Thursday, 13 September 2012

Have They Found the Lost Burial of King Richard III?

You would expect to find a medieval king of England buried in an elaborate marble tomb in an important ecclesiastical building such as Westminster Abbey or St George’s Chapel in Windsor. But for the last Plantagenet King of England, Richard III, there was no such impressive memorial to commemorate his life and reign and the location of his grave was an unsolved mystery for hundreds of years.  So you can imagine the excitement when a team from the University of Leicester started to search for the grave of the lost king, especially as the king in question was the notorious and controversial Richard III.  For he is the infamous English monarch who was accused of murdering his own nephews to gain his crown and was portrayed by the famous bard William Shakespeare as an evil, deformed hunchback with a withered arm.

King Richard III - Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
King Richard III

However, it must be remembered that history is written by the victors and descriptions of Richard’s appearance penned by the likes of Shakespeare, Thomas Moore and Raphael Holinshed were Tudor propaganda designed to shore up the legitimacy and power of the new royal dynasty and smear the Yorkist king’s reputation in order to justify leading a rebellion against him and usurping his throne. Inconveniently for Henry Tudor’s supporters, until the unexpected death of his elder brother King Edward IV, Richard’s reputation had been blameless.  Unusually in the chaos that was the War of the Roses, Richard had remained totally loyal to his older brother, even when his other brother George, Duke of Clarence sided with the Earl of Warwick and joined with the Lancastrian forces headed by Margaret of Anjou.  He was richly rewarded by a grateful Edward IV, who gave him the title of Duke of Gloucester and allowed his marriage to the traitorous Warwick’s daughter Anne Neville.  Richard spent little time at the court in London, and based himself mainly in the north, where he led several successful campaigns against the Scots and recaptured Berwick-upon-Tweed in 1482.

After Edward’s unexpected death in 1483, Richard was named Lord Protector and marched down from Yorkshire to meet up with his nephew the twelve year old new King Edward V.  Edward V was travelling to London in the company of his maternal uncle, Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, who Richard arrested and subsequently executed along with Richard Grey and Thomas Vaughan in Pontefract Castle. Once he arrived in London with the new King, Richard lodged him in the Tower of London, which was the traditional place where English monarchs stayed before their coronation and persuaded Edward’s mother, Elizabeth Woodville, to allow his younger brother Richard, Duke of York to join him.  The arrangements for Edward’s coronation were going ahead when Richard suddenly changed tack and seized the crown for himself, citing as the reason that his nephews were illegitimate because his brother Edward IV has already made a contract to marry another woman, Lady Eleanor Butler, before he secretly married Elizabeth Woodville.

After Richard’s coronation sightings of the two young princes playing in the grounds of the Tower of London dwindled and rumours started to fly that the boys had been murdered by their uncle. However, there is still no real evidence that King Richard murdered his nephews and what really happened to the Princes in the Tower is still just conjecture.  His short reign held much personal tragedy for the new English king, as his only son and heir Edward of Middleham died tragically in 1484 and his wife Anne Neville also died of tuberculosis a few short months later in March 1485.  But during his reign Richard proved to be a popular monarch with his people and he introduced laws that allowed poorer people to have their grievances heard and he also stopped restrictions being placed on the printing and sale of books.

Richard III was the last English king to be killed in battle, and he was slain at the Battle of Bosworth on 22nd August 1485 defending his kingdom against the forces of Henry Tudor.  This decisive battle brought the War of the Roses into its final stages, placing the Lancastrian Henry Tudor onto the throne of England as King Henry VII and bringing to an end the rule of the Yorkist dynasty and the Plantagenets.  We don’t really know the details of how King Richard was killed during the battle, but legend has it that after he was slain his mangled corpse was ignominiously slung over the back of a horse and taken into the nearby town of Leicester and left on display for the public to come and view for three days.  However distasteful this may seem to our modern minds, it was a politically astute move from the new King Henry VII, as it would stop any rumours being put around that Richard hadn’t really been killed during the battle and thus preventing a potential focus for rebellion against the new dynasty . The king’s body was then said to have been thrown into the River Soar that runs through the town and one of the bridges is known as ‘King Richard’s Bridge’.

However, a contemporary chronicler Sir Thomas Frowyk made a reference to King Richard being buried in the church of the Newarke in Leicester and chroniclers later in the reign of Henry VII spoke of money being set aside by the new Tudor king to build a tomb for him and of Richard’s burial being in the Greyfriars Church which was part of the Franciscan Friary. Greyfriars was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries instigated by HenryVIII in 1536, and it would seem that it was at this time that the location of the royal burial became uncertain, as the bones could either have been removed from the tomb when the building was razed and either moved or discarded, or the royal skeleton was buried under the ground and was undisturbed but covered by more recent building work.  The Mayor of Leicester, Robert Herrick, constructed a mansion over the remains of the friary church and when Christopher Wren visited him in 1612 he reported seeing a stone pillar inscribed as a memorial to Richard III in the garden.  Around the same time in 1611, a map maker called John Speedie was recording local landmarks in Leicester and it is thought that he may have been the one who started the story that Richard III’s body had been thrown in the river. It is said that he did this to cover up his embarrassment at not being able to find the King’s grave, and that he had not searched in the right place, as he had been looking at Blackfriars rather than Greyfriars.

The archaeologists from Leicester University located the site of the lost Greyfriars church by examining historical maps and comparing them to modern ones. They started their excavations on 25th August 2012 in a car park belonging to the local council.  The mansion built by Robert Herrick had been demolished in the 1870s and replaced with public buildings, although the gardens were not paved over until the middle of the 20th century, and the excavations soon uncovered paving stones that are thought to be from the mansion’s gardens. Medieval finds included inlaid floor tiles, fragments of tracery from the church windows, and part of a stone frieze believed to be from the choir stalls and the locations of the eastern cloister walk and the chapter house were established.  But the most exciting find of all was the discovery of an intact skeleton of an adult male buried in the Choir area of the Friary Church.  The remains had not been interred in a coffin, but seemed to have been laid to rest in a shroud that has subsequently disintegrated, and there was nothing buried with the body to indicate the skeleton’s identity. So what clues are there that this could be the body of King Richard III?

The skeleton is that of an adult male who had been strong and in good health when he had died.  The remains also display injuries that could have been sustained during a medieval battle as there is a blade wound to the back of the head and an iron barbed arrowhead was found lodged between the vertebrae of the upper back.  The skeleton also has a curvature of the spine, known as scoliosis, that would have meant that during life the man’s right shoulder would have seemed to have been higher than his left.  This fits in with contemporary description’s of Richard’s appearance which speak of a raised shoulder and could have been the basis of Shakespeare’s exaggerated depiction of the monarch as an ugly, short hunchback who had a withered arm.  The experts are hoping to extract DNA samples for analysis from a few of the teeth and femur of the skeleton, which they are hoping will match with that of Michael Ibsen, a Canadian descendant of Richard III’s elder sister Anne of York to prove the identity of the remains.

This DNA testing will take about twelve weeks and during this time it will have to be decided where the remains will be reinterred if the testing proves that the skeleton is that of the King.  There are no plans for the excavation to be kept open for the public, so it is unlikely that the body will be returned to its original grave. A memorial stone already lies in Leicester Cathedral, so perhaps this could be Richard’s final resting place? Or could he be buried in York Minster as he himself had planned? Whatever eventually happens to the remains our last Plantagenet King, if it is proved that this really is Richard’s body it will offer historians and archaeologists much valuable evidence that will help them piece together what really happened to him at the Battle of Bosworth and how he was killed.

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