Unearthing Richard III: The Luckiest Find in History
Philippa Langley stood in a parking lot near the site of the old Greyfriars Church in Leicester, England. She’d been working on a screenplay about Richard III and was curious to see where the maligned king had been buried nearly 500 years earlier. It was 2004, and what she found was the city’s Social Services Department: The church had long since been dismantled, and everyone simply accepted that Richard’s grave had been lost with it. There was little incentive to look for it, since the most popular theory about Richard’s remains held that they’d at some point been tossed into the River Soar by an angry mob.
But Langley wasn’t convinced. She knew that a fellow Richard III enthusiast, John Ashdown-Hill, had recently published research suggesting the king’s body could still be in the ground. Exploring the area that day, the then 43-year-old, who is slim and blonde, wandered into the smaller of the Social Service Department’s two parking lots, the unassuming oil-stained stretch of asphalt farthest from the old city walls. And that’s when it happened.
“I had goosebumps,” she says. “I just knew I was walking on his grave.”
Langley still doesn’t know how to explain it. Call it a psychic vision, lucky intuition, or a step through a hole in the space-time continuum: Whatever it was, it was enough to convince her that the remains of Richard III lay in the ground beneath her. If she could unearth them, science could shed new light on a period of history long masked in myth. But to start digging, Langley needed more than a hunch.
HISTORY VS. SHAKESPEARE
It was fate—in the form of an illness—that brought Langley to Richard in the first place. In the 1990s, after health issues caused her to give up a career in advertising, she became a voracious reader. One of the books that captivated her most was Paul Murray Kendall’s 1955 biography of Richard III, which argues that many of the murders attributed to Richard were actually committed by other people. “It absolutely intrigued me, because I couldn’t understand how Murray Kendall described Richard as loyal, brave, pious, and just. I needed to understand how this Richard could fit with Shakespeare’s Richard,” she says.
Shakespeare’s Richard is one of the most compelling and evil characters in literature, a “poisonous bunchback’d toad” with a withered arm who killed the king, his brother, his wife, his nephews, and his friends to gain the throne, only to die at the hands of the righteous avenger, Henry VII. “Since I cannot prove a lover, to entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain,” Richard proclaims in his opening soliloquy.
Shakespeare, of course, was a storyteller. And since he was employed by the court of Elizabeth I, he wasn’t exactly an unbiased observer. In truth, history has left us little in the way of details about Richard III’s reign. He was in power for just two years, beginning in 1483, near the end of the Wars of the Roses. During the three-decade feud, both halves of England’s reigning dynasty were pitted against each other, and the crown switched back and forth, cousin to cousin. There’s no doubt that Richard’s accession to the throne was controversial, and that, almost immediately, he faced a rebellion, which he crushed. But beyond a few minor reforms, he had little time to stamp his mark on the realm before unrest broke out again and he died in a cavalry charge led by Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth. The era of Plantagenet rule died with him.
Despite how deeply this characterization is woven into popular culture, not everyone believes the king was a heartless tyrant. As far back as the 1600s, sympathizers have argued there must be more to Richard’s story. In 1924, a group of amateur historians founded the Richard III Society, pledging to research the king’s life and “secure a reassessment of the material relating to this period.” They had no connection to the king beyond an enduring belief that history had not treated him fairly. Today, the society’s 4,000 members are scattered all over the world, with nearly 400 members in the United States. As Shakespeare’s play continues to be performed, more people join the society, convinced they are defending an underdog. “I saw the Olivier film in what must have been the 1960s, and I remember thinking nobody could be that evil,” says Phil Stone, a radiologist by trade who currently chairs the society.
In the course of her research, Langley joined the group. And as she learned more, she became inspired to retell Richard’s story on film. Soon after, she founded a society branch in Scotland, though she admits it doesn’t have many members.
For those sympathetic to Richard’s maligned legacy, the fact that his grave had been lost only added to his underdog mystique. After the fateful battle, Henry Tudor had hastily crowned himself Henry VII and had his predecessor buried in the Greyfriars Church. Later, during Henry VIII’s reign, England abandoned Catholicism and disbanded monasteries. Greyfriars was demolished, its treasures confiscated, and its location—along with the grave of Richard—forgotten.
Under a commission from the BBC, Ashdown-Hill analyzed the former site of the Greyfriars complex and in 2003 published his findings. Referencing the layout of similar monastic complexes, he concluded that the location of the church choir—where the king would have been buried—would not lie against the old city walls, as local archaeologists had long believed. A grave in that spot would have been too vulnerable during times of upheaval. Instead, he concluded the same thing Philippa Langley’s intuition had suggested to her: that the grave would be closer to where the smaller parking lot now stood. In 2005, Langley reached out and suggested that Ashdown-Hill approach the popular archaeological TV series Time Team and propose an excavation. He did, but the program’s producers turned him down—they needed a guarantee they’d find the king.
Four years passed before Langley and Ashdown-Hill met up for lunch. That’s when unearthing Richard’s remains began to seem like a true possibility. They formalized their quest into the “Looking for Richard” project, with one simple aim: to find the king’s lost grave. Although Ashdown-Hill did much of the initial research and narrowed down where Richard’s body might be, he says it was Langley’s persistence that drove them forward. “Philippa was the person who banged on doors and kept telephoning people,” he says.
In 2010, the door banging paid off. Langley persuaded the Leicester City Council to let her hire archaeologists and conduct a dig in the parking lot. She even got a documentary crew interested. But then, the council withdrew funding. Langley considered remortgaging her house until it occurred to her that she had an entire society of people invested in this outcome. She shifted her attention to publicizing the cause and persuading Ricardians worldwide to donate. It worked. More than $28,000 poured in—enough to keep the project going for two more weeks and cover past expenses. Now the pressure was on.
On the morning of August 25, 2012, an orange mini excavator punctured the asphalt over the exact spot where, nearly a decade prior, Langley had felt goosebumps. Langley, Ashdown-Hill, a team from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services, the Leicester City Council, and a documentary crew all looked on. The lead archaeologist, Richard Buckley, put the odds of finding the grave at a million to one. And it wasn’t just the body Buckley was skeptical about; he doubted they’d even find the church.
Just after lunch, they found a skeleton. The team was stunned, Langley rendered speechless. The archaeologists carefully packed the bones into a cardboard box. To the chagrin of the scientists, who would not identify the body without further investigation, Langley and Ashdown-Hill covered the box with a Plantagenet banner in the hopes that this was their king.
Back in the lab at Leicester University, an investigation revealed a sequence of slashes to the skull as well as stabs to the buttocks. The grave had been too short for the body, causing the head to thrust upward. There was no trace of a coffin. The spine showed signs of scoliosis, rather than the full Shakespearean hunchback, but the condition would have rendered one shoulder higher than the other, fitting descriptions of Richard’s stature. It appeared the man had been killed in battle, dishonored after death, and hastily buried.
Analysis of carbon-14 in the bones further supported the claim that these were Richard’s bones. This person had lived in the 15th century and eaten a rich-man’s diet of seafood and meat. Right time period, right food. Then came the DNA. Mitochondrial DNA is the only kind of DNA that goes unchanged from mother to child and is thus preserved down the female line indefinitely. Genetic material from Michael Ibsen, a Canadian-born cabinetmaker and the 17th great-nephew of King Richard, matched mitochondrial DNA from the bones. Altogether—the battle wounds, the location, the DNA, the deformed spine—it was enough for scientists to announce, in February 2013, that it was in fact the lost king. “I found him,” Langley says. “I was one foot off. Not bad, considering it’s a massive car park.”
It was, indeed, an incredible stroke of luck. The remarkable moment seems all the more improbable when you stop to consider how many lucky occurrences had to occur over a period of five centuries for it to happen as it did.
First, there was the fact that, though the city has grown into a midsize metropolis, no new construction—except the parking lot—ever went up over the grave site. Even luckier: In every generation following Richard III, a female relative had at least one daughter each, keeping the mitochondrial DNA alive. And that line was about to go extinct. None of Richard’s living relatives have children. If the “Looking for Richard” project had taken place 50 years later, a DNA match would have been impossible. If it had taken place 50 years earlier, the technology wouldn’t have been available to make a DNA match.
Ibsen, though naturally laconic, was emotional after hearing the news. “I felt profoundly moved,” he says. “Everybody learns at school about Richard III and the princes in the tower. To stand there and know you’re related and that you share this mitochondrial DNA—it’s quite remarkable. It’s scary.”
A FINAL RESTING PLACE
At Leicester Cathedral, a bunch of white roses—the emblem of the House of York— lay on a memorial slab with a handwritten note: “May you rest in peace forever in Leicester.” Before the dig, the archaeologists had agreed that, should they find any remains, they would bury them at the cathedral. The church has since designed a tomb, but it has yet to inter Richard III’s remains there. Even centuries after his death, the king is divisive.
Shortly after the remains were identified as Richard’s, York residents began to demand that he be buried in their magnificent gothic minster rather than in Leicester’s small, mostly Victorian cathedral. Most historians, however, argue that Richard III would have preferred to join his wife in London’s Westminster Abbey or his brother in St George’s Chapel in Windsor. But both of these locations are controlled by the queen, and her silence seems to mean she doesn’t want him in either. An online petition to have Richard III moved to York attracted 31,347 signatures but little response from the government. It did provoke angry residents of Leicester to fight back with their own petition, however, edging York with 34,466 signatures.
Although Leicester declined to fund the dig, the city has now raised £4 million for a visitor center to tell “the incredible story of King Richard III and his links [to the city.]” The number of visitors to Leicester Cathedral has increased 20-fold since the discovery as well. And a temporary museum, where visitors can drink tea in the White Rose Café and buy Richard III chocolate, has sprouted on the grounds.
As tourists pour through and politics heat up, the small team of historians responsible for this remarkable moment has gone back to business as usual. Stone is dealing with a flood of new applications to join the society. Ashdown-Hill is back in Essex, seeing if DNA can help him find other lost Plantagenets. And Langley is still at work on her screenplay. If you consider the string of astonishing coincidences that tie her story across five centuries to Richard III’s, it sure sounds like a movie.
This story was originally published in Mental Floss magazine in 2014.