The single most extraordinary story I have ever come across began on a late summer morning in 2012.
I have been enthralled by the remarkable events which took place ever since and it continues to capture imaginations.
It all began in the relatively small, easterly midlands city of Leicester. Not exactly a quiet English backwater but certainly not a city which would top any lists of exciting places to visit in the UK.
Bizarrely and incredibly, Leicester City won their first ever English football Premier League title on 2nd May 2016, at odds of a staggering 5,000 to 1.
It was comfortably beyond any sporting achievement anyone in England can remember in living memory.
However, even more curiously, a series of events, each one more improbable that the last, began to occur in the same city three years and eight months previously.
Events that make even those astronomical odds pale into insignificance.
A King of England was discovered under a grey, city centre Council staff car park.
Not only a King, but perhaps one of the most famous in all of English history, the notorious, revered and reviled Richard III.
The last warrior King of England and the last to die in battle.
Richard III, the legendary final ruler of the Plantagenet dynasty, was killed on 22 August 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth by Henry Tudor’s invading forces, the bloody and decisive battle of the Wars of the Roses.
His naked, battered body was brutally slung upon a horse, and taken to the nearby Greyfriars Friary in Leicester, where it was buried in a hastily dug grave in the friary church where it lay undisturbed for 527 years.
Following the friary’s dissolution and subsequent demolition in 1538 Richard’s tomb was lost, seemingly forever. An erroneous account arose in the intervening years that Richard’s bones had been thrown into the River Soar at the nearby Bow Bridge.
Thousands of stories of Richard have been written down the centuries, including famous portrayals from everything including Shakespeare to Blackadder.
His legend and notoriety simply transcend comprehension.
A search for Richard’s body began in earnest in August 2012, initiated by the Looking for Richard project with the support of the Richard III Society.
The archeological excavation was led by the University of Leicester working in partnership with the Council. Richard Buckley, Head of the University of Leicester’s Archaeology Services stated that “the chance of finding Richard was … a million to one.”
On Saturday 25 August that million to one, happened.
What is almost as remarkable as finding Richard is that he was actually found on the very first day of the dig and his remains were found under the letter ‘R’ painted onto the surface on the car park to delineate a reserved space for a visitor of some importance.
On the first day a spade hit a human leg bone.
A human skeleton belonging to a man in his thirties was uncovered showing signs of severe injuries. The skeleton, which had several unusual physical features, most notably scoliosis, a severe curvature of the back, was exhumed to allow scientific analysis.
Examination showed that the man had probably been killed either by a blow from a large bladed weapon, probably a halberd (a fearsome, two-handed pole axe type weapon), which cut off the back of his skull and exposed the brain, or by a sword thrust that penetrated all the way through the brain. Other wounds on the skeleton had probably occurred after death as “humiliation injuries”, inflicted as a form of posthumous revenge.
Sideways curvature of his spine was evident as the skeleton was excavated. It has been attributed to adolescent-onset scoliosis. Although it was probably visible in making his right shoulder higher than the left and reducing his apparent height, it did not preclude an active lifestyle, and would not have caused a hunchback.
The bones were those of a male with an age range estimation of 30–34, consistent with Richard, who was 32 when he died.
Months of scientific tests preceded a press conference in February 2013, which was front page news and was relayed live around the world.
On 4 February 2013, the University of Leicester confirmed to the world that the skeleton was indeed that of Richard III.
This sent shockwaves through the Archeological communities but also captured the hearts and imaginations of the Great British public. It also garnered mass international attention from everywhere from Fox News to CNN reporting on this almost ‘miracle-like’ discovery.
The dating of the bones, the battlefield injuries including a gaping hole in the skull and the matching of DNA handed down from his mother through the unbroken female line with two living relatives established “beyond reasonable doubt” that the body really was Richard’s.
Confirmative DNA came from Michael Ibsen, Richard III’s nephew 16 times removed.
Interestingly, as part of the reburial process and ceremony Michael, a cabinet maker by trade, would build the regal coffin of his famous ancestor.
The discovery of King Richard III is nothing short of miraculous, an emotional link to a bygone agePhilippa Langley, Originator of the ‘Looking for Richard’ project
On Sunday 22 March 2015, with the words “King Richard, may you rest in peace in Leicester”, the coffined bones, carried on a horse-drawn hearse, were welcomed back into the city. It was a key moment in a remarkable day, when a solemn cortege including knights on horseback accompanied the remains back to the battlefield and other sites associated with the king’s last day.
The procession passed Bow Bridge where, according to local legend, Richard knocked his heel against a stone as he rode out to his last battle on that fateful day.
The legend says the same stone was struck by his bloodied head when he was carried back as “a miserable spectacle”, according to Thomas More, slung “like a hogge or a calfe, the head and armes hangyng on the one side of the horse and the legs on the other side”.
In the politically charged atmosphere of regime change, the clergy of Greyfriars accepted the responsibility of finding the final resting place for a toppled king. They buried Richard in a hastily dug grave without coffin or shroud, but in a position of honour near their high altar.
Over the centuries, the friary was demolished, apart from one small stretch of wall, and its exact site lost. Although the area was still known as Greyfriars, it was believed that all trace of the grave had been destroyed in later construction on the site: in fact, a crucial section had remained open ground and preserved the gardens of large houses and later a school yard.
Following a week of services and special events, The King was formally reburied on Thursday 26 March 2015 in the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The service was shown live on Channel 4 in the UK and included papers for Richard III and the victims of Bosworth.
Actor, Benedict Cumberbach, a distant relative of Richard, who would soon portray in in the BBC adaptation The Hollow Crown, read a poem written for the service by poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy.
The journey of the funeral cortège bearing Richard’s coffin through rural Leicestershire was an absolutely surreal and striking sight. Flanked by two men on horseback in full knights armour and regalia it is a sight that will never been seen again.
A King who took his last breath in these very fields, passing through some 530 years later in a ceremony befitting someone who once ruled this land.
Richard would have recognised these sights including Sutton Cheney – where the king took his final Mass at St James’ church. Nothing much has changed here in the previous five centuries.
The night before the battle Richard stayed at the Blue Boar Inn, a large, modern (for the time) establishment on Leicester’s old High Street.
After riding from Nottingham, Richard stayed at the Blue Boar on the night of 20 August 1485, reputedly in his own bed which he had brought with him. The next morning he rode out of the town, spending the night of 21 August under canvas before meeting his destiny the following day at Bosworth Field.
The Blue Boar itself was constructed in the mid-15th century and was a large coaching inn, providing food, drink and accommodation for wealthy travellers. On his previous visits to Leicester, Richard had stayed in the Castle, but by 1485 that was starting to fall into disrepair.
He would however have taken mass and prayer in the St Mary de Castro church within the castle grounds (https://famouspastwords.co.uk/2020/03/09/st-mary-de-castro-leicester/)
In 1836 the Blue Boar was demolished, the site of the original building is now, appropriately, a Travelodge.
It is that emotional and very tangible link with a bygone era that makes this all so very special. The funeral of a man who died over 500 years ago with his remains passing through today’s modern world provides such a surreal juxtaposition that we are unlikely to ever see again, all witnessed by people with a great sense of curiosity and respect, people who, under ordinary circumstances could only in the strangest of dreams think that they would one day see with their very own eyes, the final journey of King Richard III
As you enter the grave site within the visitor centre you can stand directly above the Kings resting place for all those centuries a metre and a half below, lying down there undisturbed whilst the modern world evolved rapidly above.
I wonder how many people have walked over this very spot completely unawares as to what lies beneath. The place is very tranquil as you ponder the Kings life, reign and final battle all which led to him being placed within this very place.
100 yards over the road within the Cathedral there is an atmosphere of remembrance and a sense of finality to this astonishing story in that Richard was eventually found, against all the odds, and eventually got a dignified burial, now resting in a place of importance befitting the most important man in England for a time and certainly one of the most legendary men in history.
For a fantastic, in depth look at behind this most extraordinarily serendipitous archaeological project of modern times I would recommend the Channel 4 documentary ‘The King in the Car Park’ as well as a visit to the full story of the dig here – https://www.le.ac.uk/richardiii/archaeology.html