and unveiling of a new plaque on August 20th 2005 which read: “This plaque, originally erected by Mr. B. Broadbent in 1856 on the nearby site of the Austin Friars, records the 17th century tradition, now generally discredited, that at the dissolution of the monasteries, the body of King Richard III was disinterred from his tomb at the Greyfriars in Leicester and thrown into the River Soar.” Discrediting the legend The reason why the legend was discredited was because John (and other local historians) were able to show that John Speede was looking in the wrong place when he claimed Richard’s gravesite was 'overgrown with nettles and weedes... very obscure and not to be found'. His Leicester map of 1610 labels the site of St Martin's Church (now Leicester Cathedral) as ‘Graye fryers’. Yet this was actually the site of the Black (Dominican) Friars, whereas the Grey Friars lay to the east of Leicester Cathedral. A clue to Speede’s mistake appeared a few years after it was made when Christopher Wren, later Dean of Windsor and father of architect Sir Christopher Wren, wrote: “At the dissolution [of the Greyfriars] where of the place of his [Richard III's] burial happened to fall into the grounds of a citizen's garden, which being afterwards purchased by Mr Robert Herrick (some time mayor of Leicester) was by him covered with a handsome stone pillar, thrice foot high, with this inscription. 'Here lies the body of Richard III, some time King of England'. This he shewed me walking in the garden' anno 1612.” Over time the site gave way to Georgian houses and roads, Victorian buildings and Alderman Newton Boys School, with the exact site being lost. But, writing in 2010, John Ashdown-Hill asserted: “The fact that Herrick's pillar stood in his garden indicates that the location of the grave continued to be open ground well into the 17th century, while nowadays, the gravesite may well be covered in tarmac”. How right John was! All the clues were there. “Looking for Richard” By this time, John Ashdown-Hill had joined forces with Philippa Langley, who had been carrying out her own research in a bid to locate the grave itself. Together with Annette Carson they formed the nucleus of the ‘Looking for Richard’ team. Their hard work paid off in May 2011 when Leicester had its first elected Mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, who was interested in heritage and history and persuaded the City Council to support Philippa's proposal to undertake an archaeological dig.
Richard Buckley, the Lead Archaeologist from Leicester University's Archaeological Services unit, was fairly confident of being able to find the Greyfriars site, which his unit's research suggested lay underneath the car park of the council’s Social Services building. Even so, he was extremely sceptical that Richard’s remains would be found. However, Philippa had to assume Richard would be found and planned accordingly. Leicester Cathedral was approached with a view to re-interring Richard and joined the City Council, Leicester University and the Society in preparing for the archaeological exploration. By June 2012 everything was in place for the dig to go ahead. Then a few weeks before commencement, one of the sponsors pulled out. To save the dig from being cancelled, Philippa launched an appeal through the Society and in two weeks raised more than £13,000 to keep the project alive. Digging begins Finally, on August 25th, 527 years after his burial, digging began. On the first day, human remains were found about 16ft from the north end of Trench 1 at a depth of about 4ft 9ins, suggesting an undisturbed burial. At that point all that could be done was to protect these remains while further excavations took place. It was not then known in what part of the church the skeleton had been found and without an exhumation order the skeleton could not be removed anyway. The following day a second parallel trench was dug to the south- west. Gradually remnants of medieval walls began to appear and the Chapter House and Eastern Cloister Walk were revealed. It became apparent that the skeleton found on the first day lay within the choir of the church: the place where it was recorded that Richard III had been buried. On August 31st the Ministry of Justice was approached for an exhumation licence. Meanwhile more remnants of walls were discovered in Trench 2 along with mortar bedding for a tiled floor, suggesting a cloister walk. Evidence of stone benches was also found identifying the Chapter House. Medieval floor tiles A third trench was cut into the playground of the Alderman Newton School next door on September 1st, and soon confirmed that the church was indeed in the northern end of the site. It also revealed areas of medieval floor tiles re-laid after the dissolution, probably one of the paths in Robert Herrick's garden. Some glass and lead came to light also pottery from the 13th to the 16th century. Two silver halfpennies were found, one dating from the reign of Richard's brother, Edward IV. (c. 1468-9) On September 5th the skeleton was exhumed from the grave. The trench had first been enlarged the previous day so that Jo Appleby from Leicester University, wearing protective clothing and mask, to prevent contamination, could excavate the burial. The head of the skeleton, known as skeleton 1 was propped up on the side of the grave, as the grave had not been made long enough for the whole body to fit in. Also, the sides of the grave sloped in towards the bottom. The skeleton had lost its feet at some time during later building work. There was no evidence of a coffin or a shroud. The skeleton was taken to the University for analysis on the evening of September 5th. This breakthrough meant the dig could be extended into a third week.