Finds and Research at Grey Friars in Leicester


An overview of the late discoveries and knowledge growth through the archaeological research in Leicester



Trench1-1 (Source: Ali,

The University of Leicester lately revealed, that finding the human remains, which are believed to be of King Richard III, was a close call.
During the Victorian Era, a building was created at the site in Leicester, which nearly destroyed the bones, as it dug almost deep enough to unearth them.
At that time, when King Richard III still was believed to have been dumped into the river Soar, the connection to King Richard III never would have been made and so the chance to ever prove the identity of the bones by comparing them to Mr. Michael Ibsen, his 17th generation relative in the female line, would have been forever lost.
Our first-hand witness of the digging area, Ali from the website, in her pictures (full list at the end of this article) shows the close run of the digging very well. (Thank you very much for the wonderful pictures, Ali !)
The human remains, believed to be King Richard III, were found in Trench 1 at the Grey Friars’ area.
One foot above the grave, the remains of the Victorian building start.
Site-map of the Medieval Church of the Grey Friars (Credit: University of Leicester)

Site-map of the Medieval Church of the Grey Friars (Credit: University of Leicester)

Mathew Morris, the site director in Leicester:

It was incredibly lucky. If the Victorians had dug down 30 cm more they would have built on top of the remains and destroyed them.

Sir Peter Soulsby, the understandably proud City Mayor of Leicester, about the hair’s breadth of the find:

His [the male skeleton, believed to belong to King Richard III] head was discovered from the foundations of a Victorian building. They obviously did not discover anything and probably would not have been aware of the importance of the site.

In my view, it was also luck that the car park was built on top and preserved all that lay below, without further building work done in that area. So now, the remains of the Medieval church and its structure could be discovered and re-constructed in a way to allow conclusions of where the choir of the church, the most likely and by contemporary sources mentioned area of King Richard III’s resting place, was.
This way, the find became possible and the archaeological team had hints where especially to look for King Richard III.
Michael Ibsen, the 17th generation relative of King Richard III in the female line, is fully supporting the search for King Richard III:

It is exciting to be able to play a small part in something that is potentially so historically important, but also nerve-wracking because it still remains to be seen whether the DNA tests will be conclusive.

Historian Dr. Ashdown-Hill, who’s research made this new search for King Richard III possible, describes his experiences at the Leicester car park:

When I looked into the grave and saw the skeleton, I was deeply moved. I feel that the case for the identity of the body is already pretty strong: male; right age group and social class; died a violent death; had a twisted spine; found in the right place.

The University of Leicester does a lot to satisfy the immense interest in King Richard III and the archaeological research. They held guided tours and opened the digging area for the enthusiastic public, storming the ground. This gave our picture source, Ali, to all Richard Armitage fans well known from her website, the chance to visit and take the wonderful photos of the location accompanying this article. Here are the photos of the area , where the supposed remains of King Richard III were found:

Leicester-Richard III Burial

Leicester-Richard III Burial Place (Source: Ali,

Leicester-Richard III Burial Place 2

Leicester-Richard III Burial Place 2 (Source: Ali,

The search for King Richard III is not over with finding the bones at the supposed location in the found and virtually reconstructed church area of the former Greyfriar’s church.
Further tests are necessary to determine, if the bones, which already have significant signs to make it very likely, indeed belong to King Richard III.

  • DNA tests are done (samples taken from the teeth and a long bone, so that DNA can be extracted for the comparison with the mtDNA of Michael Ibsen.)

  • Modern DNA test from Michael Ibsen is carried out in Leicester, while extraction of DNA from the skeleton and testing ‘ancient DNA’ is taking place in partnership with specialised facilities, which allow the tests without risk of contamination.

  • separate genealogical study, to verify Mr. Michael Ibsen’s connection to the Plantagenets. Research is also trying to verify a second line of descent, as further comparison basis.

  • environmental sampling (to determine more about the burial practice, living conditions, health and regional descendance of the found person)

  • radiocarbon dating (Executed by two separate labs. Should determine the date the individual died within a range of about 80 years. – Though the best known historical method to determine, seems a rather vague proof in this case.)

  • computer-tomography (CT) scan (which will allow scientists to build up a 3-D digital image of the individual. Goal is to reconstruct the individual’s face, like it is done in murder investigations or e.g. to reconstruct the face of King Tutankhamun, after scanning his 3.000 year old mummy.)

  • samples of dental calculus – mineralised dental plaque is taken (which will allow conclusions about the person’s diet, health and living conditions.)

  • the skeleton has been cleaned and examined, to determine the individual’s age, build and the nature of its spinal condition. Particular attention has the trauma and injury of the skull of the skeleton, which may indicate a battle wound. Medical examinations are done and specialists in medieval battles and weaponry are advising the team on the kinds of instruments that may have caused the damage.)

  • forensic pathologists at the University’s East Midlands Forensic Pathology Unit are also working on the case, to determine the cause of death.

These tests need rigorouse procedures and elaborate equipment and specialist facilities to enable a positive determination of the identity.
Richard Buckley summarises the magnitude of undertaken researches as follows:

We are looking at many different lines of enquiry, the evidence from which all add up to give us more assurance about the identity of the individual. As well as the DNA testing, we have to take in all of the other pieces of evidence which tell us about the person’s lifestyle – including his health and where he grew up.
There are many specialists involved in the process, and so we have to coordinate all of the tests so the analysis is done in a specific order.
The ancient DNA testing in particular takes time and we need to work in partnership with specialist facilities. It is not like in CSI, where DNA testing can be done almost immediately, anywhere – we are reliant on the specialist process and facilities to successfully extract ancient DNA.

Professor Lin Foxhall, Head of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester, said about the reliability of the research:

Much research and investigation needs to be done if we are to have a chance of identifying this individual more securely, and the identification may never be one hundred per cent secure. […] it is part of the rigour of academic research that we thoroughly examine all the evidence before reaching a conclusion.

What this find possibly can mean for future generations of historians, Professor Norman Housley and Dr. Andrew Hopper of the School of Historical Studies tried to anticipate:

The discovery of the body will be significant because of what is already being indicated about the cause of death. The apparent evidence of battle injuries will stimulate debate about exactly how Richard was killed at Bosworth, and beyond that, about close combat in medieval battles. This is fitting because Richard polarised opinion during his life and from beyond the grave; his reliance on a northern regional powerbase to maintain his rule fostered a north-south divide in allegiance partially reflected in the historiography since.

They even go so far as that the find can bring closure to historical debates about King Richard III and the Wars of the Roses:

It will bring a pleasing sense of closure to our knowledge of the vicious civil war which ushered in the Tudor dynasty […].

Philippa Langley, initiating force of the search for King Richard III and member of the Richard III Society, describes the immense effect of the possible find:

The dig in Leicester is exploding many of the myths that surround King Richard. It is also questioning the work of many of our illustrious writers.
It seems that despite Thomas More, Richard did not have a withered arm, that despite William Shakespeare, Richard did not have a hunchback. And despite John Speede, Richard’s remains were not exhumed and taken to the river Soar.
If the remains are identified as being those of King Richard these are just some of the myths that have already been busted. And, having watched the exhumation, I believe there may be more myths to follow.


That the University of Leicester already is proud of their wonderful research, though the results are not yet proven by the laboratorial results, shows the visit of South African social rights activist Emeritus Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu, who got the Nobel Peace Price in the year 1984. The University team behind the search presented the research and methods to him at his visit on November 14th, 2012.
He met key members of the research, Professor Lin Foxhall, Richard Buckley, Dr. Turi King from the University’s Department of Genetics and Dr. Jo Appleby of the School of Archaeology and Ancient History.
Prof. Lin Foxhall describes this extraordinary event:

It is an honour to be able to present our ongoing work on the Grey Friars Project – which represents an important chapter in English History – to someone of the stature of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. […] We would like him to see the work that we are doing, not only in researching the past but also with people in the present.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who is honorary member of the University of Leicester, went on to hold ‘The Provost Derek Hole’ annual lecture 2012 on “Public faith in a secular age”, which is available to watch on YouTube here.

The debate about the archaeological research in Leicester prevailingly focuses on the skeleton, which is believed to be of King Richard III, but the second skeleton found rarely is mentioned. The University of Leicester and the archaeological team also research in depths here and the first results already are impressive.
What is known about the second skeleton is, that the remains of the second skeleton were found disarticulated and belonged to a female.
Mathew Morris, site director of the University of Leicester Archaeological Services, describes the direction where the research about this female skeleton is heading:

It wasn’t unexpected finding the remains of a woman buried in the friary. We know of at least one woman connected with the friary, Ellen Luenor, a possible benefactor and founder with her husband, Gilbert.
However the friary would have administered to the poor, sick and homeless as well, and without knowing where Ellen Luenor had been originally buried we are unlikely to ever know who the remains are of, or why she was buried there.

Philippa Langley, who did extensive research about the church of the Grey Friars together with Dr. Ashdown-Hill for over three years prior to the real digging, established seven potential named burials in addition to King Richard III’s in the church. Only one of those further seven was female, that of Ellen Luenor, wife of Gilbert Luenor, a possible founder and benefactor of the Grey Friars, who was buried around 1250.
Philippa Langley:

It was a tenuous connection but an intriguing one only mentioned, as far as we could tell, by the 16th century historian John Stow. […]
It’s a slim chance that they could be Ellen, but at least we have a female name to attribute to them and at the moment there is no other.


The entire dig was filmed by Darlow Smithson Productions for a Channel 4 Documentary. – Though we requested further details, the finishing date and screening time are still undetermined. (And as the not very polite answer suggests, we were not the only one’s to ask for more details.)

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