Historical records show that Richard III was buried in the church of a Franciscan friary in Leicester shortly after his defeat and death at the hands of Henry Tudor’s army in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.
But the destruction of the friary as Britain’s monasteries were dissolved under Henry VIII and subsequent removal of its stone ruins meant that over the ensuing centuries the king’s exact burial site was forgotten.
Now the mystery of where his body lies could finally be solved after an examination of historical maps by archaeologists located the most likely site for the church, in the car park of a social services office in the centre of Leicester.
Leicester University said its excavation was the first ever attempt by experts to find the lost grave of an anointed King of England.
Richard III has gone down in history as a monstrous tyrant with a hunchback and a withered arm, but most historians now claim such an image is purely fictitious and down largely to how he was portrayed by Shakespeare*.
The only pictures of him showing signs of deformity were painted after his death and his reputation as an evil despot is blamed by many experts on Tudor propagandists.
Members of the Richard III historical society said the excavation forms one part of an ongoing attempt to end the “enormous disparagement” against his reputation and uncovering “the truth behind the myths”.
Archaeologists hope that the excavation of the council car park, due to begin on Saturday, will reveal the foundations of the historic church’s walls and possibly even lead them to the alter under which the body would have been buried.
Richard Buckley, the archaeologist in charge of the project, said: “It has been known for a long time that the Greyfriars friary was the final resting place of Richard III, but actually working out where its individual buildings were was pretty difficult.
“We still do not ultimately know what the layout of the friary was. What we are going to do is put in two very long exploratory trenches in the hope we will pick up some of the church to narrow it down a bit more.”
The car park lies on an eight to ten thousand square metre site where the friary once stood, and experts have long suspected the church may have been nearby.
But by comparing historical maps against modern ones over the past year, they have built up enough evidence to identify the car park itself as the most likely spot, and to warrant further investigation.
Mr Buckley emphasised that the dig, which will last two to three weeks, is “a bit of a long shot” because the church may not be found, and some legends even suggest Richard III’s corpse was dug up in the 16th century and thrown in a nearby river.
But members of the Richard III society dismissed the tale, insisting that the balance of historical evidence suggests that his corpse is still buried in its initial resting place.
Philippa Langley said: “We now know this story originated from a chap called John Speedie [ John Speed?], a map maker, who was recording landmarks in Leicester in 1611.
“He could not find the grave of Richard III because he was looking in the wrong place, in an area called Blackfriars, so he started the whole legend.”
The project comes two years after archaeologists announced that the field marked out for hundreds of years as the site of the Battle of Bosworth was in the wrong spot.
Ambion Hill had long been regarded as the precise location of the battle and was home to a thriving visitor centre, but experts discovered it was more likely to have taken place in a farmer’s field two miles away in Upton.
*RICHARD III: ACT ONE, SCENE ONE
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amourous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;…
Experts may have found part of church where it’s King Richard III was buried. [ITV’s headline, not mine!][Also, he was King of England for two years from 1483 ].
Richard III excavation site open to the public this Saturday. (8th September 2012, between 11am and 2pm).
Updates: Richard III found?