Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:54 am
Attempting to write anything about Richard III is somewhat daunting. He was king of England for little over two years, from July 1483 until being slaughtered at the Battle of Bosworth on 22 August 1485, yet he is one of our most controversial monarchs, whose reputation and character still divide opinion more than five centuries after his death. I wish I could remember who flippantly, but accurately, referred to him as ‘the Marmite king’. Anyway, some of that divided opinion is held by learned folk who know a great deal more about the subject than I do; so I need to tread carefully. Good grief, the man even has his own virtual fan-club, the Richard III Society, founded in 1924 by a small group of individuals who felt that history had been a little unkind to our last Plantagenet monarch. The society’s current patron is the modern Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and it has branches all over the world. Followers of Richard are called ‘Ricardians’; truly, they are.
Richard III’s fame comes to us from the closing stages of one of the bloodiest family feuds in British history, the Cousins’ War – or the Wars of the Roses as they are commonly known. The ultimate winners of that conflict were the Tudors, a new dynasty ushered in by the victor of Bosworth, Henry VII, whose slightly dodgy claim to the throne needed all the help it could get. History is invariably written by the winners, not always fairly, and few doubt that Richard was a victim of the Tudor propaganda machine. This was still functioning when Shakespeare wrote his eponymous play in the late 16th century, in which Richard is portrayed as an evil, scheming, hunchback – a caricature that has stuck to this day. Richard’s detractors over the years have suggested that he killed Edward of Westminster, the Prince of Wales, in cold blood after the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471; murdered Edward’s father, the feeble Henry VI in the Tower of London; plotted to get his own brother, Clarence, executed by drowning in a butt of Malmsey; poisoned his own wife, Anne (Edward of Westminster’s widow), so that he could marry his pretty young niece, Elizabeth (who eventually married Henry VII); and, most famously, had his own dear nephews, Edward and Richard, the Princes in the Tower and mere children, done away with. Some of these accusations may be accurate, others are probably not. Frankly, I’m not getting into a debate about whether he was a psychopathic serial killer, or a much-maligned cuddly sort of chap who simply sought a quiet life. He was certainly a product of an exceptionally violent time. It is also true that, like Henry Tudor, Richard was never meant to be king and, if his brother Edward IV had not died early, he probably would not have been. But then, Edward was not born to be king, either and, without the Wars of the Roses, Edward IV could have been the Lancastrian Prince of Wales that died at Tewkesbury, rather than a son of York.
Even so, Richard III was an anointed king of England, and if he got there by less than orderly means, it had happened before and would happen again. Unlike most other monarchs, though, he was not laid to rest with due pomp and ceremony in some great cathedral. Defeated in battle, Richard was mocked in death and buried hastily. Not only that but, somewhere along the way, his remains went AWOL.
Even Richard’s enemies agreed that he was a brave man. The generally accepted account of his end on Bosworth Field is that he led a ferocious cavalry charge against Henry, which almost succeeded, but which resulted in Richard being unhorsed, overwhelmed and cut down. Afterwards, his naked body was brought to Henry, who had it slung over a horse and taken to nearby Leicester where it was publicly displayed. This was Henry’s proof that Richard, who had been waved off to battle from the same town only a few days before, was dead and that he, Henry, was indisputably king. Thereafter, Richard’s body was given a quick burial by Franciscan friars (the Grey Friars) in their church. You can’t help wondering who grieved for him, if anyone. Still, a decade later, Henry had a modest alabaster memorial erected over his old adversary’s grave. But then, from 1536, Henry’s son, Henry VIII, set about dissolving religious houses, including Leicester’s Grey Friars. Their church was demolished, a mansion was built on the land, a school, local government offices – and, down the years, the precise location of the friary was lost. A story circulated, recorded by historian John Speed in 1611, that the former king’s body had anyway been thrown off Leicester’s Bow Bridge into the River Soar. This myth was reinforced by an old stone coffin, exhibited to tourists as being that of Richard III, and a 19th century plaque was placed near the bridge, saying that the remains of the king were nearby. We now know that Richard lay undisturbed exactly where the friars had put him in 1485, until his remains were discovered under a car park in 2012. In 2015, they were re-interred in Leicester Cathedral with the dignity the man had been denied in death. The ceremony was attended by the great and good of the land, including members of the Royal Family, sundry celebrities and even descendents of some of those that had fought at Bosworth. Now, Ricardians and others can visit the tomb of England’s most recently buried medieval king – and the last English king to die in battle. All of this must have provided a fillip for the people of Leicester, whose football team went on to become champions for the first time in their history in 2016. Leicester is also well and truly on the tourist map now, which, despite being one of Britain’s oldest urban settlements, with roots dating back to at least the 1st century BC, as well as being home to the National Space Centre, it may not have been previously.
The story of the discovery of Richard III’s remains, their identification and what they can tell us about the man is absolutely fascinating. It is as much a tale of amazing science as it is intriguing history and it is told in the King Richard III Visitor Centre, which is almost opposite the Cathedral. Leicester City Council, which owns and runs the centre, actually got ahead of the game and took a risk with this project – unusual for a public authority. It bought the Victorian former Alderman Newton School building, built on part of the site of the Grey Friars’ buildings and next to the famous car park, in December 2012 – before the remains had been confirmed as being those of Richard III – and it opened the centre in 2014. You won’t find any medieval exhibits in the centre, but, alluringly, it does include the site of Richard’s grave. Using display boards, modern reproductions and clever video, the ground floor is given over to the historical background to the civil war, Richard’s life and the terrifying battle that brought it to an abrupt end. The first floor examines how Richard has been portrayed but, far more compelling is the tale of how the idea of finding Richard III became a compulsion, then a possibility, and how skilful history, archaeology and medical-forensic science worked in concert to make the discovery a reality.
Robert Herrick, who built a mansion on the site of Grey Friars in the early 17th century, believed that Richard III’s remains were under his garden. Several modern historians thought so too, and that they were still there, waiting to be found. But it took the efforts and passion of the founder of the Scottish branch of the Richard III Society to make that happen. Philippa Langley had undertaken years of research on Richard III for a prospective film and had become convinced that his grave lay under a car park used by Leicester social services – one of the few likely areas of the former friary without a building on it and, therefore, relatively easy to excavate. In fact, she had an odd sensation, perhaps a premonition, that her quest was right under her feet, beneath a particular space marked with the letter ‘R’ – which could stand for ‘Richard’, ‘Rex’, or ‘Reserved’, depending on your mental health. She successfully pitched her ideas to Leicester City Council, University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) and raised enough funds, half of which came from Richard III Society members worldwide, for an exploratory dig. Along the way, Philippa enlisted the support of an ally, independent historian and expert on the period, the late John Ashdown-Hill.
There’s a phenomenal amount of necessary groundwork (pun intended) to undertake before an archaeological dig can go ahead, particularly in an urban area. Areas that can be excavated are restricted by whatever happens to be there. You can’t easily burrow under existing buildings and consideration has to be given as to what modern services – electricity, gas, water, drainage etc – may run across the proposed site. If there is a potentially clear site – like a car park – a detailed examination of any existing records, particularly historic maps, is advisable in order to pinpoint the best place to start. So, before raising a trowel in anger, ULAS meticulously went through old maps of Leicester, not all of them accurate, comparing them and overlaying them on modern maps; medieval street names provided clues; the layout of other friaries were studied, too, to help identify the likely location of particular structures.
One of the astonishing things about this astonishing story is that the grave of Richard III was exactly where Philippa Langley’s hunch said it was and, moreover, was found – or, at least, a leg bone was – on the very first day of the dig, 25 August 2012. As time went on, more bones were carefully uncovered to reveal most of a skeleton (the feet were missing), probably male, with a curved spine and traumatic wounds to the head – consistent with the type of injuries that might be incurred during a medieval battle. At that point, of course, no one was sure who he was – though Philippa thought she knew and made sure that the small box containing the bones was covered in the Plantagenet royal standard before it was loaded in the back of a van by John Ashdown-Hill.
It is unusual for archaeologists to seek, and find, a particular thing. So the experts did not seriously expect to discover the mortal remains of Richard III. What they did hope for was to unearth enough of the friary to map it out. And, in a dig that lasted just over a fortnight, covering a tiny fraction of the friary precinct, but also using wider knowledge of the standard features that medieval religious houses had, as well as other evidence, that objective was achieved.
The skeleton, meanwhile, was taken for specialist analysis at the University of Leicester. It proved to be that of an adult male – though some bones were quite slender, almost feminine – who had been in his late 20s or 30s at time of death. Richard was 32 when he died. He would have been about 5’ 8” (1.74m) tall, though the curvature of the spine would have made him look shorter. This curvature was identified as a condition known as scoliosis, which affects about 1% of Britons and is not usually noticeable when people are dressed. In the skeleton’s case, it was idiopathic – which means they don’t know what caused it – and had developed as he got older. It was not the hunchback portrayed by Shakespeare, but it did match contemporary accounts.
“…he was small of stature, with a short face and unequal shoulders, the right higher and the left lower” *
The basics of the forensic analysis will be familiar to anyone who has watched something like ‘Silent Witness’, or similar murder detective programmes on TV, though this was a very cold case indeed. Even so, experts were able to tell that the skeleton had enjoyed a protein-rich diet, with about 25% of that coming from seafood, and a high meat content in the remainder. This would be consistent with the diet of a member of the medieval nobility. Analysis even suggested that more imported wine had been consumed in the last few years before death, perhaps as a consequence of elevated status – like being a king.
It is also vital, of course, to know when your body died. Through the process of radiocarbon dating undertaken at the universities of Glasgow and Oxford, it was determined there was a 95% probability that date of death was between 1455 and 1540 and a 68% probability that it was between 1475 and 1530.
Again, followers of modern detective stories will know that in order to prove someone’s identity, you need a DNA match. This had been known from the outset in the case of the body under the car park, and excavation had taken place with great care to avoid contaminating the remains with modern DNA. Fortunately, it proved possible to extract DNA from the remains – DNA breaks down over time – but it needed to be matched with a relative of Richard III to confirm identity. Whilst records tend to show male descent, that does not always match the genetics. Fortuitously, John Ashdown-Hill had already traced an all-female line of descent from one of Richard’s sisters, Anne of York (1439-76), to a London-based Canadian furniture maker, Michael Ibsen. Michael is the direct descendent of Richard III’s mother, Cecily Neville, Duchess of York (1415-95), and agreed to provide a DNA sample. A second descendent was also found, who agreed to help but wanted to remain anonymous. DNA analysis showed a match for all three – the modern descendents of Anne of York and the skeleton under the car park; it was definitely Richard III.
One of the most fascinating, though morbid, aspects to the story is that we can now be pretty sure how Richard died. And it illustrates the shocking, brutal, nature of medieval combat. Experts found a number of injuries to the skeleton – obviously, there may have been others to soft body tissue, and probably were. Scientists found two fatal wounds to the skull. One has been caused by a large, sharp, blade which has sliced away part of the back the head, to the extent that the brain would have been exposed; the second is a hole made by a sword or similar, which penetrated to a depth of 10.5 centimetres (more than 4 inches) into the base of the skull on the left side. Other wounds include shaved areas of bone on the top of the head, probably made by slicing swords, another hole on the top of the skull, possibly caused by a dagger being driven downward with great force – and various other cuts. One curious wound is a cut to the pelvis made by a weapon thrust through Richard’s right buttock. Armour would have protected Richard from these injuries. The conclusion is that Richard was fighting on foot when he died and had lost his helmet – or it had been removed by his attackers. He was probably assailed on all sides and beaten down, the large fatal wound possibly caused by a halberd, or poleaxe, fearsome weapons combining spear and axe, chopping down from the right on his unprotected head, the fatal sword wound coming from the other side…either would have done the job. The buttock wound was almost certainly caused post-mortem, when Richard’s armour had been stripped off and was possibly a callous blow to show contempt for the dead king.
If you’re thinking the King Richard III Visitor Centre is some kind of kiddies’ interactive show, an uncharitable idea which I must admit did cross my mind before visiting it, think again; it covers all of the above and more. It even includes a professional facial reconstruction of Richard based on the king’s skull – again, the same techniques used in cold case work. Is this the face of a tyrant, or someone you’d trust to do a spot of child-minding? I think it looks surprisingly like ex-Prime Minister, David Cameron.
The end of the tour takes you to the grave site, which is now enclosed in a kind of marbled cenotaph with a glass floor to the grave, where a projected apparition of the skeleton appears, fades, and reappears… The grave was located under the choir of the church – so, not far from the altar. Richard had been buried without a coffin, probably without a shroud and, very possibly, with his hands tied. He was probably lowered into the ground feet first and, as well as being a relatively shallow grave, it was too short; Richard had his head propped up so that he could be squeezed in.
I’d recommend some reading or viewing before you visit the King Richard III Visitor Centre. The Channel 4 documentary, The King under the Car Park, is available on You Tube. Bookwise, The King’s Grave: The Search for Richard III, by Philippa Langley and Michael Jones, and Richard III, The King under the Car Park, by ULAS archaeologists Mathew Morris and Richard Buckley, are both available from Amazon.
Richard III was an intriguing (pun intended) historical figure and the story of his discovery is simply fascinating. I’m a little puzzled why some people get so emotional about the man himself, though, and wonder whether he would have understood what all the fuss was about. He probably thought he was just doing his job – though I’m sure he would have punched the air and shouted, “Yeesss!” when he became king. Finding human remains, however, must generate a well of varied sensations and emotions; this was once a living being, in biological terms just like us; it experienced hope, happiness, pleasure, pain. To imagine those remains, when living, at home in a world we only know second-hand and, moreover, playing a leading role in a drama that changed Britain so profoundly, takes things to another level.
* John Rous, chantry priest and chronicler of the late 1480s, quoted in ‘Richard III – The King under the Car Park’, by Mathew Morris and Richard Buckley