Reburials, art and DNA: another month for Richard III

Richard III’s head in York
Richard III’s head in York

What’s happened in the world of Richard III since my last post? A great deal, though that post was only a few weeks ago. I’ll round up just a few things that struck me as particularly interesting or curious.

Let’s start with a curious note, and the most recent: the BBC has just reported that human remains have been reburied at Leicester Cathedral, after they had been uncovered during the renovation work there. It is reported that “disarticulated remains” and “complete tombs” were uncovered; most remains were left in place, but “five complete skeletons” were “reinterred back into the same consecrated ground out of which they came”.

Such reburial is common, and happens on probably a much larger scale than most people realise, so lets pursue it a little. Graves or entire cemeteries can be disturbed by development, or need to be cleared if ground is deconsecrated. A recent prominent case was occasioned by major improvements at the London St Pancras railway terminus (reported in British Archaeology in 2006). The works extended into a large area of a former 18th and 19th century cemetery, of considerable historical interest with many people identified by coffin plates, already disturbed by railway works in the 1860s (when the up and coming writer Thomas Hardy oversaw exhumation). At that time remains of over 7,000 individuals were put into a large pit near the burial ground. In 2002–03 archaeologist Duncan Sayer supervised the recording of over 1,300 burials, though more were disturbed and raised in a project that attracted a little controversy for the poor access granted to archaeologists.

There are businesses that specialise in the tasks of exhumation and reburial, which as you would imagine are highly regulated. St Pancras was tackled by Burial Ground Services UK; another enterprise is Cherished Land, “the United Kingdom’s leading authority on mass exhumations”. Archaeologists working in England follow an important document called Guidance for Best Practice for Treatment of Human Remains Excavated from Christian Burial Grounds in England, published by English Heritage and the Church of England in 2005 (available here for free).

Human Remains Guidance A4

Among principles in this guidance relevant to Richard III’s remains, and to decisions taken by archaeologists planning excavation at the site of Greyfriars in 2012 (when, you will recall, they had almost no expectation of finding Richard III’s grave), are these [if this gets too much, skip down to the flag photo]:

The five “principal assumptions”:

  • Human remains should always be treated with dignity and respect.
  • Burials should not be disturbed without good reason.
  • Human remains, and archaeological evidence for burial rites, are important sources of scientific information.
  • There is a need to give particular weight to the feelings and views of living family members when known.
  • There is a need for decisions to be made in the public interest, and in an accountable way

Recommendations (selected):


Excavated human remains should be reburied, if living close family members are known and request it.

When excavated human remains are more than 100 years old and have significant future research potential, deposition in a suitable holding institution should be arranged.

Within the body of the text:

Even for remains over 100 years old, where there is no legal obligation to trace next of kin, it would be ethical to accord views of living close family members strong weight. When excavation of 18th- or 19th-century burial grounds is planned, reasonable steps, such as advertisements in local newspapers, should be taken at the start of project planning to alert local people who may be descendants of interred individuals so that their views may be heard.

The great majority of archaeological excavations, however, deal with the remains of long-dead individuals of unknown identity. It is therefore suggested that decisions regarding human remains should be guided by ethical criteria derived from Christian theology, from current secular attitudes to the dead, and from secular concepts of ethics.

The law of the Church of England [regarding CofE land] encompasses a presumption against disturbance, and any disturbed remains should be reinterred in consecrated ground as close as possible to their original resting place.

Where a specific religious or family interest in the site is recognised, [remains] should be returned for reburial after scientific studies have been completed. Exceptions may be made if there are overwhelming scientific reasons for either permanent retention in an approved museum store or for a longer period of retention before reburial, to give [further] opportunities for examination by researchers. Other remains disinterred because of ground disturbance should normally be deposited in an approved museum or archaeological store unless there are overwhelming circumstances for reburial that need to be respected.

The phrase “family members” is not defined, but it is clear that what was meant would not have encompassed an ill-defined group scattered around the world that includes up to 17 million people – not one of whom can be descended from Richard III (“we are all related to each other and to Richard; it’s simply a matter of degree”, says geneticist Turi King).

Continuing the theme for one more point, The King Richard Campaign notes that “Upon finding lost remains of missing persons we do not insist that they are buried locally to where they were originally laid in the ground but we ensure that they are returned to their nearest relatives; we repatriate the bodies of soldiers from where they fell”. This is not correct, like many claims being bandied around. Rediscovered remains of British soldiers killed in action are routinely reburied near to where found. A good example would be the exhumation of First Word War remains at Fromelles, France, conducted by Oxford Archaeology in 2009, which led to the creation of a new war cemetery just across the road (reported in British Archaeology).

As an archaeologist, and for anyone reading the document above with an open mind, one might think the debate we should be having now is not about where Richard’s remains should be reburied, but whether or not they should be buried at all.


flag note

Another curious story concerns a bit of cloth said to be from a flag carried at Bosworth. It was found in a house clearance sale “in Suffolk”, accompanied by a note (like something from a Tintin story), reading “Part of one of the colours which belonged to the army of Richard III. It was taken at the battle of Bosworth Field.” The auctioneer wondered optimistically “why such a scrap of pennant was kept. If not as a trophy from a battle then why else?” One possible answer to that lay in the estimate of £3,000–5,000, though buyers seemed a little more sceptical, and it went for £2,800.

Bosworth flag 2

Something similar came up last October. A scrap of weathered fabric said to be from Henry VII’s battle standard at Bosworth went for £3,800. This had an apparently 19th century note too, though curiously it said the cloth came from Richard’s standard. But who can tell when the things are so faded?

Onto something more positive. Things move apace around the cathedral and old school across the road in Leicester, where building and landscaping promise to transform the area of the city where Richard was buried.

At the Guildhall, funding has been secured for an exhibition about medieval Leicester, with £20,000 promised by the city council and £69,000 by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, and the Wolfson Foundation.


We have been shown some new images of the £4m King Richard III Centre at the former school, or Richard III: Dynasty, Death and Discovery as it is apparently to be called, complete with logo as above. The images do not inspire much hope either, but it’s early days, especially with such a tight timetable.

first floor gallery


Leicestershire County Council has chosen a winner in its search for a new artwork to go in the cathedral gardens. It will be made by dallas pierce quintero, whose “practice seeks to create beautiful and bespoke designs, through an iterative development process with our clients to deliver a unique response to each individual brief” (how could an artist like Michael Sandle compete with that?). The story of Richard lll’s death will be told on 12  vertical steel plates:

steel plates

Earlier this week I was in London (having almost miraculously navigated the flooded railways from Wiltshire) to hear Turi King announce that she will lead a project to sequence Richard III’s entire genome, along with that of Michael Ibsen. This will be quite different from the DNA studies to date, which focussed on identifying the remains. The new work should tell us a great deal about the king, from his hair colour to his susceptibility to certain diseases. As the first historic, known individual to be studied in this way, the results will also have value beyond our understanding of the man himself.

Seated: Turi King and Dan O’Connor, Head of Medical Humanities, Wellcome Trust

Funding of “under £100,000” comes from the Wellcome Trust and the Leverhulme Trust, and, King told me, the distinguished geneticist Alec Jefferies, to whom King was “nattering over dinner” when the idea came up.

After I left the press briefing, I went to the Society of Antiquaries library, where I read an article in the Ricardian Bulletin by David Johnson: “Did Richard III intended [sic] to be buried in York Minster?” (Sep 2013, 35–38). He answered his question in the affirmative, arguing that when he died, Richard was building a college in York for 100 chantry priests and six altars for their use in the minster (“primarily at his own cost”, though he gives no figures). He could find no reference to a tomb or a chantry chapel, but the clincher is apparently the scale of this project – “the truly extraordinary number of chantry priests”.

I’m afraid Johnson’s scholarship, and thus his conclusions, are undermined by a claim early in his paper, which reads, “the overwhelming view that Richard should be laid to rest in the Minster [in York]”. As there has been no consultation on this, open vote or systematic survey, no one can possibly know the “overwhelming view”.

Meanwhile, Percival Turnbull (he of the Guardian letter) wrote to me from County Durham to say that his MP had proposed that Richard’s remains be buried at Barnard Castle. Richard lived there in 1476–78, says Turnbull, having acquired the castle through his marriage to Anne Neville. He made extensive improvements to St Mary’s church at a cost of £40, widening the aisles, and installing the chancel arch and rood arrangements. In 1478 he launched a process to establish a college of 12 priests, with “the enormous annual income of 400 marks”. Comparing the sizes of the parish church and the minster, and the fact that Richard lived in Barnard Castle for two or three years, I’d say on this evidence the latter is at least an equal contender for the grave.

And finally some quick notes.

Darlow Smithson Productions were commended in the Broadcast Awards for Best Documentary Programme, for Richard III: The King in the Car Park, for Channel 4.

John Ashdown-Hill wants to pay for a gold-plated crown in the style of the one Richard would have worn. “It remains our intention to give it pride of place within the reinterment ceremony”, said The Rev Pete Hobson, canon missioner at Leicester Cathedral, “as and when we’re allowed to proceed.”

The above John Ashdown-Hill has launched a new website, about John Ashdown-Hill. As I write he’s up for election as a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.

Johnny Hewes, “born and raised in York but now living in Brighton”, has written an anthem for Richard III’s remains called Let Him Come Home. Not recommended for those with perfect pitch.

Amazon has changed the cover image for my book, but I think that’s for a retitled US edition due out later in the year.

Digging for Richard III: Out May 5

2 thoughts on “Reburials, art and DNA: another month for Richard III

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s