‘The king in the car park’: new light on the death and burial of Richard III in the Grey Friars church, Leicester, in 1485

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 09.51.39Archaeologists today do not as a rule seek to excavate the remains of famous people and historical events, but the results of the project reported in this article provide an important exception. Excavations on the site of the Grey Friars friary in Leicester, demolished at the Reformation and subsequently built over, revealed the remains of the friary church with a grave in a high status position beneath the choir. The authors set out the argument that this grave can be associated with historical records indicating that Richard III was buried London in this friary after his death at the Battle of Bosworth. Details of the treatment of the corpse and the injuries that it had sustained support their case that this should be identified as the burial of the last Plantagenet king. This paper presents the archaeological and the basic skeletal evidence: the results of the genetic analysis and full osteoarchaeological analysis will be published elsewhere.


Richard III (1483–85) is probably England’s most familiar medieval king. Immortalised by Shakespeare and others as an infamous villain, but with a strong cohort of modern-day supporters, he has remained a highly controversial figure of both history and drama since his death.

King Richard was killed at the Battle of Bosworth, the culmination of the Wars of the Roses, on 22 August 1485 (Foarde & Morris 2012: 91–95). Afterwards, the victor, Henry Tudor, now King Henry VII, brought Richard’s naked body back to Leicester for public display, probably in the Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the intra-mural religious precinct of the Newarke (BL Harley MS 542: f.34). On 25 August, the body of the defeated king was laid to rest with minimal funerary rites in the medieval church of the convent of the Friars Minor (the Franciscans, also known as the Grey Friars; Rous 1745 [1486]: 218; Halle 1970 [1550]: f. xxxv; Polydore Vergil 1972 [1555]: 25.25; Baldwin 1986: 21). Ten years later, King Henry VII had an alabaster tomb erected over the grave. The friary was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1538 and most of the buildings were demolished soon after.

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 09.52.11This paper reports the results of a public archaeology project initiated by Philippa Langley, a member of the Richard III Society, and executed by a team of archaeologists and other specialists from the University of Leicester. The aim was to locate the Grey Friars church in Leicester in which the body of Richard III is recorded to have been buried. The excavations discovered not only the friary church, but also a grave that may have contained the remains of Richard III. Following post-excavation analysis, in February 2013 it was announced that his skeleton had indeed been identified. Publicly acclaimed as the ‘king in the car park’, this conclusion takes account of the full spectrum of evidence retrieved from the site of the Grey Friars church in Leicester, currently a parking area for the City Council Social Services. This paper sets out the archaeological evidence for the site and for the identification of the burial as that of Richard III. It will not consider in detail the osteoarchaeological or genetic evidence, as the results of these investigations will shortly be published elsewhere by Jo Appleby and Turi King respectively.

The Grey Friars Project has been unusual in the nature of the collaboration between professional and academic archaeologists, an amateur group (the Richard III Society) and the City of Leicester. However, this also means that the project has addressed two different but overlapping sets of research questions, not all of which specialists would routinely ask. Projects developed in this way may become more common in future as non- specialists increasingly become users, stakeholders and participants in academic research. What is somewhat different from the ways in which archaeological professionals and amateurs have generally worked together is that in this case the non-specialists played a role in shaping the intellectual frameworks of the project, although the final project design (including how questions could appropriately be asked of the evidence), and the execution of the project in practical terms remained in the hands of the archaeologists. Grey Friars offers a case study for addressing the issues of how to formulate multiple sets of research questions and aims, and how different kinds of partners can accommodate each other’s questions.

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 09.52.25For the Richard III Society, the key questions evolved out of a desire to provide Richard III’s story with a more credible conclusion than Speed’s fanciful seventeenth-century tale that his bones were dug up during the dissolution of the friary and thrown into the River Soar (Speed 1611: 725), hopefully by finding the monarch’s grave. Although our non-specialist partners were interested in the wider context of the church and the medieval town, their primary concern was Richard himself.

For the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS), commissioned to carry out the research, the project presented an opportunity to find out whether evidence of the Franciscan friary and its church survived, and to investigate this important institution in medieval Leicester as part of the larger, existing research strategies and frameworks for the city and the region. The research questions and investigation strategy focused on understanding the layout of the friary precinct and locating the lost church building (see below). Initially, finding the grave of Richard seemed improbable if not impossible, if it had even survived at all. This strong likelihood was discussed with our non-specialist partners, to ensure that they understood the slim chances of success for this particular aim, even though it was clear that the project would certainly add much of value to our knowledge of medieval Leicester.

Medieval Leicester

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 09.51.15In the late Anglo-Saxon period (tenth–eleventh centuries AD), settlement developed within the walls of the former Roman town and, by the time of Domesday in 1086, Leicester had six churches, 322 houses and a population of perhaps 3000 (Courtney 1998: 118–19). The twelfth–thirteenth centuries saw a boom in development, with the foundation of the abbey, the construction of the stone elements of the castle and the rebuilding of churches (Figure 1). Archaeological evidence has shown that by 1300, the intramural area is likely to have been fully occupied, but thereafter, starting in the early decades of the fourteenth century, the town seems to have suffered a decline leading to significant depopulation of a large part of the north-eastern quarter (Connor & Buckley 1999: 90). The taxable valuation of Leicester in 1334 places it as a county town of medium rank (no. 38) whilst later, after the Black Death, recovery is suggested by the Poll Tax returns which show that the town had risen in the urban hierarchy (to no. 17) with a taxable population of 2302 (Glasscock 1975: 158; Dyer 2000: 758).

Notwithstanding, the suburbs seem to have expanded and the Earls, later Dukes, of Lancaster established an extramural religious precinct known as the Newarke with a college of canons, the church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and a hospital. After 1399, the Dukes of Lancaster became kings of England (in the person of Henry IV) and there was a major building programme at the Newarke during the first quarter of the fifteenth century; the church there effectively became a Lancastrian mausoleum. Three houses of friars were founded in the thirteenth century (Figure 1): the Dominicans or Blackfriars in the north-western corner of the walls; the Augustinian friars outside the west gate, on an island between two arms of the river Soar; and the Franciscans, or Grey Friars, the most centrally located in the southern part of the town, close to the Saturday market. […]

(From Antiquity Publications Ltd., ANTIQUITY 87 (2013): 519–538; Full pdf downloadable here)

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