Last Monday (Feb 4), the University of Leicester, England, announced that the remains of the last English king to die in battle, Richard III, have been found and positively identified. The story of this discovery has received a lot of press in the UK, and rightly so. Up until last week, every English monarch’s remains since the 11th century had been located–all except for Richard III’s. As one who is very interested in English history, and particularly the history of the monarchy, this is quite exciting. But also as a writer, the story of his discovery is intriguing–the kind of story that inspires novels!
Richard was a Plantagenet, born into the Yorkist side of the Wars of the Roses. These wars were a series of conflicts between the Plantagenet houses of Lancaster and York that spanned a thirty year period (1455-1485), during which the English crown changed hands more than once. Richard’s oldest brother, Edward IV, seized the throne for the Yorkists, and teenaged Richard was called into service enlisting men and leading armies. When Edward died, the crown passed to Edward’s 12-year-old son, Edward V. Richard was appointed to be the young king’s Lord Protector. Supposedly fearing the family of his brother’s widow would try to seize power, Richard had the young heir and his younger brother, Richard, Duke of York, put in the Tower of London until the coronation. They never left, and were never seen or heard from again.
It has long been speculated that Uncle Richard never intended Edward V to see his coronation, hoping to fulfill his own royal ambitions without interference from his dead brother’s offspring. This, of course, may just be a vicious rumor circulated by Richard’s enemies to blacken his character–more about that in a moment.
It is true that Richard wanted the crown for himself, and to that end he declared his nephews illegitimate. His claim was upheld, and in 1483, Edward V was deposed and Richard crowned king. He ruled for two years, and by all accounts he was a just, fair ruler, and an exceptional tactician.
His reign was cut short when he was challenged on the battlefield by Henry Tudor, a Lancastrian on his mother’s side, who wished to assert his own claim to the English crown. In 1485, Richard was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in Leicester. After the battle, Richard’s body was paraded through the streets as proof of Henry’s victory. He was then buried without ceremony in a monastery owned by the Greyfriars in Leicester. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries about 30 years later, some said Richard’s body was carried out of the city and tossed over a bridge. Others believed the body still lay in the monastery grounds, but no grave marking remained, and no conclusive evidence supported the claim.
Our understanding of Richard’s character has been hindered greatly by the fact that, due to the circumstances of his death, his history was largely written by his enemies. Accounts of the his life, the Battle of Bosworth Field, and the aftermath, come to us mostly through Tudor sources. Even Shakespeare wrote under a Tudor queen (Elizabeth I). This means that the famous Shakespeare portrayal of a man with a hunchback, a withered arm, and an evil, conniving disposition has stuck for want of contradictory evidence.
An international group of Richard III sympathizers, known as The Richard III Society, has been working since the 1920s to rehabilitate the maligned king’s character. Their research has uncovered documents contemporary with Richard that have helped historians bring some balance to their understanding of Richard’s reign. They also favored the assertions that Richard’s body remained buried at the site of the Grayfriar’s monastery. For many reasons, the Society has for a long time wanted to locate Richard’s remains. Not only would they be able to see their hero get a proper burial, but perhaps his bones would belie Shakespeare’s claims of physical deformity, thus undermining the bard’s testimony to his character.
Last fall, the Society raised funds for an archeological exploration of the three most likely sites of the Grayfriars monastery. A team from the University of Leicester Archeological Services began with a car park, the location preferred by the Richard III Society. A documentary on the dig showed Society member Phillipa Langley pointing to a parking space with a letter “R” on it, suggesting they start there. In a trench dug in that parking space, they found human bones. When they took the bones back to the lab, they found evidence of battle wounds, including a place where a chunk of the skull had been hacked off at the back–a fatal wound. It also appeared that this person suffered from a form of scoliosis: curvature of the spine, which might have exhibited itself externally as an unevenness in the arms. There was no evidence that either arm was withered, however, and the scoliosis was deemed to be progressive (i.e., it probably started in adolescence and was continually getting worse), but not at this point an impediment to full mobility of the limbs. Although this was not conclusive, it was enough to get people excited. Indeed, it was incredible that their first try should prove so profitable!
Further tests were done on the bones, including carbon dating (came back late 15th/early 16th century), and mitochondrial DNA testing using people whose lineage can be traced back to Richard III’s older sister, Anne (results: positive for a match). After months of examination and testing, the verdict was conclusive: this set of bones, the first to be found on this dig, under a parking space marked with an “R,” was, indeed, without doubt, Richard III.
After some wrangling, the various interested parties have decided to give Richard a formal burial at Leicester Cathedral early next year. Leicester City Council has also purchased a building opposite the car park which they intend to turn into a Richard III Museum.
There’s a lot more to both the story of Richard, and the story of his discovery; I encourage you to read further (Google “Richard III” and you’ll find all you might want to know–and more!). Henry Tudor’s victory at Bosworth was one of those pivotal moments in history–not just European history, but world history. Think for a moment: if Richard had won, we would never have seen Henry VIII, the English Reformation, Elizabeth I–and possibly not the explorations to the New World that came about in the Elizabethan era, which eventually gave birth to the American colonies. Food for thought!
* William Shakespeare, Richard III, Act 1, Scene 1… sort of.