I’m starting to wonder: every time a shovel digs down into English soil, does it hit treasure or skeletons? Three years ago, the University of Durham in northeast UK planned a new extension to the library but came up instead with a huge archaeological find: two mass graves appearing to date back to 1650.

They are believed to be the final resting place of Scottish soldiers who’d fought against Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Dunbar. Afterward, many of the Scots fell ill and died, and more along the way as Cromwell marched the prisoners to the former monastery at Durham, which later became the University. The story of the 3000 able-bodied young men was well documented but the actual gravesites were unknown.

Durham Castle and Cathedral Photo available via Wikimedia Commons
Durham Castle and Cathedral
Photo available via Wikimedia Commons

The relatively small mass graves hold skeletons piled one on top of another. If the historical estimate is accurate, the number could reach sixteen hundred. Foreign bodies within the graves have already been discovered, likely a few Dutchmen who had fought alongside the Scots.

Imprisoning large groups was rare in medieval days. Lords captured were often ransomed, but usually the vanquished were either executed or enslaved. It was much more common for whole towns and villages to be enslaved to the conquering army. But in this case, Cromwell could not allow the Scots to continue to fight against him for their choice to the throne, King Charles II. Yet, Cromwell agonized over their suffering and demise, explaining in a letter to his peers that everything was being done for the soldiers. The officers fared better, as did the Highlanders, but they still succumbed up to 100 a day. Scientists now believe that the Scots were suffering not from dysentery but refeeding syndrome. They had gone without food for 3 days prior to the battle, and by the time they reached Durham, they had not eaten properly for 8 days.

One hundred and fifty Scottish soldiers who survived this ordeal were put on a ship bound for the English Colonies. Fulfilling Cromwell’s original intent, they were sent to work in the lumber industry and iron works in support of English ship-building. Eventually, the Scots earned their freedom and many chose to remain in New England.

For more info on the dig:

http://www.livescience.com/54827-skeletons-from-battle-of-dunbar-photos.html

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King Richard died in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field in Leicestershire, England, ending the 200 year rule of the Plantegents. He was killed by Henry Tudor thus ending the wars for the throne known as the Wars of the Roses. The Tudors reigned for the next 100 years.

Facial reconstruction of King Richard III Photo ©Getty Images
Facial reconstruction of King Richard III
Photo © Getty Images

In the Fall of 2012, King Richard’s remains were discovered buried under a parking lot in Leicester in the foundation of Grey Friars Church. Now that scientists and experts have had time to study his remains, some startling facts have emerged. Scientists extracted DNA from his teeth while historians tracked down a modern day descendant. The mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down through the female line, continued 17 generations and led to 2 descendants. Their DNA samples proved the connection and identified King Richard; only 1-2% of the population carries this close of a match.

Now King Richard is about to get the works, that is, have his entire genome sequenced. While it may prove interesting to learn more about his physical characteristics such as eye and hair color, there is a much bigger prospect afoot. It was obvious even at the dig site that he had scoliosis: a three-dimensional twisting of the spine. Studies of his bones revealed that he was not born with it but developed it between the ages of 10 and 13. There is no known cure for scoliosis but it is believed that genetics play a role.

One more startling fact is that the remains were found on the first day exactly where they started digging. It almost seems as if the king was meant to be found. Now computers and technology will allow sequencing of his DNA before he is finally laid to rest.

Controversy has surrounded him in both life and death, but perhaps his scurrilous legacy will be replaced by a more positive one, a cure for scoliosis.

For more: Visit The Richard III Society at http://www.richardiii.net

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No doubt, being a knight was a serious business. In populated towns, knights were the only ones authorized by the king to carry weapons. Hence, they were the law enforcement officers of the Middle Ages.  Certainly it was an honor to serve their sovereign lord on earth, but their responsibility stretched beyond, to serving their heavenly Father as well.

13th C. Arming sword with double fuller.Photo credit: britishmuseum.org © The Trustees of the British Museum
13th C. Arming sword with double fuller. Photo credit: britishmuseum.org
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The knighting began with a cleansing bath, followed by all-night prayers, and the ceremony taking place in a church the next morning. Men who proved themselves in battle could be knighted on the field or on “the fly” due to war, but such occasions were rare. In any case, the knight-to-be swore fealty to his lord and to God before witnesses. A knight’s duties included defending the weak, orphaned, widowed, and oppressed, giving special care and good counsel to women, defending his fellow knights and never running from a fight. During knighting, his sword and shield as well as his person were prayed over, so that God would grant him the strength to hold to his oath, and wield his weapons appropriately. His sword was then girded to his waist.

Thus, knights were viewed as God’s judicial arm on earth.  If any of their vows were broken, it was an affront not only to a knight’s sovereign lord but more importantly to God; broken oaths held divine retribution and eternal consequences.

The hilt of the Christian knight’s sword, with its straight cross guard perpendicular to the blade, created a cross that he wielded and carried on his person at all times.  It was a constant reminder of the duties he had sworn to fulfill.

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Timbuktu
Manuscript from Timbuktu of Astronomy and Math
Photo available via WikiMedia Commons

Timbuktu: the name conjures images of a welcome oasis in the desert, an exotic city in the middle of nowhere. Located in Mali along the Niger River at the edge of the Sahara, this city began life as a settlement for trade. Established in the 5th century and peaking at the beginning of the 16th, Timbuktu attracted Muslim scholars. Manuscripts were collected, copied, and sold; books and the trading thereof became part of the local culture.

As a UNESCO World Heritage site, Timbuktu continues to celebrate its history. But over the past year, militants took control, and were shockingly bent on destruction. On purpose, half of the city’s 16 mausoleums were damaged as well as tombs and mosques, one of which has stood since 1325. The manuscripts were also in peril.

At times prosperous, at others desolate, this city has seen it all before and her people knew what to do – they hid the 30,000 to 40,000 manuscripts. Praise God they are now free again.

The people of Timbuktu risked their lives to save their heritage and culture. Preserving and protecting these valuable artifacts is a centuries-old tradition, one they intend to keep no matter who rolls into town.

Perhaps they are not warriors in the traditional sense, but they inspire none the less.

For more:

http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/news/culture-places-news/timbuktu-hiebert-ddvin/

http://world.time.com/2013/02/21/inside-the-secret-operation-to-rescue-timbuktus-manuscripts/photo/01_2013-evacuation-manuscripts-timbuktu-copyright-prince-claus-fund-2/

http://www.tombouctoumanuscripts.org/

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The base of the skull showing the two potentially fatal injuries. A section of the skull has been sliced off.
The base of the skull showing the two potentially fatal injuries. A section of the skull has been sliced off. All images credit University of Leicester

This week, DNA test results confirmed skeletal remains discovered last Fall to be King Richard III. Investigators stated that the bones show he suffered 8 to 10 wounds, 2 inflicted to the head – either of which could have been fatal – and some “humiliation injuries” that likely occurred after he died and was stripped of his armor. (Armor, expensive as it was, was usually removed and given to the victor). While researching my book, I never once came across the term “humiliation injuries”, and recent searches of my resources came up empty. I believe this is a modern term, and here is why.

Medieval people were masters of torture and humiliation. These punishments were inflicted upon criminals, who were regarded as deserving scorn, derision, and mistreatment. All one need do is look up “hanged, drawn and quartered” – but I give WARNING – it’s not for the squeamish. The people would gather to witness these events as well as beheadings, stake burnings, and mocking parades of the guilty. It should be noted that kings were also paraded about so that the people witnessed and accepted their deaths, and succession could take place without uprising. The point is that in medieval times, death was a public event.

A likely scenario in King Richard III’s case is that the public saw him as a criminal, perhaps due to the missing princes, and mistreated his dead body. These humiliating injuries were never documented as such; the medieval people saw them as justified.

But were they? There is still debate over whether Richard was involved in killing the missing princes. Could it have been a smear campaign started by the Tudors to discredit Richard and his legitimacy to the throne? After defeating Richard on the battlefield, Henry Tudor became king, thus ending the War of the Roses and ushering in 118 years of reigning Tudor monarchs. But the mystery remains: who inflicted those wounds on King Richard and why?

I hope one day we find out.

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Portrait of Richard III of England, painted c. 1520
Portrait of Richard III of England, painted c. 1520

A dead body discovered in digging up a modern day parking lot. Ancient records show the burial was beneath an old friary. The skull, severely fractured, and a metal arrowhead still embedded in the spine. But these are not just any skeletal remains, but possibly those of a king.

Sounds like the latest BBC Mystery, but this is a real life one. And the remains are being tested to determine if it is the body of King Richard III, who ruled for only 2 short years and died at the age of 32 in the Battle of Bosworth on August, 22 1485. Historic accounts state he died from a violent blow to the head by a poleaxe or halberd, driving his helmet into his skull. His body was carried to a local friary and, by one account, buried beneath the choir floor.

Whether that part is true or not, it begs the question – did the good friars fear people might desecrate the grave? Absolutely. Historical accounts tell of how two young princes mysteriously disappeared from the Tower of London (the Royal residence at the time) following their being declared illegitimate heirs, thus making Richard III king of England. Many believed Richard had the boys executed, although there is considerable debate about their fate. But if many people at the time believed Richard of foul play, the friars placed his body where no one would have an easy time finding it. And thus it remained, until now.

King Richard III was the last English king to be killed in battle.

Fascinating.

For the rest of the story: National Geographic: Body Under British Parking Lot May Be King Richard III.

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