They paved the church and, a half-millennium later, put up a parking lot.
Archaeologists from the University of Leicester must have considered themselves lucky to have only a lowly parking lot standing in the way of their digging for a long-lost monastery believed to have hidden the bones of King Richard III for more than 500 years. The team announced today that the skeleton they found last summer in a hastily-made grave belonged "beyond reasonable doubt" to one of England's most notorious rulers.
But how was such an important royal figure forgotten under a patch of asphalt?
Richard III, immortalized by Shakespeare's play of the same name as a deformed villain and scheming seducer, was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the last English king to die in battle. According to John Rous, author of the History of England (1486), he was buried with the Franciscans in Leicester. Archival evidence indicated that Henry VII had paid for a grave for his predecessor in the choir of the Greyfriars Church.
But when Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church and ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Greyfriars Church was destroyed. Finding it again took centuries. After demolition, the lot became the site of one of Leicester's most lavish private residences, and later a bank, a school, and a series of smaller plots. Greyfriars survived as a name of a nearby street.
Last year, John Ashdown-Hill, author of The Last Days of Richard III, and Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society pitched the spot near the parking lot to Richard Buckley, an archaeologist at the University of Leicester. Their primary piece of evidence was a 1741 map that seemed to indicate this mundane blacktop might be the site of the old Franciscan monastery.
Buckley's team cut three trenches through the parking lot. Not only did they hit the walls of the old church, they quickly found a grave beneath the "walking space," an entrance to the choir that would have had symbolic importance as a burial site. The skeleton showed traces of severe head wounds and scoliosis, both of which indicated a historical match with Richard III. DNA evidence -- a connection to a Canadian-born furniture maker descended from the Plantagenets, and another anonymous relative -- later confirmed the match.
Parking lots, fortunately, are an easy thing to destroy. Had there been a building on the site, it's possible the body might never have been recovered.
Richard will be re-interred at Leicester Cathedral.
Below, Buckley explains how they found the body:
All images courtesy of the University of Leicester.