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The king in the Friars Lane

by Bruno Van de Casteele

September 22, 2013

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Donate You probably all have heard about the English King Richard III (1452-1485), whose remains were finally discovered in Leicester. It was virtually everywhere reported that he was found "in a car park", where initially a Greyfriar's church stood. It prompted numerous jokes, and it was even reported that Prince Charles, heir apparent to the British throne, joked about it. (Note that @Charles_HRH is a fake account)

The results were announced on a press conference in the beginning of February. Now normally this is a skeptical warning sign, when results get announced in a press conference before publication. However, in this case, it seems that the results were very solid, and there might have been reasons to announce the results in advance of publication (e.g. hard to keep this kind of result secret). And now a first of no doubt many scientific papers has appeared in print, in the prestigious journal Antiquity. Best of all, the article itself is free, available as a pdf on the journal's website.

The article itself is very well written, and in a tone that is easy to understand. With some very nice illustrations, it explains the historical research and the actual digging itself. The way it is written, it could very well appear in a popularising science magazine like Scientific American.

Interesting to note is the way the trenches were first planned and then investigated, showing a dedicated and rational approach for obtaining results. One of the trenches hit gold (although it was not clear at the time) when it struck on the legs of the buried king in September 2012. It also makes it painfully clear that we were only 9 centimeters away of having a newer construction destroy his remains, an issue that probably plagues many archeologists (I blogged elsewhere about such a case).

Interesting also is how archeologists are able to reconstruct exactly how he was buried, based on how he was found. His grave was too short, meaning that the body was propped up against the wall (indicating a hasty burial). It was also found on the side of the grave and not in the center, indicating that he was lowered feet first in the grave with cords, with someone in the grave guiding the body into place. This person had to stand somewhere, explaining why the king was placed off-center. Finally, by the way his arms and legs lay, it is assumed that he was not buried in a tight burial cloth (and there was no coffin). Historical reports from the time indicated that the corpse was displayed naked after his death, and either he was buried like that or only in a loose shroud.

One more interesting thing, not directly related to the king, is the current names of streets in Leicester. I copy here part of one of the illustrations, showing the presumed borders of the Friary over a current map of the town, with two street names enlarged.

The "New Street" was actually built in 1740 (according to Wikipedia), hardly making it "new". But the Friary after which the lane was named, was dissolved (as all other monasteries) in 1538 by Henry VIII, and the building was demolished. The terrain afterwards was then sold and split numerous times, but the name of the lane was kept. Now, almost 500 years later, it refers to a period longtime gone, with probably few people actually realising the origin of the street name.

These two street names are not a unique case. I can pinpoint in my village several street names that are at least 250 years old. Look around in your village or city, and try to find out what the origin of a street name is. You might be surprised how long we preserve old names, even when the inspiration for the name has already disappeared for a very long time.

by Bruno Van de Casteele

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