The skull of Richard III. Analysis of its DNA traces, using modern scientific techniques, provided a clear identification

Body of evidence

John Holt , Issue 115/04, p26-29, 01.04.2015
With the mortal remains of Richard III laid to rest last month, John Holt hears how the body of England’s last Plantagenet king was discovered under a council car park, and finds out what Leicester’s cultural sector did next
The Story of Leicester project was launched in 2012 to chronicle the life and times of what is reckoned to be the most archaeologically explored city outside London.

It began with Visions of Ancient Leicester, a book with specially commissioned artwork that revealed what excavations below the Highcross shopping centre had revealed about how people lived in the area between the first and 16th centuries. That was followed by heritage trails, new literature and websites and a brand new facility, the VisitLeicester information centre.

It was at the formal opening of the centre on 8 September 2012 that Sarah Levitt, the head of arts and museums at Leicester City Council, had some exciting news to tell Peter Soulsby, the city’s mayor, about a rather important archaeological discovery.

“I was hopping up and down a bit but managed to tell him that, just around the corner, archaeologists had found the body of Richard III,” she says.

So what began as a re-booted interest in local history was to become a global game-changer. Finding the body of the king, long-believed to have been buried in the Grey Friars’ church after his death on the Bosworth battlefield in 1485, was about to place Leicester on the international stage.
 
Soulsby was keen to promote the area’s rich heritage and jumped on the opportunity provided by the discovery. “Sir Peter later came to the burial site and took an interest in an old Victorian school next door, saying ‘We’ll have the Richard III Visitor Centre there’, long before there was scientific proof it was the king,” Levitt says. “It was obviously a leap of faith, but the centre was up and running within two years.”

Like everyone else at the time, Leicester’s museums and arts department had been sceptical about the original dig proposed by Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society some 18 months previously, but felt there might be some mileage in the excavation, whether or not royal remains were brought to the surface.

“It was never going to be just a ‘bone hunt’,” Levitt says. “The University of Lei-cester’s archaeological services team, whose archives we hold and with whom we have worked closely for many years, had a keen interest in that unexplored part of the city and we believed it could only further our own heritage investigations.”

In February 2013, it was announced that the unearthed skeleton was Richard III, a fact proven beyond doubt by modern scientific techniques and a mouth-swab provided by the king’s 17th great-grand-nephew, a carpenter who was later asked to make a coffin for his famous forebear.

An accompanying Channel 4 documentary was aired that night and a temporary exhibition in the city’s Guildhall – which attracted some 200,000 visitors in two years – opened a few days later.Leicester became a historical hot-spot as the world’s monarchy-mad media des-cended on the final resting place of an English king; the city’s institutions realised they had to work together in order to manage – and make the most of – the unprecedented interest.

“This was a huge opportunity; like any other city, Leicester has a great need to develop during difficult economic times,” Levitt says. “Tourism is obviously a key area for growth but economic regeneration through heritage is important in order to create an attractive place in which people can live and work.”

Not everyone felt they could rejoice at Leicester’s good fortune, however. Opposition groups – keen to repudiate what they called the “distorted Shakespearean” depiction of the king and to reclaim his reputation as well as his remains – began a campaign to have the former Governor of the North buried in York Minster.

“They began to question more loudly why Leicester should be able to take advantage of the discovery and use it as an opportunity rather than merely showing respect to an anointed king,” says Levitt, who feels that the brand new visitor centre and cathedral tomb and memorial are suitably respectful to Richard’s memory.

This wasn’t the first time opponents had questioned the city’s intentions. After an announcement that soil analysis from the burial site had revealed that the king had roundworm, the university received some “difficult mail”.

People said quite virulent things in a lot of correspondence to us and threats were made to individuals,” says Levitt, who thinks the outcome of the judicial review into the final royal resting place was correct and should serve as the last word on the topic.

“But even if that had gone against us, it couldn’t have ended there,” she said.
“Could you possibly imagine, after all the work they had done, one of the university archaeologists putting the bones in a car and handing them over at some halfway house on the road to York? It’s unthinkable.”

Eating his hat-shaped cake

“I thought there was no hope,” says Richard Buckley, the director of the University of Leicester Archaeological Services, of the moment he learned of the plan to look for the remains of Richard III.

“As an archaeologist, you would never set out to search for a named individual. I thought, if we were lucky, we might find the Grey Friars’ church, which would have fitted in nicely with the rest of the work that we were doing around the city.”

Indeed, having declared he would “eat his hat” should the king be found, Buckley is now pictured in the King Richard III Visitor Centre tucking into a hat-shaped cake. The discovery of the skeleton, showing its battle wounds and deformity-suggesting scoliosis, prompted the university to initiate a major programme of scientific analysis.

“Radio-carbon dating, done because there were no grave goods present to indicate the period, gave us a model date between 1450 and 1540, within the ballpark of Bosworth and our first piece of scientific evidence,” Buckley says.

“His diet was very high in protein and had a high marine content, which also singled him out as a high-status individual for the time. All this stuff helps to build a case but it was the DNA match that provided the real proof.”

Genetics and archaeology specialist Turi King led the DNA research in the labs at Leicester, which is, appropriately enough, the home university of the genetic fingerprinting pioneer Alec Jeffreys.

The scientists were joined by experts such as Bob Woosnam-Savage, the curator of European edged weapons at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, who was called in to review the wounds and suggest what had made them.

“I received a letter from someone who has written extensively on the burials of European monarchs, who made the point that he wished he’d had as much evidence as we did when he carried out his work,” says Buckley, whose professional life was changed by Richard III.

“If we had not found the king, I’d still have gone home happy in the knowledge that we had discovered the chapter house in the church and had a rough idea of the layout of some other buildings,” he says. “That would have done for me.”

Working together

In September 2013, the Leicester Cathedral Quarter Partnership Board was formed to ensure that all interested parties – religious, academic and administrative – were, to coin a phrase, singing from the same hymn sheet.

“Partnership working becomes extremely important when different kinds of institutions with straitened budgets and varied means and speeds of communication have to stay connected throughout a project like this,” says the Very Reverend David Monteith, Dean of Leicester.

The dean’s own job description includes responsibility for the cathedral building itself, which was proposed in Philippa Langley’s original project plan as the site of Richard’s new resting place. Plans were, however, already in place to refit the cathedral interior and create a new adjoining diocesan headquarters and training rooms long before the original dig.

“Finding Richard III, however, meant that all these works were no longer just long-term aspirations but things that suddenly needed to be achieved quite quickly,” Monteith says.
“We could not work out the location or design of the place for the king without having a completed masterplan of the cathedral, as permissions for change would only have been granted within the overall narrative.

“We worked at full pelt and, obviously, at some risk because we could not have been sure of what the judicial review might say over the Leicester/York reinterment issue. As it was, we worked on the advice we received.”

The Leicester group planned the scheme closely with two regulatory bodies, the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England – who requested changes to an initial tomb design they thought was too fussy – and the Advisory Panel on the Archaeology of Burials in England, which normally likes all evidence and peer reviews in place before it will even consider an application.

“Like many heritage institutions, these organisations are not designed to make decisions quickly,” Monteith says. “They are designed to make decisions carefully. But everyone was really helpful as they realised the unique pressures we faced.”

With the paperwork complete, work began on the reconstruction of the heart of the cathedral with the main focus of worship shifted from the east end to a central location under the tower to create a new space for the king’s remains and memorial.
 
As plans progressed, however, interested parties campaigning for a York reinterment also made their feelings known to the dean.“A lot of the communication was far from palatable; this entire project has stirred strong opinions of different kinds,” says Monteith.

“All the way through this, I have been trying to understand what sits behind all this anger. Maybe when all is done and time has passed, we will begin to recognise more clearly what it is about a 500-year-old story, about which none of us can know everything, that can press such passionate buttons in people.”

Telling the story

Work began on the King Richard III Visitor Centre in November 2013, with the former grammar school building undergoing a total refurbishment, complete with an extension to cover the site of the grave in tasteful glass and stone. The centre opened on 26 July 2014.

“The most important thing was to provide an appropriate setting for the story and then strike a balance so that we were not over-academic and wordy or being seen to dumb it down,” says Iain Gordon, the director at the visitor centre.
 
Downstairs, the aim is to provide visitors with the information they need to make up their own minds about Richard III, while the story of the dig and subsequent investigations is explored on the upper level.

Gordon says that there’s plenty to astound historians and non-scholars alike.
“Even if you’re coming here with a deep understanding of the period, you probably won’t be too clued-up on isotopes or the mitochondrial genome match DNA analysis used to identify the skeleton,” he says.

Some, however, found the centre and its contents not to their taste, without, apparently, ever having set foot in Leicester. “There was a campaign to discredit us after the judicial review. We had people leaving critical reviews online and objecting to our very existence,” Gordon says.

“A lot of the detail had been taken out of context from press announcements, but it caused a debate and gave us a little more publicity,” says Gordon, who used to be a front-of-house manager at Staffordshire’s Alton Towers theme park.

“The two places actually have much in common,” Gordon says. “The seasonality of operating any visitor attraction holds true, and the importance of communicating with and listening to your visitors is the same whether you receive the 2.5 million visitors we had at Alton Towers or the 100,000 we’re hoping for in our first year here.”

John Holt is a freelance journalist

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