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The King under the Car Park


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King Richard III of England. Are the remains found under a car park in Leicester his?

In the city of Leicester, in central England, a group of archaeologists has been busy. They have been digging up a car park. Last week they announced that they had found a human skeleton. Of course, archaeologists often dig up human remains. Human bones can tell us interesting things about the past – what people ate, how tall they were, what diseases they suffered from, and how they died. The car park skeleton, however, is much more interesting. It is the skeleton of a man. He suffered from a deformed spine. He had a severe head injury, and part of an arrow was found in his back. The bones may be those of King Richard III of England.

Richard was born in 1452 and became king in 1483, after the death of his older brother Edward IV. The 15th century was a very troubled time in English history. There was almost constant civil war between powerful families who wanted to control the country. A few months after Edward’s death, his two sons – aged 12 and 9 – disappeared. Many people are convinced that Richard ordered their deaths so that neither of them could ever challenge his position as king.

Richard was king for only two years. In 1485, Henry Tudor led a rebellion against him. Richard’s army was defeated at the battle of Bosworth, and Richard himself was killed. (He was in fact the last English king to die in a battle. After him, English kings got other people to do the fighting and the dying for them!) His body was displayed in public for several days. Then it was taken and buried at Greyfriars Church in Leicester, which is quite close to the site of the battle. The victorious Henry Tudor became King Henry VII, and he and his children and grandchildren ruled England for the next 120 years.

Grefriars Church disappeared in about 1540, when the king seized all the monasteries in England and expelled the monks. Over the years, people forgot where Greyfriars Church had been. For a time there was a garden on the site; and later buildings; and then a car park in the busy centre of Leicester. No-one knew what had happened to the body of Richard III. Indeed, until recently, many historians believed that it had been dug up and thrown into a river at about the time that the monks left Greyfriars Church.

The archaeologists dug a number of trenches across the car park. They found the remains of the walls and the floor of Greyfriars Church. Then inside the church, they found the skeleton. They were very interested that the skeleton had a deformed spine, because we know that Richard had one shoulder higher than the other. They have carefully taken the skeleton from the ground, and have taken some samples of DNA from it. The next step is to compare this DNA with DNA from people who are descended from Richard III’s sister. (Richard himself had no children). These tests will take three months. So maybe early next year we will find out for certain whether we have found the body of a King of England under a car park.

There has been a lot of interest in this news because, even today, Richard III is a controversial figure. The traditional view is that he was an evil monster, who murdered his own young nephews. Shakespeare wrote a famous play about Richard III, which portrayed Richard in this way. Other people however say that Richard was a good king. He made it easier for ordinary people to get justice in the courts. He ordered that the laws of England (which had been written in French) should be translated into English so that everyone could understand them. There is even a society, the Richard III Society, which tries to convince people that Richard III was a good man. They of course have been particularly excited by the news of the skeleton in the car park.

For myself, I will now think about car parks in a completely different way. No longer will I just see tarmac with cars on top. I will wonder what secrets lie underneath the tarmac, and what new things about the past we can learn from them.

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