How (and where) they finally found Richard III's body

The location of Richard III's body was lost to history, but it was rediscovered a decade ago. Here's what you need to know about the King and his final resting place.
Leicester Sees The Reinterment Of The Remains Of King Richard III
Leicester Sees The Reinterment Of The Remains Of King Richard III / Christopher Furlong/GettyImages

Richard III is one of those historical figures that everybody seems to know the name of. Thanks in large part to his portrayal in William Shakespeare's play, Richard III, most people have an overwhelmingly negative understanding of the man.

While there are groups, like the Ricardians, who believe Richard is only seen as a villain because of the long line of Tudor descendants who sat on the throne after him, it's hard to deny that he was rejected by history itself. While most Kings of England are buried at religious sites or royal residences, the question of what happened to the body of Richard III was left unanswered for centuries.

In 2012, that finally changed. Richard's body was found in a particularly unusual location, which served as proof that becoming King does not guarantee honorable treatment after death. Here's everything to know about Richard III and the saga surrounding his long-missing body.

Richard III, 1859
Richard III, 1859 / Print Collector/GettyImages

Who was Richard III?

Richard was not born to be king. He was the eleventh child of Richard of York during the War of the Roses, and for much of the conflict, he seemed to be little more than a footnote. The War of the Roses was one of England's most significant succession crises, between the houses of York and Lancaster. Both lines descended from King Edward III, which prompted questions about who had the most legitimacy.

The Lancastrians were the descendants of Edward's third son, John of Gaunt, a line that produced Kings Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI. The Yorks were descended from Edward's second and fourth sons. When Henry VI came to power at less than a year old, chaos spread as various factions fought for authority over the child king's council. This only got worse because of Henry's mental instability in adulthood.

In 1461, Richard's eldest brother, Edward IV, claimed the throne from Henry VI, who remained imprisoned for the last decade of his life. Along with Lancastrian rebellions, Edward had to deal with multiple treasonous plots from his brother George and his general, Richard Neville. Through all of this, Richard remained the loyal brother.

After the death of Edward IV, his 12-year-old son theoretically became King. But young kings did not fare well during the War of the Roses. Richard was named Lord Protector of the Realm, and his nephews were taken to the Tower of London for safekeeping.

At the time, it was customary for royalty to spend time at the Tower, but it was earning a morbid reputation, as both of Edward IV's sons mysteriously disappeared. To this day, nobody knows for sure what happened to the Princes in the Tower. With the boys missing and widespread rumors that they were illegitimate, Richard became King of England in 1483.

Richard III, King of England
Richard Iii Killed In Bosworth-Field / Print Collector/GettyImages

How did Richard III die?

Partially because Richard was unpopular, partially because the Lancastrians still wanted the throne, a plan was concocted to usurp Richard and replace him with Henry Tudor. This culminated in the Battle of Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485.

Both possible kings participated in the battle, and records state that Richard was leading a charge when he was surrounded by enemies and killed. The details of his death rely on legend. Some say he was killed while his horse was unable to help him escape (a rumor supported by Shakespeare's portrayal). Others say he was beaten in the head so hard his helmet broke through his skull.

However it happened, Richard didn't leave the field alive. Henry Tudor emerged victorious and declared himself King of England. He was crowned Henry VII two months later and married Richard's niece (Edward IV's daughter) Elizabeth to end the fighting between the Lancastrian and York lines.

Richard III Stone
Richard III Stone / Epics/GettyImages

What happened to Richard III's body?

After his death, Richard's body was buried at Grey Friars Church. The location was respectful enough, but certainly not as prominent as other royal burial sites. Later research found that the body was put into a grave that was too small, seemingly without a coffin or even a shroud.

Less than a century later, the church (and presumably the tomb) was destroyed thanks to Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries. By some accounts, the tomb was simply buried. In others, his bones were thrown in the river. For the next five hundred years, the true location of Richard III's body was a mystery.

University Of Leicester Makes Announcement Following Discovery Of Human Remains Which Are Possibly King Richard III
University Of Leicester Makes Announcement Following Discovery Of Human Remains Which Are Possibly / Dan Kitwood/GettyImages

August 2012: Richard III is found once again

People have been looking for Richard III's body for at least a century, and many had a decent idea of where his final resting place might have been. According to Audrey Strange in 1975 and David Baldwin in 1986, the burial ground might actually be a parking lot.

Philippa Langley, a woman diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, was the primary figure in Richard's rediscovery. She felt certain that the body was where Strange and Baldwin had predicted, and she dedicated her limited energy to proving them right.

Langley teamed up with John Ashdown-Hill, who had tracked down biological descendants of Richard III's sister, and Annette Carson, a biographer of the missing king. The trio conducted extensive research, eventually finding compelling evidence that the church had, in fact, been located at the same spot as the present-day Leicester City Council Social Services car park.

They brought in archaeologists to begin their exploration in 2012. Per The Search for Richard III: The King's Grave, archaeologist Richard Buckley believed the odds were against them, saying that despite the evidence of the church's original location, it was still just "fifty-fifty at best for the church, and nine-to-one against finding the grave."

Shockingly, they found human remains on the very first day of the excavation, which was beyond encouraging. They got permission to exhume the body a month later, and sent it for testing. The bones fit stories of Richard III's intense scoliosis, and a DNA analysis found that the body was a confirmed relative of the York descendants.

On February 4, 2013, the bones were confirmed to belong to Richard III. This was a triumph for Langley and her cohorts, though there were still plenty of struggles yet to come. Many people fought over where the remains should be reburied, with the ultimate location being Leicester Cathedral.

The rediscovery of Richard III's remains has been the subject of multiple movies and documentaries, including The Lost King (2023), Richard III: The King in the Car Park (2013), and Richard III: The Unseen Story (2014).

Richard III was formally re-interred on March 26, 2015, just under three years after being discovered.

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