On the 22nd of August, 1485, Richard III, King of England and Yorkist monarch, rode out from Leicester to meet his death at the battle of Bosworth, approximately 12 miles away. Despite his confidence, experience in combat and larger army, he became the last English king to die in battle. His queen was buried at Westminster, his brother at Windsor and it is said that he himself had desired to laid to rest at York. After the battle, his naked corpse was carried on horseback to Leicester. What happened to him has remained a mystery and a number of theories have been put forward to his body's whereabouts. One of these was that he had been buried in a very quiet way by the monks of a Franciscan friary. Any monument, or even trace of the friary had been lost over time so that only legend and rumour remained.
In August of 2012, a remarkable announcement was made by the University of Leicester. A body had been found under a council car park, in the Greyfriars area of the city. The remains of a man, with damage to the skull consistent with a battle wound, an arrow between the vertebrae and with spinal abnormalities all matched the accounts of Richard III.
On a hunch from a member of The Richard III Society, it had been agreed to explore the tarmac car park, used daily by council workers and sandwiched between Victorian buildings on all sides. Amazingly, the friary was discovered and then came the announcement that the body had been found in the choir, again consistent with modern thinking. Incredibly, not only did the footings of past Victorian buildings sit just inches away from where the body lay, but site was actually accessible from the car park's surface!
Since then, archaeologists and scientists at Leicester University have been working in secret to determine whether the remains are indeed those of Richard III. A descendant was traced in Canada which allowed DNA samples to be obtained. The skeleton however, has not provided such an easy source of evidence. It's DNA is incomplete and special techniques have been required to put together what are effectively both broken and missing pieces of a jigsaw.
On the 4th February, an announcement will be made to the world and we will finally know whether Richard III has been found. If it's true, then it will be one amazing story.
After the body was removed, the archaeological dig was opened for public viewing. On a wet Sunday, I visited the site and listened to a short talk about the history and the excavations. All we could see was a trench in a car park, the remains of some old walls a few feet down and a sign with an arrow pointing the the spot where the body was found (bottom right in the image above). The heavy rain was washing away the exposed relics as we stood and stared at the hole with mud running down it's sides. Uninspiring buildings looked down on us from all quarters and piles of excavated tarmac and clay were heaped around. It was hardly a fitting place for a king to have remained for 500 years.
Our daughter, a doctor and genetic research scientist at Leicester University, has been helping the chief geneticist on the project, who is not only an archaeologist but also a specialist in genetics. Everything has been extremely hush-hush though there has been a lot of activity involving DNA samples, not only at Leicester but at other institutions where mirroring experiments have taken place in order to validate any results. It has been a huge effort and more will probably be revealed next week about what was also found in the trench. I feel as if we have been extremely fortunate to witness something so surreal and rare, something that had such a huge bearing on the history of England. Such a thing will probably only occur a few times in a thousand years. And to put icing on the cake, a couple of weeks ago I even got to meet the chief geneticist on the project!