Richard III’s Remains Found, Part 1
Richard III’s Remains Found!
Many of you have probably been following with great interest the discovery of the remains of King Richard III. The Richard III Society spearheaded the project, and is planning to use the interest this discovery has generated for a big push to increase attention to the historical, as opposed to the legendary, Richard III. It’s a fascinating story that connects characters from last season’s Henry V with ones from next season’s production of Richard III. For those of you unfamiliar with the new archaeological find, here’s a recap, drawn solely from my understanding of what I’ve read, with no claims whatsoever to absolute accuracy.
Richard III was the younger brother of King Edward IV of England. He married Anne Neville, with whom he had grown up, having spent a great deal of his childhood under the care of her father. They may well have been childhood sweethearts, and their marriage was apparently known as a close and happy one. Richard and Anne spent years ruling the north for King Edward from the same castle where they had played together as children. (Middleham Castle is now a lovely atmospheric ruin that you can wander around in Yorkshire.)
Richard and Anne were very popular and successful in Yorkshire, but that all changed when Edward died in 1483, thrusting Richard unexpectedly into the limelight and onto the throne. (Yes, there’s more to it than that, but we’ll get to that later.) Edward and Richard’s reigns are a part of the Wars of the Roses, with their York branch of the Plantagenet family fighting their cousins the Lancaster branch for rule of England. Richard’s two year reign was marked by rebellions from the last strands of the Lancasters, and by the personal tragedies of both his wife’s and son’s deaths. By the time he met Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, at the Battle of Bosworth, he had had a miserable two years and was looking to end the Wars of the Roses once and for all. Richmond was the last hope for the Lancastrians (a tenuous connection which we will also get to later), and if Richard could defeat Richmond he could reign in peace. Seeing Richmond alone on a hill, he rode to strike the decisive blow, outpacing his own men. Eyewitness accounts say that he almost achieved his goal, but was cut off at the last minute and surrounded by Richmond’s men, who killed him with many wounds to the head, and then stripped and stabbed his naked corpse.
Until last year the story I had always heard was that his body was thrown into the river, so there was no grave or tomb marking his remains. It turns out that many accounts relating to that ending were missing a step. His body was in fact buried, near the altar in the abbey church of the Greyfriars Monastery near Leicester. When Henry VIII (son of the victorious Richmond) created the Church of England and dissolved the monasteries, many were left in varying degrees of ruin and can still be visited today, but the Greyfriars Monastery was completely destroyed, and by most people completely forgotten. This is the point where one story says Richard’s body was allegedly dug up and thrown in the river. But there were scholars who did not believe that story’s provenance either, and felt that if the ruins of the Greyfriars Monastery could be found, Richard’s remains would still be there.
Last year a team was assembled. They researched all available documents and records, and convinced the city of Leicester that they had substantial evidence suggesting that the monastery lay underneath their Town Council car park. The dig quickly uncovered the foundations and outline of the monastery, and they determined where the altar would have stood and under what section of the floor they believed Richard’s body to be. And lo and behold, they uncovered a remarkably complete male skeleton. Historians have long told us that Richard’s alleged withered arm was an invention of his enemies, who wrote the history that Raphael Holinshead repeated in his Chronicles, which was then picked up and immortalized for all time by one William Shakespeare. The real Richard III was known for his prowess in battle, even though he was a short member of a notably tall family, and had a curvature of the spine that would have made one shoulder sit higher than the other, giving rise to the legend of a hunchback.
The skeleton unearthed at Leicester is of a man not tall in stature, with a pronounced curvature of the spine, and evidence of ten wounds received in battle; most of them to his head. At this point, were I in charge of this dig, I would have gone out for a huge celebration, and announced that I had successfully discovered the body of Richard III. Apparently the actual leaders of the team are wiser and have cooler heads. They expressed cautious optimism and announced that no decision would be made until the remains were thoroughly examined and, if possible, tested for DNA. They tracked down a descendant of Richard’s elder sister, a Canadian carpenter living in London who actually had no idea that he was related to the Plantagenets. The DNA matched, and the body has been officially identified as that of King Richard III. The catchphrase sweeping England and America is “The King under the Car Park”. In fact my daughter Sarah has expressed to me her plans to use this as the title of her planned film version of Josephine Tey’s famous book about Richard III, The Daughter of Time, updating the novel to the present to include the discovery of Richard’s body. So if any film producers or funders want to help a Smith graduate with degrees in history and theatre with a timely and worthwhile project, get a hold of her.
Well that’s the current news in brief. In my next blog we’ll talk about the Richard III Society’s desire to increase people’s awareness of the historical Richard III, as opposed to the Richard III of legend. History is written by the winners, and, as I have already noted, the history of Richard III that we get from Shakespeare came from men writing in the service of the man who beat Richard III and then became King Henry VII. So tune in next week as we take a closer look at Richmond and his claim to the throne