Archaeology Listed places

Richard III: The Lost King

Learn more about England's last Yorkist King.

Richard III, the last Yorkist and Plantagenet King, reigned for two years before his death at the Battle of Bosworth. He was the last English king to die in battle.

Immortalised by Shakespeare as an unscrupulous tyrant with a hunchback who killed his nephews amongst other crimes, historians have long debated the truth about this King, his life and death.

Here we look at the fascinating story behind Richard III.

A bronze statue of Richard III
King Richard III statue in Leicester. © Historic England.

Who was Richard III?

Born on 2 October 1452 at Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire, he was the fourth son of Richard, 3rd Duke of York (the most important duke in England at the time) and Duchess Cecily Neville. Richard was born with scoliosis, something confirmed in the finding of his skeleton, but unlikely to have been the exaggerated ‘hunchback’ of Shakespeare’s play and more likely to be visible as one slightly higher shoulder.

Re-enactors demonstrate the equipment of War of the Roses infantry armed with the typical English pole-arm known as a ‘bill’.
Re-enactors demonstrate the equipment of War of the Roses infantry armed with the typical English pole-arm known as a ‘bill’. © Historic England Archive. DP066915.

His father, Richard Duke of York, started the Wars of the Roses (1455 to 1485), a conflict for the crown between the houses of Lancaster and York. He believed he had a stronger claim to the throne than the Lancastrian King Henry VI. Richard formally claimed the throne in 1460 but died at the Battle of Wakefield, leaving his eldest son Edward to become king in 1461.

Edward IV’s reign continued to be fraught with conflict, with the Wars of the Roses resuming in 1469. Henry VI briefly reigned again in 1470, before Edward IV was reinstated and ruled until his unexpected death in 1483.

Reign and rumours

Stained glass image of King Richard IIII and Queen Anne.
Stained glass image of the King and Queen at Cardiff Castle, United Kingdom. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

On Edward’s death, Richard became Lord Protector of Edward’s son and heir, Edward V, and he placed Edward V and his younger brother Richard in the Tower of London. They were never seen alive again. After their disappearance, politics moved on as though they were dead, although it was never confirmed or denied.

Shakespeare and Thomas More were two Tudor writers convinced of Richard’s involvement although no evidence has been found to connect him to the crime. Rumours swirled but must be taken with a pinch of salt as Richard was unpopular particularly in the south at the time.

Front page of a play reading 'The True Tragedie of Richard III'
Cover page of ‘The True Tragedy of Richard III’, an anonymous Elizabethan history play published in 1594, which some scholars believe may have influenced Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’.

Richard deposed Edward V after evidence appeared of a marriage contract between Edward’s father and Lady Eleanor Butler signed before his marriage with Elizabeth Woodville, the mother of his children, leaving these children illegitimate.

In late 1483, a rebellion brewed in southern England, with even Yorkist supporters and county elites joining. It was suppressed, but most of the leaders escaped to France where they soon recognised the exiled Henry Tudor as their king. Henry and the exiles invaded England in 1485 and headed to Leicester to face Richard III.

Death at the Battle of Bosworth

On 22 August 1485, King Richard III, aged 32, led a cavalry charge and was killed in the final battle of the Wars of the Roses at Bosworth Field. Henry Tudor became the first Tudor king, Henry VII, ending the line of Plantagenet kings as well as the medieval era.

Sketch of Richard III being attacked on his horse in battle
Reconstruction sketch showing the Yorkist King Richard III being attacked by footsoldiers loyal to the Lancastrian challenger, Henry Tudor, during the Battle of Bosworth on the 22 August 1485. © Historic England.

Although Richard’s body was moved from the battlefield and buried (unceremoniously) in the medieval church of the Grey Friars the building itself was lost just a few decades later, meaning his final resting place (and remains) were lost too. In 1538, the Friary was dissolved under the orders of King Henry VIII, leading to its demolition and the site passing into private ownership.

There was also a rumour over a century later, that his remains had been disinterred and thrown into the river Soar during the dissolution of the monasteries, which confused things more. However, some historians, such as David Baldwin, were sure he could still be found in Leicester.

Hunt for the Friary

In 2011, Philippa Langley, member of the Richard III Society, approached University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) with the idea of searching for the burial place of Richard III. The University of Leicester, the Richard III Society and Leicester city council joined forces and began the search for the lost grave in August 2012. Their first task was finding the original site of the friary.

Nothing of the friary remains and the site had been built over many times, but old street names nearby and references in historic texts allowed the team to strongly approximate where it would have stood. They were able to narrow down the search to a car park on New Street and excavation of the site went ahead in August 2012.

Finding the skeleton

A photograph of a group of people standing behind a metal barrier, overlooking the burial excavation areas
The excavation that resulted in the discovery of King Richard III’s remains within the site of the former Greyfriars Friary Church in Leicester in 2012. © Leicester City Council.

Remarkably, the team found evidence for a human burial within hours of the first dig, and they soon confirmed it was located within the choir of the Grey Friars church. The skeleton was found with no coffin or shroud, in a hastily dug grave which aligns with historic reports.

On 5 September 2012, the burial was excavated.

How did they identify the skeleton?

A range of scientific techniques, such as osteology, carbon dating, forensic analysis, genetic analysis and genealogy all led to identifying the skeleton.

Due to the skeleton surviving in good condition and mostly complete, the team was able to determine the age (30-34) and sex of the individual and clearly identify the scoliosis of the spine and the battle wounds in the skull. The wounds suggest he died as a result of a blow to the head – having presumably lost his helmet in battle.

Radio carbon dating helped narrow down the era the skeleton was from, and gave us information about his diet, which aligned with what a noble person of the time would have eaten. It was also the first time micro-computer X-ray tomography had been used in an archaeological investigation, allowing a greater examination of the bones.

DNA analysis was undertaken by Professor Turi King and Professor Kevin Schürer and their paper can be read online. DNA was extracted and compared to the Mitochondrial DNA carried only in Richard’s female-line relatives and the Y chromosome of his living male relatives.

DNA matches were found in Michael Ibsen and Wendy Duldig, descendants of Richard III’s mother Cecily Neville, although the Y chromosome analysis did not. It is likely that a false-paternity event (the presumed father was not the biological father) had occurred somewhere in the 19 generations between Richard III and Henry Somerset, 5th Duke of Beaufort. False-paternity rates are around one to two per cent, per generation, according to work by Turi King and others.

Incredibly, the University of Leicester came to the conclusion that the probability of the skeleton being Richard III was a whopping 99.999%. 

Where do you (re)bury a lost King?

On 4 February 2013, barely six months after the excavation, the University of Leicester announced to the world that the remains found were those of King Richard III.

It was stated from the beginning of the project that if found, Richard would be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral, as the nearest consecrated ground to his final resting place.

Exterior of Leicester Cathedral
Leicester Cathedral. © Historic England / Contributed by Phil Hurd. See the List entry.

After the announcement, however, there were arguments put forward for other sites, including Westminster Abbey or York Minster, which delayed his reburial. His reinternment was allowed to proceed at Leicester in May 2014, after a parliamentary debate and a challenged exhumation license.

On Saturday 22 March, Richard’s remains travelled around Leicestershire visiting spots connected to him – such as Fen Lane Farm, thought to be close to the place of his death. For 6 days, there were events commemorating his life and people lined the streets to witness his final journey. Thousands of people queued to view the coffin as it lay in ‘repose’ before he was reinterred on Thursday 26 March.

A stone tomb with a cross carved into the top, on a black podium which reads Richard III.
Tomb of Richard III in Leicester Cathedral. © Historic England / Contributed by David Lovell. See the List entry.

Recognising its status as ‘one of the most important sites in our national history’, Greyfriars was granted protection as a scheduled monument in December 2017.

The importance of scheduling
The scheduling of archaeological sites ensures that the long-term interests of a nationally-important site are placed first, before any changes can be made to it. Our role is to carefully monitor these sites for future generations to ensure they can play their part in telling our national story.

Further reading

3 comments on “Richard III: The Lost King

  1. artculturetourism

    Wonderful feature, thank you for writing and sharing. I’ve shared on ACT social media.

  2. Ariel Alejandro Wagner

    Excellent! I’m fascinated with the story of the kings in old England. Greetings and congratulations. 🙂

  3. Anne Neville

    This story has been with me all my life for obvious reasons . Thank you for a good clear account of the story. Anne Neville

Leave a Reply