The Riddle of Richard the Third

23 Sep

King Richard III was one of England’s most famous, most hated and in many ways most important monarchs. Although he reigned for only two years, between 1483 and 1485, he is remembered for a variety of reasons. He was the last king of the House of York and the last of the Plantagenet dynasty. His defeat at the Battle of Bosworth Field was the decisive battle of the Wars of the Roses and is sometimes regarded as the end of the Middle Ages in England, before the ushering in of the Tudor period and the English Renaissance. He is rarely spoken of fondly, however, and is often regarded as the pantomime villain of English history. History has forever tarred him with the accusation that he murdered his young nephews Edward and Richard, following the incident of the ‘Princes in the Tower’, even though the evidence of Richard III’s alleged crime is circumstantial to say the least. As an unpopular king, Richard III had to face more than one rebellion and it was in a successful revolt by Henry Tudor (later crowned King Henry VII) that he ultimately met his end – the last English king, incidentally, to fall in battle. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Richard III, however, is what happened to him after his death – or more specifically to his body.

Richard III was killed at the battle of Bosworth Field on 22 August 1485. After the battle his body, stripped and slung across a horse’s back, was carried back to Leicester, passing over Bow Bridge, across which Richard had ridden as a living man only a day or two before. In Leicester, on Henry VII’s somewhat macabre instructions, the body was exposed to the public gaze so that all might know for certain that Richard III was dead. Beyond this the new king seems to have made no immediate provision for the disposal of his predecessor’s remains. It was the Franciscan Friars of Leicester who apparently took the initiative of requesting permission to inter Richard III’s corpse. Henry VII’s court historian, Polydor Vergil, reports that Richard was ‘buryed two days after [on 25 August?] without any pompe or solemn funerall … in thabbay of monks Franciscanes at Leycester’. This location is confirmed by the contemporary Warwickshire antiquary, John Rous, who adds that, as one would expect for a person of such rank, the burial took place in the choir of the church. The problem is that Richard III’s burial place remained unmarked and, to this day, no one is entirely sure where his body is.

On the face of it, there is no reason to doubt that the body of Richard III remained where the friars had buried it in 1485. The uncertainty arises from one of the most infamous acts of Henry VII’s son Henry VIII – the dissolution of the monasteries. When Henry VIII closed the religious houses of England, the fate of those buried in the former priories and abbeys varied. Where surviving relatives took steps to rescue them, bodies, and even entire tombs, were saved and moved elsewhere. In the case of Richard III there were no close relatives on hand to rescue his remains when the Leicester Greyfriars were expelled in 1538. Consequently, an extraordinary legend grew up concerning the fate of Richard III’s body. According to the legend, at the time of the Dissolution, Richard III’s body had been dug up, dragged through the streets of Leicester by a jeering mob, and finally hurled into the river Soar near Bow Bridge. There is, however, absolutely no contemporaneous evidence in support of this story, which mainly rests on a 17th century relic: a stone coffin, used as a horse trough, which was displayed to tourists visiting Leicester as ‘Richard III’s coffin’. In reality this coffin dated from many centuries earlier than Richard III’s time. However, its public presence, together with the fact that a genuine connection did link Richard III with Bow Bridge, helped to establish the legend that Richard’s body had been thrown into the river.

In 1856 a local mason erected a large stone plaque close to Bow Bridge, which reads: NEAR THIS SPOT LIE THE REMAINS OF RICHARD III THE LAST OF THE PLANTAGENETS 1485. This large and prominent plaque has served to reinforce the dubious tradition which it celebrates. The legend has hence become self-perpetuating, to the extent that a skull of unknown age, dredged up from the river, and exhibiting damage which was thought to be attributable to sword cuts, could not fail to be hailed, on its appearance, as Richard III’s skull. The more simple reality is that Richard III’s body probably still lies where it was first buried, somewhere beneath Grey Friars Street or the adjacent buildings. In an interesting footnote to the legend, a Leicester car park was recently dug up in an effort to find the body of Richard III. The results were startling: the skeleton discovered there had an arrow-head embedded in its back and had received blows to the skull consistent with injuries received in battle. Not only that, although the skeleton was not of a hunchback, it did have a curved spine. It will take a few weeks more for the DNA analysis to come through, however, until then the legend lives on.

5 Responses to “The Riddle of Richard the Third”

  1. Rodger Jacobs September 23, 2012 at 4:47 am #

    Reblogged this on The Brimmer Files.

  2. wildninja September 23, 2012 at 9:15 am #

    Great piece. had an interesting article on this a couple of weeks ago: I find it interesting that the Bard portrayed him as a hunchback when in reality one shoulder would have been higher than the other, giving him a lopsided appearance. Although it sounds like they’ll be doing DNA testing, it certainly sounds like they’ve found Richard at last.

  3. Chloe deGravelle September 24, 2012 at 4:13 am #

    It would be amazing if it really is him. Life always has a way of bringing forth what was once lost or forgotten.

  4. marlovian May 6, 2013 at 12:40 pm #

    We are all products of our age, socially conditioned by contemporary values; who are we to say we would not have acted as Richard did given the same circumstances? I love the man. A flawed human being like all of us.

  5. cash advance July 25, 2013 at 11:49 pm #

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