Durham University graduate will give talk on Richard III grave discovery

Durham University graduate Richard Buckley will return to the region to give a talk on discovering the grave of Richard III

Dr Richard Buckley, lead archaeologist on the Greyfriars dig
Dr Richard Buckley, lead archaeologist on the Greyfriars dig

The story of the King and the car park fascinated people worldwide. TONY HENDERSON talks to the man who played a key role in the astonishing discovery of the grave of Richard III

In the 1970s, a young archaeology student was enjoying his time studying at a North East university.

But what lay ahead for Richard Buckley, who graduated from Durham University in 1979, was a discovery which would excite the public imagination worldwide.

On Saturday, Dr Buckley will return to the region to give a public talk on that astonishing find – the grave of King Richard III underneath a social services car park in Leicester.

“Against all the odds, the project proved to be successful in locating a potential candidate to be the king, and his identity was subsequently confirmed beyond reasonable doubt after an extensive programme of scientific analysis, generating press interest from around the globe,” says Dr Buckley.

It was in August 2012 that the University of Leicester, in conjunction with the Richard III Society and the city council, set out to find the Greyfriars friary where historical records said that the king was buried after his death at the Battle of Bosworth Field, 15 miles away.

Richard had stayed at the Blue Boar in Leicester on the night of August 20, 1485. The next morning he rode out of the town, spending the night of August 21 under canvas before meeting his destiny the following day at Bosworth Field.

Human remains that have been proved to be Richard III
Human remains that have been proved to be Richard III

The society hoped against hope that the grave of Richard III, the last English king to die in battle, would be discovered. Archaeologists thought that was not seriously possible and for Dr Buckley the aim was to find Greyfriars.

Three trenches were opened in the car park of a council social services building, which 18th Century maps indicated was the site of the friary.

Amazingly, not only was the friary church located, but also the grave of a man bearing the wounds of battle and with a curvature of the spine, which was said to be a characteristic of Richard III in life.

On February 4, 2013, after a series of scientific measures had backed up that the remains were indeed those of the king, Dr Buckley announced on behalf of the search team that they had found Richard III.

“I had a feeling of exhilaration. It had been an amazing journey,” says Dr Buckley.

That journey will be finally concluded on March 26 when the king is re-interred in Leicester Cathedral.

Present will be Philippa Langley, of the Richard III Society, who had contacted the University of Leicester Archaeological Services, where Dr Buckley works, with the search proposal.

Dr Buckley says: “Philippa rang out of the blue in January 2011 and sounded me out. What interested me was the chance to find the friary.”

Human remains that have been proved to be Richard III
Human remains that have been proved to be Richard III

The Greyfriars Project had a series of five research objectives: find the remains of the Franciscan friary; identify clues to the position of the buildings; within the friary, locate the church; within the church, locate the choir; and within the choir, locate the remains of Richard III.

Dr Buckley drew up a dig strategy which included three trenches 30 metres long and 1.6 metres wide, which amounted to one per cent of the of the friary area.

The chances of finding Richard III were calculated at 1,000-1.

“If we were trying to find Richard III, we first had to find the friary, then the friary church, then the choir of the church where he was believed to have been buried, then a candidate for Richard III,” says Dr Buckley.

“He would have to be the right age, with Richard 32 when he died, with evidence that he died in battle.”

Work started on the site on August 24, 2012, and within four hours human bone was found in the first trench.

“As the site unfolded, we found the friary chapter house. We had a result,” says Dr Buckley.

“It was an achievement. We had found the chapter house, we had evidence of the friary, and we could have gone home. But we still had some time left.”

Next the church was found, and that meant that the burial from day one was from the building. It was a candidate.

Then several wounds were found on the burial’s skull, and the spine was curved.

Gareth Fuller/PA Wire A model of the face of King Richard III
A model of the face of King Richard III

“It was very exciting. I jumped up and down a bit. There was a feeling of disbelief about how the site had unfolded,” says Dr Buckley.

If the first trench had been a little distance to the left or right, the burial would have been missed.

“We could have found the church, run out of money, and found no suitable burials.”

But everything had fallen into place.

“There was the curvature of the spine and the injuries to the skull, but we had to prove through scientific analysis that it was Richard III,” says Dr Buckley.

Radio-carbon dating confirmed the right time window. The individual was male, between 30-34, 5ft 8ins and of slender build, which matched the historical descriptions of the king.

Examination showed that Richard’s skeleton sustained 11 wounds at or near the time of his death — nine to the skull, clearly inflicted in battle and suggesting he had removed or lost his helmet, and two to the body.

The skull showed evidence of depressions caused by glancing blows, a stab wound to the top, and two injuries to the base – one probably caused by a halberd weapon and the other a stabbing. There were woundings to the 10th rib and the buttocks area – probably “insult” injuries inflicted after death.

Sarah Hainsworth, Professor of Materials Engineering at the University of Leicester, says: “Richard’s injuries represent a sustained attack or an attack by several assailants.

“The wounds to the skull suggest that he was not wearing a helmet, and the absence of defensive wounds on his arms and hands indicate that he was otherwise still armoured at the time of his death.”*

According to Professor Guy Rutty, study co-author, from the East Midlands Pathology Unit at the University of Leicester: “The most likely injuries to have caused the king’s death are the two to the skull — a large sharp force trauma possibly from a sword or staff weapon, such as a halberd or bill, and a penetrating injury from the tip of an edged weapon.

“Richard’s head injuries are consistent with some near-contemporary accounts of the battle, which suggest that Richard abandoned his horse after it became stuck in a mire and was killed while fighting his enemies.”

The clinching evidence came from two direct female-line descendants of Richard’s sister, Anne, who were found to share a rare mitochondrial DNA type with the skeletal remains.

Dr Buckley is looking forward to revisiting the region to tell the Richard III tale.

“My time at Durham was wonderful and I still love the place,” he says.

  • Dr Buckley's talk, organised by the Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland, will be at 2.30pm on Saturday in room 140, Elvet Riverside, New Elvet, Durham.

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