The Tragicomedy of Richard III

In 1485, after the Battle of Bosworth Field (“A horse, a horse! my kingdom for a horse!”), one of Henry VII’s first acts was to allow Richard III’s body to be exposed to the gaze of the people of Leicester so that no sympathiser could doubt that the former king was dead. What happened next has only recently come to light.

Shakespeare has it that Richard III was bemoaning the loss of his kingdom for having no horse on which to continue the battle. According to legend, the Wars of the Roses that led to Richard’s demise began in London near where the Royal Courts of Justice now stand. In the gardens of the Temple Church, a group of noblemen and a lawyer picked red or white roses to demonstrate their respective loyalties: white for York and red for Lancaster. Now, the Royal Courts are the setting for the final battle.

Richard-III(1)Following Richard III’s death, there could be no permanent resting place among Henry VII’s Tudor forebears for the last of the Plantagenets. Apparently the Grey Friars of Leicester were commanded to bury his remains. Henry VII’s court historian Polydore Vergil (who wrote the Anglica Historia published in 1534) recorded that the deceased monarch was “buryed two days after without any pompe or solemne funeral …in the abbay of monks Franciscanes at Leycester.”

To bolster his own image as king by divine right, Henry VII wanted Richard’s body to be placed in a suitable tomb. Court records show that money was paid out for a monument to cover the grave, but there is no contemporary description of what it looked like. In any case, neither tomb nor monument survived the dissolution of the friary in 1538, at a time when the monks had fallen on hard times.

Popular legend says that when the friary and tomb were destroyed, Richard’s remains were removed from their coffin, carried through the streets of the city and flung into the local River Soar. One piece of Richard’s tomb was long believed to have survived the desecration: the stone coffin in which his body had lain was supposedly converted into a horse-trough and used at a “common inn” in what may have been a publicity stunt by the tavern-keeper. We now know none of this to be true.

A determined search for Richard’s body began in August 2012 led by the University of Leicester in partnership with the City Council. On the first day of the dig a human skeleton belonging to a man in his thirties was uncovered. The skeleton showed signs of multiple wounds and had a number of unusual physical features, most notably scoliosis – severe curvature of the back. Scientific analysis showed that the man had probably been killed either by a blow from a large bladed weapon that cut off the back of his skull, or by a halberd thrust that penetrated his brain.

The bones were consistent with the age at which Richard III died and mitochondrial DNA taken from them matched that of two 17th-generation matrilineal descendants of Richard’s sister, Anne of York. On the basis of these points and other historical, scientific and archaeological evidence, on 4 February 2013 the University of Leicester announced that the skeleton was that of Richard III.

Richard-III(2)Cue an unseemly row over where the remains of the last Plantagenet king of England should be laid to rest, 529 years after his death. In the red corner, the University of Leicester and Leicester Cathedral (elevated to a collegiate church in 1922 and to cathedral status in 1927) and both nobly supported by the Richard III Society (founded in 1924).

In the white corner, the Plantagenet Alliance, formed in 2013 by Stephen Nicolay, the 16th great-grandson of Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York (father of Richard III). It comprises several other people claiming similar lineage, who believe that Richard should be returned to the City of York for ceremonial re-burial.

The Alliance’s hobby-horse has been somewhat reined in by the reluctance of the Chapter of York Minster, seat of the Archbishop of York, to take sides. A po-faced statement issued on 11 March 2013 expressed a “neutral position”, but one has to wonder if the Chapter is entirely oblivious to the income-generating potential of someone “determined to prove a villain”.

On 13 March 2014 the Alliance and the University of Leicester are flinging down their respective gauntlets at the High Court, in London, in order to argue the legality of the licence that gave the University control over Richard III’s remains. It will be interesting to see which horse unseats its rider.


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