Winter of discontent as we await the truth

In the New Year we’ll learn if bones from a city car park really are those of Richard III. Michael Hickling reports on the future for the last King of the House of York.

History is written by the victors, or most memorably in this case by one of the inheritors of the victors’ story, William Shakespeare.

He created the Richard III we know, with a hump and a limp and a shrivelled arm, a character who gleefully confides to the theatre audience that he’s so ugly dogs bark at him. He’s a child murderer, a sexual predator, a psychopath crippled in mind and body. It’s a magnificent creation. But Shakespeare had no first-hand knowledge of the man he wrote about.

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His play Richard III was published just over a century after the naked body of this last Plantagenet monarch, newly-slain in battle at nearby Market Bosworth, was displayed at Leicester in the summer of 1485. To create his monstrous character, the playwright drew on unreliable sources which put a spin on scarce facts to suit the outlook of the victor of Bosworth, Henry Tudor and his successors.

Today there are people who still care about the injustice of it. Among them are the members of the Richard III Society who insist Richard was neither a ruthless opportunist nor horrible to look at.

Today in Leicester you can find their arch villain, Will Shakespeare, swinging on the sign of the Shakespeare’s Head pub. He gazes across to a gaping space which used to be the Midland Red bus depot. Adjacent to it is a smaller car park belonging to Leicester council.

In August the world’s attention was drawn here when archaeologists, prompted by members of the Richard III Society, dug out a trench and unearthed a skeleton. It’s not certain if these are the remains of Richard III. The results of an array of scientific tests will be ready in the New Year. But even a provisional identification was sufficient for the global media. Richard III is a star, as fact or fiction, and there are now plenty of people who want him returned to Yorkshire where he spent his boyhood and youth at Middleham Castle.

Online petitions, including one organised by another scholarly body called the Richard III Foundation, call for him to be buried at York Minster. These demands will gather momentum if the bones are genuinely regal.

Leicester meanwhile is determined to hang on what they found. A licence has been issued for Richard’s burial in Leicester Cathedral and sentiment apart, economic motives are driving things forward.

There is a lot of history underneath Leicester, but not much for people to see. A royal tomb and some sort of Richard III visitor experience would give this corner of the East Midlands a tourism leg-up.

It’s already taken hold of the public imagination around the world. I arrived in the car park for an interview with the head digger, Richard Buckley, a mundane spot where cars are lined up on new tarmac that covers two of the trenches dug by the archaeologists and a marquee protects the third where the skeleton, since removed to the laboratories, was uncovered.

On this weekday afternoon it had also lured a gentleman of middle age whose need for news of Richard III was so urgent that he butted in on our interview. Mr Hoy, as he introduced himself, had come over from Brisbane. His wife, he explained, was related to the Plantagenets and the enthusiastic Mr Hoy added for good measure that one of his forbears had actually emigrated to Australia on a vessel named Plantagenet.

We were standing on the site of a former Franciscan friary and Grey Friars church. The friary was done away with by Henry VIII and according to legend, it was around this time that Richard III’s body was dug up from Grey Friars and tipped into the nearby River Soar. A plaque on one of the bridges marks the spot.

It’s contradicted by another story which says that in the early 17th-century, Sir Christopher Wren’s father came to visit the Mayor of Leicester who had built a mansion on this land and he reported being shown a little column in the garden which said, “Near this spot lies Richard III, sometime King of England”.

Richard Buckley, the director of the University of Leicester Archaeological Services is Leicester born and bred and conducted his first excavation here (another friary) in 1973.

We stroll down to Castle Gardens to continue the interview and sit under a modern statue of Richard III who has been made to look charismatic and dynamic. It seems reasonable to think any effective warlord of that bloody period in our history – as Richard certainly was – would indeed have appeared as forceful and fierce as this. Contemporary observers (but not all of them) noted that one of his shoulders was higher than the other. In modern times, a spinal condition, scoliosis, has been suggested as the cause.

Richard Buckley does not claim special insight into the big questions raised about the King he was asked to search for. “Archaeology is not something that can answer what his personality was like.”

His car park job, which only lasted for just over three weeks, was unlike any other he has undertaken. Finding famous people is not normally an archaeologist’s brief. “Most archaeology is done in advance of developments. The Grey Friars was not thought of as the subject of study. But I have worked in Leicester for 30 years and was keen to know more about it.

“So I went into it with enthusiasm – but no great hopes of finding Richard III. It was a million to one chance. I said I’d eat my hat if we did. I really didn’t think we would find anything. It was quite a small project, more like an evaluation.”

The cost was £30,000 and only half of that money was for the archaeology. The remainder was to pay for the reinstatement of the area afterwards. It must be the best £15,000 ever spent on digging by the project’s joint funders, Leicester University, the Richard III Society and Leicester Council. The value of the publicity already generated must be many times that figure.

“I decided where the trenches were going,” adds Richard. “The actual Grey Friars was much bigger than the car park. We expected to find a wall, but it can still be hard to tell whether that puts you inside or outside the building.”

Hopes were not high about identifying anything much. But the diggers came across some mortar to indicate they were at the east end of the Grey Friars church.

That brought another snag – there could be any number of burials here. In the event they only found one articulated skeleton (one which is assumed to have been buried as intended while there were still ligaments and flesh holding it together) and astonishingly they reckoned they seemed to have hit the jackpot.

One of the team, Dr Mathew Morris, had first come across a leg sticking out into the 30-metre trench from the side. The spine of the skeleton had a kink in it, plus an arrowhead, indicating violent death.

“I was on site talking to various people. Dr Jo Appleby (another player on the team who specialises in bones) was digging and Dr Morris came over to tell me,” says Richard. What did he do? He laughs. “I did a little dance. I said, ‘No, no, you’ve got to be kidding. I can’t believe it’. It was difficult to remain cool.”

Very soon, Richard Buckley found himself fielding questions from Morning Report New Zealand, Voice of Russia and other reporters from around the world. “It was all a bit of a blur.”

In a few weeks time we should be able to gaze on the face of the real Richard III (or if not of someone who can reveal a great deal about the world he lived in).

To begin with, the skeleton was cleaned and given a computed-tomography (CT) scan. From this the scientists began building up a 3D digital image to reconstruct how the individual looked – just as they brought to life Tutankhamun’s face from CT scans of the 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy. Samples of dental calculus – mineralised dental plaque – will help them discover what this man of the 1480s ate, his health and living conditions. Most intriguing of all, samples have been taken from the teeth and a long bone so that ancient DNA can be extracted and compared with that of Michael Ibsen. He’s a 55 year-old cabinet maker from Canada now living in London who is believed to be a descendant of Richard III’s sister, Anne of York, via the female line.

Radiocarbon should be able to show to within 80 years the date of death and how it happened. Specialists in medieval battles and weaponry have been called in to work out what could have caused the terrible damage to the skeleton’s skull. The ancient DNA testing takes time, so don’t be misled by what happens when fictional detectives use this method on the telly. “It’s not like CSI,” says Richard Buckley.

The answers that the skeleton can provide – Richard III, yes or no – look likely to be made public to coincide with a Channel 4 documentary. The film makers have been at the side of the team since day one. “That’s why it’s so weird,” says Richard. “I thought to myself, if a film crew were here it’s doomed to failure. It was tempting fate.”

He considers the evidence they have found. “Nothing was found with the skeleton, apart from an iron object between two vertebrae. There was no evidence of a coffin and no other objects, no adornment. The body was buried in a high status part of the church but had not been accorded any honours.

“What we can never know was whether Henry Tudor asked the Franciscans to do this – and whether money changed hands.

“The location in a friary, rather than a parish church meant the body was off-limits to the public and therefore could not be the subject of pilgrimages.” No doubt there will be many like Brisbane’s eager Mr Hoy who are ready to travel any distance to wherever he is finally laid.

As for the verdict of history, does Richard Buckley go with those who believe Richard III was a good man, or was he a bad man?

“I sit on the fence.”

Richard III and the ‘Princes in the Tower’

Richard, born in 1452, had a claim to the throne through both parents. His father’s conflict with Henry VI was a major cause of the Wars of the Roses and both Richard’s father and his older brother were killed at the battle of Wakefield in 1460. Another of his brothers became King Edward IV.

Edward died in 1483, when his son, Edward V, was only 12 years-old. Richard was named protector of the realm. As King Edward V travelled from Ludlow to London for his coronation, Richard intercepted the cavalcade and had Edward lodge in the royal apartments in the Tower of London, where his brother joined him. The boys were declared to be illegitimate and Richard took the throne. A month later, the two boys had disappeared and were never seen again.

In late August 1485, Richard became the last English king to die on the battlefield.