The Battle For Richard III’s Bones

Richard III
University of Leicester

King Richard III just can’t rest in peace. He was the last of the Plantagenet dynasty, and after being killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 by the rival Tudor dynasty, his body was mutilated, stabbed in the ass and buried in a hastily dug grave in the local friary in Leicester. The friary was later destroyed and his grave lost. For a while there was an outhouse right next to it. Eventually his burial site was paved over and became a parking lot.

His luck was looking better when he was rediscovered by archaeologists and his bones became a television sensation. With great fanfare Leicester Cathedral announced that it would spend £1 million ($1.6 million) on a new tomb and a museum about his life and death.

But now it looks like poor Richard won’t rest in peace quite yet. The Daily Telegraph reports that a group called the Plantagenet Alliance, which includes 15 of the king’s descendants, is challenging the decision to bury him in Leicester. The king, they say, had a long relationship with the city of York and had stated that he wanted to be buried in York Minster with the rest of his family.

Archaeologists from the University of Leicester who dug up the king had already received a court’s permission to decide where he should be reinterred and chose Leicester Cathedral. Another judge has decided to allow the Plantagenet Alliance’s complaint to go to court, however, because of the unprecedented nature of the case.

The judge, Mr. Justice Haddon-Cave, has warned both sides to keep the dispute from descending into a “War of the Roses Part Two…It would be unseemly, undignified and unedifying to have a legal tussle over these royal remains.”

Of course, the court’s decision will determine where millions of pounds in potential tourism revenue will go. There’s more than a medieval political rivalry at stake in this case.

5 Overlooked Castles Close To London

castles, England
England is famous for its castles. Giant fortresses such as Bamburgh Castle and Lincoln Castle attract thousands of visitors a year, but people tend to overlook the many smaller, lesser-known castles close to London. These are often as interesting as their more famous cousins and make for enjoyable day trips from London. Here are five of the best.

Hadleigh Castle
Near the town of Hadleigh in Essex stands the ruins of Hadleigh Castle, once a magnificent royal residence. It was started in 1215 and massively expanded by King Edward III (ruled 1327-1377) to be a fortified residence away from the stink and political infighting of London. Sitting atop a high ridge overlooking the Essex marshes, the Thames estuary and the sea, it held an important strategic position. Edward was obviously thinking of it as more than just a relaxing getaway.

The castle has suffered over the years, as you can see in this photo courtesy Ian Dalgliesh. Erosion crumbled the walls, and in 1551 it was purchased by Lord Richard Rich (real name!) who promptly sold off much of the stone. One tower stands to its full height and portions of the walls also remain, so you can get a good idea of what it looked like when it defended southeast England from French invasion during the Hundred Years War.

Hadleigh Castle is in open parkland and is free to the public during daylight hours.

%Gallery-185653%Hedingham Castle
Another Essex castle is Hedingham Castle, one of the best-preserved early Norman fortifications in the country. It’s a motte-and-bailey type, consisting of an artificial mound (motte) with a keep and wall on top, and a lower area enclosed by a wall (bailey). Both parts are surrounded by a ditch. Usually they were built of wood first and later replaced with stone when the local ruler got the time and money. These castles could be built quickly and cheaply and the Normans put them all over England after they conquered the kingdom in 1066.

At Hedingham you can still see the 12th-century keep, which rises 95 feet to give a commanding view of the countryside. It played a key part in the Barons’ War of 1215-1217, when several barons rebelled against the despotic King John. They eventually lost but remarkably this castle survived its siege. The four spacious interior floors are filled with medieval bric-a-brac and the banqueting hall is available for weddings.

Since the castle is still a private residence, it’s open only on selected days.

Longthorpe Tower
In the outskirts of the city of Peterborough in Cambridgeshire stands Longthorpe Tower, an imposing 14th-century tower that is all that remains of a fortified manor house. The outside is impressive enough, but the real treasure is inside, where the walls are covered with magnificent medieval wall paintings from about 1330. They are in such good condition because they were whitewashed over during the Reformation and weren’t discovered again until the 1940s. The paintings show a variety of religious and secular subjects such as the Wheel of Life and scenes from the Nativity and acts of King David.

Longthorpe Tower is only open on weekends. While in Peterborough, also check out the medieval Peterborough Cathedral.

Farnham Castle
An hour’s drive the southwest of London is Farnham, Surrey, where stands one of the most interesting medieval buildings in the region. It started out as a Norman castle built in 1138 by the grandson of William the Conqueror. Destroyed during a civil war in 1155, it was soon rebuilt and eventually became the traditional home of the Bishops of Winchester, including Cardinal Henry Beaufort, who presided over the trial of Joan of Arc and ordered her burned at the stake. In memory of that event, a local church in Farnham is dedicated to Joan.

During the English Civil War, the castle was “slighted” (partially destroyed to render it useless for defense) and it was no longer used for military purposes. The large circular keep still survives in a reduced state. The ornately decorated Bishop’s Palace is in better condition and is now a conference center.

Farnham Castle is privately owned but the keep and Bishop’s Palace are open to the public.

Berkhamsted Castle
An easy walk from Berkhamsted train station in Hertfordshire stands Berkhamsted Castle, a Norman motte-and-bailey castle now fallen into picturesque ruin. While not as impressive as the well-preserved keep of Hedingham Castle, this place has the advantage of being free and open all day for seven months of the year.

Built by William the Conqueror’s half-brother in 1066, it became an important fortification and, like Hedingham Castle, was besieged during the Barons’ War. It was taken by rebel forces with the help of Prince Louis of France after they stormed it with a variety of siege engines, including what’s believed to be the first use of the trebuchet. After the war it was claimed by the Crown and used as a royal fortress until it was allowed to fall into ruin in the late 15th century. By this time castles were becoming outmoded thanks to the development of artillery.

[Photo by Ian Dalgliesh]

Crypts Discovered Under Coventry Cathedral

Coventry Cathedral
Workers at Coventry Cathedral in England have discovered several well-preserved crypts underneath the ruins, the Daily Mail reports.

A maintenance team has been working to repair a crack in the ruins of the 14th century St. Michael’s church, which became a cathedral in 1918 and was mostly destroyed by the Luftwaffe in World War II. When the workers investigated the floor of the cathedral, they discovered nine hidden crypts dating back to the 1350s. They also discovered some bones, thought to be of Coventry’s nobility. Coventry was a wealthy and important city in medieval England and the crypts reflect that in their fine workmanship.

Despite being in ruins, the cathedral is still holy ground as well as a historic monument. The World Monuments Fund has put it on its Watch List to highlight its deteriorating condition. The current cathedral is located right next to it. Cathedral officials announced that they hope to open the crypts to the public to augment what is already the most popular tourist site in Coventry.

The BBC has released a short video of the crypts.

[Photo courtesy Andrew Walker]

London Crossrail Project Unearths Black Death Burial Pit

black death“Bring out your dead!”

If you lived in London in 1348-50, you’d hear that call a lot. All of Europe was swept with the Black Death, a virulent plague that killed an estimated one-third of the population. London, like other congested urban areas, got hit hard.

Now archaeologists working in London have uncovered a mass grave of Black Death victims, a Crossrail press release reports. Digging ahead of the planned London Crossrail transportation project, the team discovered a mass grave of 13 bodies at Charterhouse Square, an area known as a burial ground during the plague. Pottery from the mid-14th century found at the site helps confirm the identification.

The bodies were laid out neatly in rows, hinting that the burial ground was from the early stages of the Black Death. When the plague was going full force, bodies were simply dumped into giant pits.

Now archaeologists are examining the bones to learn more about how the people lived, including diet, physical health and work-related wear and tear on the body. They also hope to find surviving DNA from the plague to give scientists a better idea of how it developed. Researchers stress that the plague bacteria cannot live for long in the soil and the excavation poses no health risk.

This is only the latest in a series of finds by the Crossrail workers. Earlier we reported on their discovery of a 3,500-year-old Bronze Age trackway. The Crossrail project is a high-speed train system that will link 37 stations along 73 miles of track through London. It’s due to open in 2018.

Sadly, the 14th century plague was only the first wave of a persistent contagion. The Black Death returned to London several times, the worst being in 1665-6, when it killed 100,000 Londoners.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Scientists Confirm Remains Of King Richard III Have Been Found

Richard IIIArchaeologists from the University of Leicester have confirmed that they have found the remains of King Richard III beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England.

Richard III was the last of the Plantagenet kings and fought an epic struggle with the Tudors during the War of the Roses for control of England. He was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Support for the Plantagenet line crumbled and soon Henry Tudor was crowned King Henry VII.

After the battle, Richard III’s body was buried in the church choir of the Franciscan friary of the Grey Friars. Dr. Richard Buckley, lead archaeologist for the project, explained that the church’s location has always been generally known although the friary was dissolved in 1538 and soon all trace of the building above ground had disappeared.

Two trenches were dug at the site last August and human remains were found almost immediately. One male skeleton had suffered from scoliosis that led to curvature of the spine. It was also unusually slender and aged in its early thirties. All characteristics agree with contemporary descriptions of Richard III.

There are ten trauma wounds on the body. Eight are on the skull. One was from a bladed weapon that cut off a section from the base of the skull. A second injury, also on the base of the skull, cut through the bone as well. Both of these wounds would have been fatal. Several other blows shaved off pieces of bone or left pockmarks in the skull. It appears that Richard wasn’t wearing a helmet by this point in the battle.Two cut marks on the rib and pelvis also appear to have been inflicted after his armor was removed. The archaeologists theorize that Richard III was stripped and given “humiliation injuries,” a common practice with dead or dying victims in the Middle Ages. Historical sources state that Richard’s naked body was slung over a horse and brought to town after the Battle of Bosworth. It may have been at this time that the extra injuries occurred.

Richard III almost suffered another humiliation centuries later when the foundation for a 19th-century brick outhouse nearly cut into his grave.

Initially the archaeologists thought they’d found a barb, perhaps from an arrow, in the body but it turns out that this was probably a Roman nail disturbed from an earlier site. No other artifacts were found in the burial.

The next step was to radiocarbon date the bone. Results showed that they dated to the late 15th early 16th century. This was all interesting but still only circumstantial evidence. There was still no proof that they had found the lost king. There was also the troubling popular legend that an angry mob threw his remains into the River Soar after the dissolution of the friary. There’s even a historic plaque at the location where this was supposed to have taken place.

The university tracked down some descendants of Richard III who agreed to give DNA samples to compare with DNA extracted from the skeleton. This was the clincher. Project geneticist Dr. Turi King confirmed at a press conference today that, “The DNA evidence points to these being the remains of Richard III.”

Dr. Richard Buckley added that they could now confirm that the body is that of Richard III “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Back in December, some of this information was leaked to the press, but today’s news conference is the first official confirmation that archaeologists have, indeed found a lost medieval king.

Richard III’s remains will be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral early next year. A permanent exhibition about Richard III and the excavation will open in town at about the same time. The university has also launched a new Richard III website.

[Top photo courtesy University of Leicester. Bottom image of the Battle of Bosworth courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Richard III
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