Crowdsourcing the search for some missing royalty

An archaeological site in Co Meath has been relying on the public for its dig outs, and has created a community-led heritage project in the process


Last August, archaeologists raised a goblet of mead in celebration when the skeleton of Richard III was unearthed under a carpark in Leicester. Now, an Irish team of archaeologists are hoping to find an ancestor of Richard III – in a patch of waste ground in Trim, Co Meath, just behind the local supermarket.

Beneath this four-acre rectangle of scrubby grass, bordered by a housing estate, lie the foundations of a 13th-century Dominican blackfriary, and a team of have been excavating the site, which contains many skeletons. They hope that one of these may be skeleton of sir Geoffrey de Geneville, a French nobleman who founded the friary.

Okay, he wasn’t a monarch, but he was well in with both king Henry III and his successor, king Edward I, and was appointed lord of Trim in 1252 and justiciar of Ireland in 1273. He and his wife, Maud de Lacy, the granddaughter of Walter de Lacy, lived at nearby Trim castle and were quite the power couple around medieval Meath. After Maud’s death in 1304, de Geneville retired to the friary, and is believed to have been buried there.

There’s a long way to go to identifying the exact skeleton – the team would need funding to do DNA testing, so let’s not break out the mead just yet. But for Steve Mandal, Lisanne O’Loughlin and Finola O’Carroll of CRDS, an archaeological and historical consultancy, there’s more to celebrate than the possible discovery of a medieval bigwig’s bones. The real excitement, says Mandal, comes from the project’s connection with the local community.

“We thought, hang on, this is an ideal site. Can we involve the local community, can we get people in from all over the world? Rather than excavating and then announcing the results, can we take the process of turning that piece of wasteland into an archaeological site and a parkland, and make that the attraction. People are coming and watching the process and getting involved.”

Mandal and his team set up the Blackfriary Community Archaeology Project in 2010, with support from Trim Town Council and Meath County Council, to excavate the site, determine the extent of the friary’s remains and the burials there, and to get the community and students involved via summer camps, educational programmes and information events. Recently, Mandal and O’Loughlin were invited to give a talk about the project at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. Each summer, the site is a hive of activity as local and international students attend the field school in the hope of making a find – perhaps a utensil from the era, or a fragment of stained glass, or maybe even a medieval bishop’s skull. Most of the burials are just a few feet below mostly damp ground, and are in danger of completely decaying within another generation if they’re not properly excavated. It’s a delicate task, both physically and ethically. The human remains need to be treated with respect, and properly reinterred.

Impressive structure
The original Dominican friary was an impressive structure, built with Purbeck limestone, a beautiful, shell-flecked marble imported from Dorset. No expense was spared in choosing building materials, but it was reckoned to be worth it – from the time of Hugh de Lacy, who became lord of Meath during the Norman Invasion, up until Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, Trim was a political, religious and economic power base, encompassing Meath, Westmeath and parts of Louth.

When Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I was setting up Trinity College, she had a choice of two deserted monasteries to choose from: the Dominican friary at Trim or the Augustinian priory at College Green in Dublin. “So the blackfriary could have been Trinity College, and the course of Irish history could have been a lot different,” says Mandal.

When the project is complete, Mandal hopes the people of Trim will have a new public amenity, incorporating a significant archeological site and a public park, with perhaps an interpretative display located somewhere in the town centre, where young people who have taken part in the excavations can see their work documented for friends and family to see. But, emphasises Mandal, the community will take charge of all that, with Mandal’s team there only to provide expert guidance.

“The last thing we want to do is go in and say, ‘this is the way you’ve got to do this’. That would defeat the whole ethos of what we’re trying to do. Ireland’s greatest asset is its people and its heritage, and what we’ve done is try and put them together. So rather than saying, ‘let’s make this into a visitor attraction’, we say, ‘let’s make this into something we love and are proud of’.”

Richard III’s great-great-great- great-great-great-great-grandfather, Geoffrey de Geneville, lord of Vaucoulours in Champagne, was a French noblemen who went to England in search of greater fortune following the marriage of Henry III to Eleanor of Provence. He was one of the “Savoyards” in the service of Henry III, and became a close confidant of the king.

An arranged marriage to Maud de Lacy, the wealthy granddaughter of Walter de Lacy, former lord of Meath, saw Geoffrey became lord of Ludlow in Wales and lord of Trim in 1252.

The couple had “liberty and free custom” of Meath and jointly ruled the region, taking Trim Castle as their main residence. Geoffrey accompanied prince Edward, the future king Edward I, on crusade, thus securing his trusted position in the royal court.

The couple had three children, Geoffrey, Piers and Joan, all of whom died during their lifetime. After Maud’s death, Geoffrey took holy orders and lived out his days at the Dominican friary he founded.