The Women Behind the Discovery of Richard III

The same week that Tim Hunt made his sexist remarks about the presence of women in research laboratories, I happen to be in the midlands of England teaching a course on forensic DNA analysis at the University of Lincoln. Because I got my PhD studying the cyclins and CDKs, I had long admired Dr. Hunt. I was depressed.

As luck would have it, my spirits would soon be raised. I took a weekend holiday to Leicester and had the wonderful opportunity to visit the remains of Richard III, now interred at the Leicester Cathedral, as well as the museum that tells the story of their recent discovery and exhumation. They have done a truly wonderful job with this exhibition and I strongly recommend anyone who can manage it to go.

Photo by NHL

The discovery of this Medieval monarch, killed and buried more than five hundred years ago, is an incredibly unlikely and dramatic story, a real triumph of both historical research and modern science. I was particularly struck by the central role that women played throughout the story.

First, there is Philippa Langley, probably the single most important person in the rediscovery of King Richard. It was the unwavering passion of Langley, a screenwriter and secretary of the Scottish chapter of the Richard III society, that provided the steady persistence necessary to make the project a reality. She relentlessly raised both money and awareness and was the principle organizer of the exhumation effort. Of the first time she stood in the now-famous car park, she said, “The strangest feeling just washed over me. I thought, ‘I am standing on Richard’s grave.'” Indeed she was.  

Pictured Phillipa Langley. Archeologists believe they have found the remains of King Richard The 3rd. The dig is taking place in a car park in Leceister. The site is believed to be the long lost, Medevile Church Of The Grey Friars, The last know resting place of King Richard III. Leicester, England. CODE: 362255 Express Syndication +44 (0)20 8612 7884/7903/7906/7661 +44 (0)20 7098 2764

Langley was not the first woman to suspect the car park. It was an essay by Ms. Audrey Strange that first correctly speculated the location of Richard III. In fact, Strange first petitioned the city of Leicester for permission to excavate the car park back in 1962. Her request was denied. She published an essay describing her careful research in 1975 and, fortunately for all of us, it caught the attention of Langley some 30 years later.  


Then, there is Dr. Jo Appleby, the osteology expert from the University of Leicester. It was Dr. Appleby’s careful work that confirmed the age and sex of the individual whose remains were found, and confirmed the condition of scoliosis, a debilitating affliction leading to curvature of the spinal column. (Historians have long wondered if King Richard really suffered from this condition or if it was a later attempt to paint him as a deformed monster at the behest of the Tudors. Now we know that he did.)


Next we have Dr. Turi King, a genetic anthropologist, who led the effort to confirm the identity of the remains by comparing the DNA to known relatives of Richard III. (Note: many sources cite these present-day relatives as “descendants,” but Richard has no direct descendants. He fathered only one child who died before adulthood. Dr. King used DNA from a descendent of Richard’s sister to confirm the mitochondrial haplotype.) King has since completed the sequencing of Richard III’s entire genome. Because SCIENCE.  


Finally, we have Dr. Caroline Wilkinson, then of the University of Dundee, who performed the reconstruction of Richard III’s face using only the recovered skull as her guide. The Richard III team contracted Dr. Wilkinson without telling her who the subject was, so as to not bias her work. She produced the face of a man with a striking resemblance to the oldest surviving portraits of Richard III. 

Screen Shot 2015-06-13 at 8.19.37 PM

Through their tenacity, talent, and scientific expertise, these impressive women rescued Richard of York out of the 15th century dirt underneath a civil service car park. Of course, there were other women and men involved in this truly Herculean effort, but we do well to give these special recognition.


 (And here’s me in awe of this truly fantastic work.)

9 thoughts on “The Women Behind the Discovery of Richard III

  1. I was deeply saddened by Tim Hunt’s remarks, and staggered that he made them at the venue that he did. For what it’s worth, I have read that he was actually encouraging and supportive to woman scientists.

    Wikipedia: “remarks… that some interpreted as sexist”; shamefully mealymouthed.

    But this is a great story!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What I find to be the most remarkable part of the story is that during the excavation, a project that was given three months to find something, they struck bones and found his body ON THE FIRST DAY. It took them a few days to fully unearth the skeleton and remove it, and days more to begin the process of identifying it, but wow, they expected to dig around for weeks or months and instead found Richard on DAY ONE. Just amazing.


  2. Excellent. There was a PBS show on Richard III and his armor, working with a modern man who had the same disabilities, and how he would have felt most comfortable and capable of military action when in armor on horseback, helping to distribute the forces more favorably than when clambering about on foot.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I did a fast check, it was a 2014 episode of Secrets of the Dead a most informative and moving episode. Their description:

        Find out what the bones of King Richard III reveal about his fitness for battle. When a group of amateur historians set out to find the bones of Richard III under a parking lot in England, everyone thought they were mad. Until, a skeleton — hunchbacked and with an arrow in its spine — emerged. University of Leichester scientists ultimately confirmed the identity of the reviled king through DNA. A series of fascinating, new experiments are now underway, including startling new DNA matches, revelations about his fitness going into battle…and a lucky accident when scientists discover a War of the Roses re-enactor—with matching scoliosis — answering the question, could a king with such a deformed body fight ferociously in battle as the heroic accounts suggest?


  3. Great post
    I like all things Richard iii
    But my view changed dramatically when I saw his skeleton in the grave. The tutors did not lie what else did they not lie about? The princes for two things! The ricardians who did such a great job discovering the body were also very very wrong about this crook backed gangster. And it’s all gone quiet now hasn’t it no one is really saying he was badly treated by history and Tudor propaganda anymore


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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s