Rediscovering Greyfriars Church: A Historical Detective Story.

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Home / Rediscovering Greyfriars Church: A Historical Detective Story.

Car park covering Greyfriar Church. Image by John Ashdown-Hill (used with permission)

In September 2012, archaeologists from Leicester University found bones under a Leicester car park covering the former choir of the Church of the Franciscan order, or Greyfriars. The bones are currently being tested to determine if they belong to Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England. The bones would have remained undiscovered if not for crucial historical detective work that persuaded archaeologists to search for the lost church.

King Richard III’s Fate

Historical sources tell how, after the Battle of Bosworth, the body of Richard III was returned to Leicester on the orders of Henry VII and publicly displayed before his burial. It was widely accepted that the defeated king’s remains were disinterred during the reformation and unceremoniously deposited in the River Soar. This story did not convince historian John Ashdown-Hill, author of The Last Days of Richard III and a key motivator in the search of the Plantagenet monarch’s remains. Dr Ashdown-Hill believed that the story originated in the seventeenth century after John Speede, a historian and map maker, failed to find the king’s grave. Speede was searching in the wrong place, and to cover his failure, he maintained that the body had been moved and reburied under the town’s bow bridge.
If you look at pictures of old Bow Bridge you will see that burying anything under it would have been very difficult!” said Dr Ashdown- Hill in an interview with Decoded Science.

Dr Ashdown- Hill believes the body was never moved from its original grave. “There is no evidence that this sort of behaviour was indulged in at the Dissolution,” he explained. “Excavations of monastic and friary sites find the burials undisturbed.” But there was one thing he agreed with Speede about. Richard had been buried in Leicester’s Greyfriars priory.

Why Greyfriars?

Sources linked two churches with Richard’s body: The Church of the Annunciation at Leicester’s Newarke and the Church of the Greyfriars priory. Dr Ashdown-Hill believed that Newarke was confused about the burial site because it was used to display Richard’s body. “Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI, as well as Richard III (fallen medieval Kings), were first exposed to prove they were dead, then buried in the church of a religious community, where their remains would have been relatively inaccessible to the general public,” said Dr Ashdown- Hill.

Dr Ashdown- Hill also found a previously uncited document in the national archives relating to Henry VII’s provision of a tomb for Richard’s grave in 1494-95. It stated that the tomb was erected: “In the Church of Friers in the town of leycestr where the bonys of Kyng Richard the iijde reste” (TNA, C1/206/69 recto, lines 4 and 5). This confirmed the burial site was a friary. In addition, key contemporary accounts by John Rous and Polydore Vergil, who described Richard’s naked corpse as being taken to the Franciscan friary for private burial, satisfied Dr Ashdown-Hill and the Richard III Society, who were keen to excavate for the king’s body. They knew Greyfriars was the site to search.

Rous and Vergil said the grave was in the choir of Greyfriars church, and the location of the friary was known from local street names. However, the exact position of the church was lost.

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