From car park to cathedral . . . missing no longer!

King Richard III

King Richard III

It’s been a remarkable six month or so journey. Who would have believed that when archaeologists from the University of Leicester began digging up a municipal car park in the the city in August 2012 – on the supposedly wild goose chase to find the remains of the last Plantagenet king, Richard III – that they would have been so incredibly successful. And in such a short time.

I’ve been fascinated by the unfolding story of the dig, and the extraordinary ‘appliance of science’ to arrive at irrefutable conclusions. From all appearances, the project has demonstrated remarkable teamwork among staff at the university (primarily the Departments of Archaeology & Ancient History and Genetics) and the King Richard III Society. And the team reached out to other experts to fill in the gaps, so to speak.

Last week there was a fascinating TV program that filled in some of the details about how the discovery of the skeleton came about, and how the people involved went about to confirm its identity.

Of course, one has to pay credit to Philippa Langley of the King Richard III Society who seems to have been the driving force behind the whole project – and believed! But the project also seems to be a good example of ‘the perfect storm’ – so many things came together at the same time.

It was long believed that King Richard had been buried in Leicester, probably at the Greyfriars Friary that disappeared after the Reformation in the sixteenth century. But where to begin to look in a city that had been paved over for centuries.

Piece of luck, number 1. It seems there is still a good coincidence between today’s streets and those of medieval times. Overlaying maps, the team was able to focus in on a part of the city that is still known as Greyfriars, in fact to a municipal car park. And the archaeology team opened three trenches. Almost immediately they uncovered human remains. But were they the remains of King Richard III? That’s where the appliance of science came to the fore. However, as one of the archaeology team pointed out, opening a trench just 50 cm to one side or the other and they would have missed the skeleton altogether.

So what was the evidence that this really was King Richard III?

  • The skeleton appeared to have been buried in haste, possibly with wrists bound together, and showing considerable trauma such as fatal blows to the skull.
  • The spine showed severe twisting or scoliosis which Richard was known to suffer from, although there was no evidence of a withered left arm (another piece of Tudor propaganda?).
  • On closer analysis, however, there were features of the skeleton which suggested that it might be female (subsequently disproved), such as shape of the pelvis and slender forearms. Apparently Richard was reported, even in his own lifetime, to be somewhat ‘slender’.
  • Careful CT scans were made of the skeleton before cleaning, and 3D images of the skull were used by Professor Caroline Wilkinson, Professor of Craniofacial Identification at the University of Dundee to attempt a facial reconstruction (that was revealed after the skeleton’s identity was confirmed as that of Richard III).
  • Carbon dating evidence was rather interesting. From unadjusted data it appeared that the person had died some decades before Richard did at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485. However, it seems that this person had a diet rich in fish and seafood (a sign of affluence) and this made the skeleton appear older than it was. An adjusted date covered the 1485 period.
  • Then there’s the genealogical data. Some years earlier, direct descendants of Richard III’s elder sister, Anne of York, had been traced (over 18 generations). In fact several descendants have been traced, but some wish to remain anonymous. One was a Canadian cabinet maker living in London, who is the great, great, great . . . nephew of Richard III. And this leads on to the most exciting aspect – the DNA analysis.

  • Genetic fingerprinting was ‘invented’ at the University of Leicester by Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys FRS in the 1980s. And it turns out that there are several lines of research in the Department of Genetics at Leicester studying lines of descent and their correlation with surnames. Using mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is inherited only through the female side, geneticist Dr Turi King was able to show unequivocally that there was a perfect match between the mtDNA of the skeleton and our Canadian cabinet maker, thus proving that the skeleton was indeed that of King Richard III. Perfect matches were also made with another descendant of Anne of York, and the skeleton was confirmed as ‘male’ through analysis of Y chromosome DNA.

So many different strands of interest and expertise came together in this exciting project, and all at the right time. The team has to be congratulated for all their efforts – it really has been a most exciting story to follow. Now let’s see where they do finally decide to re-bury the king: Leicester or York (which is lobbying hard). I think Leicester will win out.

Update (18 March 2015)
Well, Leicester has ‘won’ if that’s the correct description, and the remains of Richard III will be interred next week – with all appropriate honour – in Leicester Cathedral. And rightly so. The hoo-ha of where he should be buried has certainly demeaned this incredible project.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, as I was surfing through the web pages of The Guardian earlier this morning, I came across a link where you can find much more information about the whole Richard III project since I first wrote this particular blog post just two years ago.


Lucy in the sky . . .

Today, the weather couldn’t be more different than yesterday when, with a clear blue sky and not a cloud, we headed out on our first National Trust visit of 2013. We’d just been waiting for the weather to improve.  And yesterday, Spring had truly sprung. Out of the wind it was really warm; it actually reached 13.1°C at Wellesbourne (one of the warmest places in the West Midlands yesterday), just a mile down the road from Charlecote Park, a Tudor mansion built beside the River Avon in Warwickshire, about half way between Stratford-upon-Avon and Warwick.

The Tudor gatehouse at the end of the main drive, in front of the house

Since we joined the National Trust a couple of years ago, we visited nearly all the ‘low-hanging fruit’ – the properties reasonably close to our home. Hopefully as the weather improves over the coming months we’ll find it easier to travel further afield. Charlecote Park lies at the heart of a rather small estate, only about 75 ha, alongside the River Avon, and is the home (since the mid 13th century) of the Lucy family and descendants. The current house was built by Sir Thomas Lucy in the mid-16th century, but has been extensively modified in the intervening centuries, most significantly during Victorian times. The direct Lucy line died out in the mid-19th century, and Charlecote Park was inherited by the family that still lives in one of the wings, the Fairfax-Lucy’s. The tomb of Sir Thomas Lucy survives in the adjacent church, St Leonard’s, which was founded in Norman times but the building today is mainly Victorian. It has some beautiful stained glass windows, and the sculpted marble or alabaster tombs of Sir Thomas and others taken from the old church.

Stained glass window above the altar in St Leonard's, Charlecote

Stained glass window above the altar in St Leonard’s, Charlecote

Tomb of Sir Thomas Lucy and his wife

In the house there is access to the Great Hall inside the main entrance, the billiards and drawing rooms downstairs, and several bedrooms upstairs, as well as the main staircase. In the grounds are outbuildings housing a collection of Victorian carriages, and the laundry and brewery. In one wing is an immense Victorian kitchen.

In the brew house – there are plans to begin brewing at Charlecote once again

The formal grounds are quite limited – mainly a parterre beside the River Avon, from which there are views across the meadows to the village of Hampton Lucy (about 1 mile away) and what looks like its magnificent parish church of St Peter ad Vincula which, surprisingly, I’ve discovered was built in 1822 and added to 30 years later. In the park there are flocks of rare breed Jacob sheep and fallow deer, the later introduced in Tudor times in the 16th century.

Church of St Peter ad Vincula in Hampton Lucy, from Charlecote Park

Church of St Peter ad Vincula in Hampton Lucy, from Charlecote Park

The parterre beside the River Avon

Legend has it that the young William Shakespeare was caught poaching rabbits in the grounds of Charlecote Park in about 1583 (there’s a second edition folio of Shakespeare’s complete works on display in the Great Hall). The playwright had his ‘revenge’, it is said, on Sir Thomas Lucy by lampooning him as Justice Shallow in two of his plays: Henry IV (Part II) and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The Great Hall – interestingly, the ceiling is not wood but plaster molded and painted to look like timber

In some ways, this visit to Charlecote Park was a disappointment, despite the beautiful weather. The formal gardens were small – I had expected something more extensive. And access to parts of the house was rather limited, partly due to the fact that some sections of the house were being rewired. Nevertheless there were some beautiful objects on display. There was a large nursery selling plants for the garden – hellebores seemed to be the specialty.

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