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New dig at Richard III site could uncover a group of headless friars

09 July 2013 Leicester, University of

University of Leicester archaeologists digging at Grey Friars could unearth a group of Leicester friars who were beheaded for treason by Henry IV

Richard III may not have been the first person to be buried at Leicester’s Grey Friars church after suffering a grim fate.

A new dig at the site of Richard’s grave could shed light on a longstanding mystery surrounding a group of friars who were executed for treason by Henry IV.

Throughout July, archaeologists from University of Leicester Archaeological Services will carry out an excavation at Grey Friars church, where the body of King Richard III was found in September.

The archaeologists are hoping to uncover more of the burials at the friary.

These may include three Leicester friars who were put to death in London in 1402, more than 80 years before Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth.

The friars had been involved in spreading rumours that the deposed Richard II – who had died in 1400 - was alive and well and planning to reclaim his throne from Henry IV.

At the time, there was increasing social unrest in England and mounting threats to Henry IV’s reign from Robert III, King of Scots, and Owen Glyn Dŵr’s insurrection in Wales.

Rumours – possibly originating in Scotland - began to spread through England, undermining Henry’s credibility in the eyes of the public.

Leicester’s friars were central to spreading these rumours - particularly Roger Frisby, a prestigious theologian and Doctor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge.

Frisby appears to have been the ringleader behind a network of Franciscan friars in the Midlands – particularly in Leicester, Aylesbury, Northampton and Nottingham – who latched on to the myth and promoted it.

This proved to be a major annoyance for King Henry IV.

More than 30 people were arrested, and 14 people were put to death - including Roger Frisby and fellow Leicester friars Walter Walton and John Moody.

The men were hanged before being beheaded, and their heads were put on display in Oxford and London Bridge.

Chronicles suggest the friars’ bodies were collected by their brethren and buried at their own friary – meaning the Leicester friars may have been brought back to Leicester and buried at Grey Friars.

However – it is also possible they were simply buried at a Franciscan friary in London.

Mathew Morris, Grey Friars site director, who researched the link between Leicester and the executions, said: “Roger Frisby was a respected theologian – and clearly a well-regarded Franciscan. People respected him for that, and gravitated towards him for his teachings.

“It is not clear why Roger latched on to the rumours. It is possible no one particularly believed Richard II was still alive – and the rumours were simply a way of expressing dissatisfaction at Henry IV’s rule.

“It would be very interesting if we were to find a headless skeleton during our current Grey Friars dig.”

The University’s excavation is expected to take around four weeks.  Latest information on the progress of the dig, and more, can be found on our Richard III website:

  • The Dig for Richard III was led by the University of Leicester, working with Leicester City Council and in association with the Richard III Society.  The originator of the Search project was Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society.
  • Keep up to date with the progress of the Grey Friars Dig Part II throughout July 2013 via regular updates on this site:

Attached files

  • Overall shot of the new dig at Grey Friars

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