A Look at the Life, Death and Rediscovery of King Richard III of England
On the 25th August 2012, staff from University of Leicester Archaeological Services began a dig in the staff car park of Leicester City Council Car Park. The dig was supported by the City Council, Leicester Promotions, the University of Leicester, Leicester Cathedral, Darlow Smithson Productions and the Richard III Society. It had a twofold aim. Firstly to confirm whether or not the site had once been occupied by a Priory of the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscan or ‘Grey’ Friars) and secondly to discover if this was indeed the burial place of Richard III, last Plantagenet King of England.
After removal of a layer of modern demolition debris from a north-south trench, two parallel human leg bones were discovered. They lay some five metres from the north end of the 30 metre trench, at a depth of about 1.5 metres. This indicated an undisturbed burial. The leg bones were covered while further investigations, including digging another trench, took place. These investigations confirmed that this was in fact the site of the priory, and allowed the experts to estimate that the bones they had found lay close to the choir, on the east side of the Priory church. This was the part of the church where, according to contemporary chronicles, the dead King had been hastily interred.
Armed with this information, the University applied to the Ministry of Justice for a licence to exhume up to six human bodies for examination, stating that they were confining their search to adult males. The licence was granted and on 4th September 2012 the leg bones were uncovered and a search of the grave began. The skeleton proved to be that of an adult male in his thirties. The feet were missing, as a result of later building work over the grave. The skull was in an odd, propped-up position, indicating a hastily-dug, too-small grave into which the deceased had been roughly dumped. There was a pronounced twisting of the spine and evidence of numerous head-wounds. There was no evidence that either a coffin or a shroud had been used, nor had the dead man been clothed when buried. The only artefact found in the grave was a small piece of iron, which was suspected to be an arrowhead (it turned out to be a Roman-era nail).
The body was removed for further study. On 12th September the University announced that these might possibly be the bones of Richard III, but stated that caution was required. Careful investigations were begun.
The sudden death in August 1422 -from either dysentery or heat-stroke -of 35-year-old King Henry V of England, left his nine-month-old son, also named Henry, as King Henry VI. Nobles and Parliament swore allegiance to their new King, and established a Council of Regency. The child Kings’ uncles, John, Duke of Bedford and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, led this council. Bedford, as senior Regent, took over the running of the ongoing war with France, while Gloucester governed England as Lord Protector. Henrys’ mother, Catherine de Valois, eventually married a man named Owen Tudor, and had two sons by him — one of her grandsons from this marriage was to become Henry VII of England.
While Henry was growing up, the English were losing momentum in the Hundred Years War, with the French crowning Charles VII despite their treaty commitment to accept Catherines’ son as King of France. Further difficulties arose from the military victories of Jean de Dunois (the ‘Bastard of Orleans’) and the propaganda victories of Jeanne Darc (the ‘Maid of Orleans’). By the time Henry assumed royal authority at the age of 16, things were not looking good.
Henry VI, a shy, pious young man, prone to depression and with a pronounced distaste for war and politics, was not the leader and warrior his father had been, nor yet the shrewd politician his grandfather had been. He wanted to pursue peace with France, and to that end, leaned heavily upon, and favoured, those of his advisors who supported that policy. It was therefore easy for ambitious minor nobles to ingratiate themselves with the King by claiming to support his ideas, and thus gain power and influence. Matters were not improved by Henrys’ marriage to the strong-willed and ruthless Margaret of Anjou.
Margaret, determined to remove any possible threat to her husband, first contrived the arrest of Humphrey of Gloucester (who died of natural causes before he could be brought to trial) and then the removal to Ireland of Richard, Duke of York.
The Duke of York was not only one of the wealthiest nobles in England, but by virtue of descent from both the second and fourth sons of Edward III -through his mother and father respectively- had a rather better claim to the throne than Henry, who was great-grandson to Edward IIIs’ third son.
Conditions in England went from bad to worse, while the English forces in France were driven steadily back. Opposition to the Kings’ poor governance coalesced around York. Henry VI’s bout of severe depression (which rendered him almost catatonic) in 1453, followed by his increasingly erratic behaviour after ‘recovery’ finally led to open civil war in 1455. These so-called ‘Wars of the Roses’ lasted beyond Richard of Yorks’ death in 1460 until the final uncontested assumption of the throne by his eldest son, Edward IV, in 1471 , followed by the assassination of Henry VI.
Richard Plantagenet, Duke of Gloucester, was the youngest surviving child of Richard Duke of York. He had grown up during the wars, and been given military training by his cousin the Earl of Warwick (aka ‘the Kingmaker’). He was sufficiently apt a pupil to be given his own independent command at the age of 17. During adolescence he developed a sideways curvature of the spine — not sufficient to be disabling, or even particularly noticeable when clothed. But enough for his brothers’ enemies to mark him out as a deformed monster in propaganda. However, his roles in the decisive battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury, where he commanded the vanguard of the Yorkist forces, in 1471 made him one of the key figures in his brother’s ascension to the throne.
After the wars were over, Richard spent most of his time in the North, as Lord President of the new Council of the North, Warden of the West March on the Scottish border and finally, Lieutenant-General of the North. The implication of this is that he spent much time away from the court, with all it’s factions and double-dealing. Richard was, and remains to this day, well-regarded in the North of England as a military leader and a governor who sided with the common people against greedy nobles and clerics.
Meanwhile, Richards’ elder brother, George, Duke of Clarence, was busily digging himself into a hole. Already suspect for having changed sides temporarily during the civil wars, George had been forgiven and created a Duke by the eldest brother, Edward. However, he was never very mentally stable, and after his wife Isabel died, (either of puerperal fever or tuberculosis), George became convinced that one of her ladies-in-waiting had poisoned her. The woman, named Ankarette Twyhyno, was arrested, and dragged before a court in Warwick, where the enraged Duke bullied the jury into convicting her and had her and a supposed accomplice hanged immediately after the verdict. The following year, after some protests, King Edward IV issued a posthumous pardon. Georges’ mental state was further compromised by this, and by the Kings’ disapproval and rejection of his proposed marriage to Mary of Burgundy. George left the court and began having dealings with pro-Lancastrian elements.
The crunch came when one of Georges’ retainers was arrested and confessed under torture to planning the death of the King by black magic. Though the initial prisoner was ultimately reprieved, two others were hanged at Tyburn as accomplices. George reacted by sending an agent into Parliament to read out the executed men’s statement of innocence. Foolishly, the agent he employed was a noted Lancastrian supporter and propagandist. Edward IV had had enough, summoned George to Windsor, arrested him for treason and sent him to the Tower of London. George was tried and found guilty in his absence, and privately executed on 18 February 1478. The story of his being drowned in a ‘butt of Malmsey wine’ appears to have been a rather sick joke of Edwards’. Richard of Gloucester’s only role in the affair seems to have been a plea for George to be spared.
But Edwards’ own health was declining. The vigorous young warrior had become a glutton and a wastrel. He kept a court of unparalleled splendour and expense, and seems to have been dominated by his wife, Elizabeth Woodville. The pair had been secretly married in 1464, and the marriage was a controversial one, as Elizabeths’ father had been a middle-ranking provincial knight, not a duke or earl. Elizabeth has been characterised either as intelligent and scheming, or foolish and meddling, by different historians. What is known is that she had twelve surviving siblings, all of whom did very well both in the political and matrimonial stakes as a result of her marriage. She and Edward had ten children together, seven of whom outlived their father. Edward also kept a string of mistresses and fathered several illegitimate children. He was in the habit of gorging himself at meals, then taking an emetic, and going round a second time. Eventually, he fell ill at Easter 1483 and died on 9th April of that year. Despite rumours of poisoning, the likeliest cause of death was either heart-failure or a stroke brought on by his lifestyle. His will designated his brother, Richard of Gloucester, as Lord Protector until the majority of his son, the twelve-year-old Edward V.
Richards’ actions were typically decisive. Moving south from York, he intercepted the Queens’ brother, Earl Rivers, at Northampton. Rivers, at Queen Elizabeths’ request, was escorting his nephew, the young King, to London. Richard promptly had Rivers and two of his associates arrested, tried and executed for plotting against him, before proceeding to Stony Stratford and collecting the King. It is generally accepted that the charges against Rivers were trumped-up, and that Richard simply wished to capture the King. However, it is worth bearing in mind that the numerous, ambitious and low-born Woodville clan had made themselves less than popular with the established nobility. The Queen in particular, would have been aware that her brother-in-law, as Protector, would rely on his own friends and allies, and that her family would no longer benefit from Royal patronage and protection. Physical possession of the person of the King would have given Elizabeth and her family considerable leverage. From Richards’ viewpoint, removal of the King from the perceived pernicious influence of his mother and her family was essential if he were to be able to do his job unhindered.
It should also be borne in mind that Richard would be acutely aware of his own family history. The last time England had had a boy King, the result had been decades of civil wars. Wars which had shaped his own childhood and early adulthood. It is far from improbable that he wanted his nephew raised and educated under his own supervision, in order to ensure that the lad didn't become another Henry VI, or a wastrel like Edward IV. In any event, the young King was installed in the Tower of London — which was a Royal Palace as well as a prison, and the safest, most formidable fortress in England. Richard set up his headquarters at Crosby Hall, in Bishopsgate. From there, on 11th June 1483, Richard wrote to several people asking for assistance because he believed that the Queen and her family were plotting against him. At a Council meeting in the Tower of London on 13th June, Richard ordered the arrest of several individuals he accused of conspiring to assassinate him. Among these was Lord Hastings, then present, who was, according to some accounts, taken out into the courtyard and summarily executed. Unusually, no Act of Attainder was raised against Hastings, and Richard sealed an indenture taking Hastings’ widow under his own protection — if he was a murderer, he was a far from vindictive one. On 16th June, the dowager queen handed over custody of her second son, Richard, Duke of York, to the Archbishop of Canterbury in order that he might attend his brothers’ coronation. Richard now had control of the heir and the ‘spare’.
Later that month, Richard became privy to disturbing information. According to the French diplomat Philippe de Commines, one Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells, told Richard that he had officiated at the marriage of Edward IV to one Lady Eleanor Talbot (also known as Eleanor Butler), before the Kings’ marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. This information, if true, rendered the young king and his siblings illegitimate. Now it is unknown whether any of this is true, or how much Richard himself knew about it. What is known is that on 22nd June, the day originally scheduled for the coronation of Edward V, a sermon was preached outside Old St Pauls Cathedral declaring the illegitimacy of the young King.
There is considerable debate and doubt around the hows, whys and wherefores of this revelation. Richard may have been the author of the whole thing, making it ‘fake news’. It may have been partially or wholly true, but known only within the family -some have suggested that it was George, Duke of Clarence, who informed Stillington of the Kings’ bigamy, and that was why Edward had Clarence executed ( Stillington had been imprisoned for a few weeks at that time). Richard might well have been ignorant of the whole business. We can assume that he was aware enough of his elder brothers’ character flaws to know that such an accusation would be believable. He must also have been aware of the continuing frailty of his familys’ grip on power. Any hint of doubt as to the legitimacy of the succession would be ammunition for the still active and dangerous Lancastrian resistance. Whatever the truth of the matter, and whatever his own part in it or his motivations, when the nobles and commons of London presented a petition asking him to take the throne, he had no choice except to agree, which he did on 26th June. On 6th July 1483, he was crowned at Westminster Abbey as King Richard III.
The skeleton found in the makeshift grave in Leicester was subjected to rigorous analysis. Physical examination showed an adult, European male in his thirties with a slender build and a pronounced, but not disabling, scoliosis of the spine. The skeleton was in generally good condition and complete except for the feet — thought to have been destroyed during Victorian building work on the site.
There were multiple injuries to the skull, at least two of which would have been fatal. A bladed weapon -possibly a sword or axe —had sheared away the bone at the base of the rear of the skull. A wound which would have exposed the brain. There was a penetrating wound, either from a sword or pole-arm, entering at the right of the cranium and impacting on the inner left side, which would have transfixed the brain. Various other wounds from pointed or bladed weapons were found, as well as sharp force injuries to the ribs and pelvis. Clearly a violent death.
Dating proved more difficult. Standard radio-carbon dating placed the date of death at 1430–1460. A second test came up with 1412–1449. All far too early. But mass spectrometry showed that the individual had enjoyed a diet rich in seafood, which has the effect of distorting radio-carbon dating. A Bayesian analysis, based on other data found in, on and around the body gave a 98.4% probability of a death date between 1450 and 1540. Further chemical analysis revealed a diet rich in freshwater fish, birds such as swan, crane and heron, and an inordinate quantity of wine. Very much a high-end, rich persons’ diet. Soil analysis confirmed a roundworm infestation, not uncommon for the period in question.
As a result of an earlier project, meant to identify the skeleton of Richards’ sister, Margaret, genealogical data existed regarding the matrilineal descendants of Cecily Neville, Richards’ mother. Two living descendants had been identified. A London-based cabinet maker named Michael Ibsen and a woman named Wendy Duldig. Mitochondrial DNA samples from both these people matched samples from the skeleton to the extent of sharing a rare mutation. Y-DNA comparisons with known descendants of John of Gaunt (Richards’ great-great uncle) proved impossible, indicating the probability of a ‘false-paternity event’ in the intervening generations (somebody had been naughty).
Overall, however, the balance of evidence, physical, chemical, geographical and DNA was sufficient to convince the investigators ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’. On 4th February 2013, the University of Leicester confirmed that the skeleton was indeed that of King Richard III.
The reign of King Richard III was a short and troubled one. By the autumn of 1483, the ‘Princes in the Tower’, Edward and Richard, had disappeared from view and were assumed dead. Oddly, nobody during Richards’ lifetime openly accused him of their murder. What is certain is that the Woodvilles were planing to oust Richard with the help of some discontented nobles who had been favoured by Edward IV but were not so treated by Richard. The original plan was to restore Edward V to the throne, but when he was assumed dead, the focus of the plot shifted to Henry Tudor, the Lancastrian claimant -in exile in France. An abortive rebellion was launched in the autumn of 1483, but Henry Tudors’ fleet was driven back to France by a storm, and the English contingent, led by the Duke of Buckingham, deserted when faced by Richards’ forces. Buckingham himself was captured and executed at Salisbury.
Two years later, in 1485, Henry Tudor, with the backing of the French, landed in Wales and made for London , gathering support as he did so. Richard took the field at once, intercepting the Tudor forces near Ambion Hill just south of Market Bosworth in Leicestershire.
Richards’ forces were larger, and he separated them into three groups. The vanguard was commanded by the Duke of Norfolk and the rear by the Earl of Northumberland, while Richard commanded the main troop. Henry Tudor had no military experience, so designated John De Vere, Earl of Oxford, as his field commander. Oxford, seeing the numerical advantage of the Kings’ forces, kept his men in a single, close order unit. Henry and his bodyguard stayed at the rear.
There was a third force in the field, some 4–6 000 strong, commanded by Baron Thomas Stanley and his brother Sir William. Both sides had asked for the Stanley’s support, but they remained uncommitted.
What follows has been reconstructed from fragmentary contemporary accounts of the battle, it may not be accurate, and we have no way of knowing why people made the decisions they did.
Richards’ army had the high ground, but there was swamp below them, and the ridge of Ambion Hill was narrow, making manoeuvring difficult. Oxford advanced the Tudor forces, leading them through the swamp and onto firmer ground At this point, Richards vanguard attacked. With a local advantage in numbers, Oxford and his men stood their ground. Richard ordered Northumberland to advance in support, but the terrain made such a move impossible without a wide and time-consuming flanking march, an action which the limited drill-training of medieval troops made impossible. The supposition is that Richard noticed Henry Tudor and his bodyguard some distance in the rear of the ongoing melee. He decided to attempt a single, decisive attack to cut the head from the enemy. To this end he personally led a cavalry charge by the men of his own household, going round the battle at the bottom of the hill and making directly for Henry.
Their initial charge was a near success — Richard himself killed Henrys’ standard-bearer and unhorsed a formidable knight named John Cheyne. He came so close to Henry Tudor that Henry was forced to dismount and hide among his French mercenaries. However, there was a small force of pikemen with the Tudor bodyguard who managed to delay the Yorkist cavalry. Seeing Richard separated from his main force and already in a fight, the Stanleys’ chose sides and attacked the King, surrounding his small force and decimating it. Surrounded, outnumbered, unhorsed (his courser had fallen into the marsh)and possibly bareheaded- his helmet may have been lost or damaged- Richard is reported to have told his men: “God forbid that I retreat one step. I will either win the battle as a king, or die as one.” It is further said that he came within swords’ reach of Henry Tudor before Stanley’ men surrounded him and brought him down. Not even Richards’ worst enemies could deny his personal courage and prowess. So ended the last Plantagenet King of England.
Richards’ body is said to have been stripped naked and slung across a horse to be carried into Leicester. There it was displayed for three days before being hastily buried in the choir of a Priory church of the Friars Minor, accompanied by a perfunctory Mass. He had no known memorial until 1980, when a memorial slab was set into the floor of the chancel of Leicester Cathedral.
Was Richard a good man, a bad man, or simply a man of his times? Was he Shakespeares’ Machiavellian plotter, or a man overtaken by circumstances? It’s doubtful we shall ever know. What we do know is that during his time in the North he was well-regarded by those he governed. We know that the few laws he enacted during his brief reign tended to favour the commons and protect them from the depredations of the nobility. We know that he and his queen endowed Kings College and Queens’ College at Cambridge University. We also know that he founded the College of Arms, an organisation which remains active to this day, and which merits an article of its own.
Did he order the deaths of his nephews? Impossible to say with any certainty. Those accusations did not surface until after Richards’ death, and there are other potential suspects, including Henry VII and the Duke of Buckingham. It is possible, though less probable, that Richard had them smuggled out and sent away to safety, but although pretenders did emerge during the reign of Henry VII, there was never any sign of the actual Princes afterwards. Another possibility, less remote, is that the boys simply succumbed to one of the many fatal diseases prevalent at the time. Be it noted that at that time, the Tower was a functioning Royal Palace and fortress, fully-staffed and garrisoned, and surrounded by a moat, fed from the Thames. The river was the dumping ground for all of Londons’ refuse, and all the organic waste produced by the inhabitants of the Tower (including the contents of chamber-pots and privies) went into the moat. Hardly conducive to a healthy lifestyle, and this was a period in which people, especially children, died like flies.
For what it is worth, consider the following. Richard had lived his entire life under the shadow of civil war. He had seen his mentor, the Earl of Warwick, and his brother George betray the Yorkist cause, though George eventually changed his coat again. He had helped his bother to the throne, and been rewarded with the governance of the most notoriously troublesome region of the country. A job at which he worked hard and effectively. He had watched one brother descend into madness and the other become a gluttonous lecher dominated by his wifes’ family of commoners. He might very well have been bitter, certainly he would have been disappointed in, if not ashamed of, his brothers. The revelation that his nephews, for whose safety and upbringing he was now responsible, might be illegitimate probably put the tin lid on the whole thing.
Richard was a soldier above all else. It was his training and his occupation. His actions after the death of Edward IV have the mark of a soldier about them. Decisive, direct, ruthless and occasionally brutal — though not unnecessarily cruel (by the standards of the time). Assuming the throne was a typical action, designed to stave off the discord a prolonged debate about the legitimacy of Edward V would raised in the country. Finally, Shakespeares’ Richard III would have hired assassins to quietly remove Henry Tudor, not faced him in the field and gone down fighting!
After what many consider to have been an unseemly debate over where Richard should be reinterred, standard procedure was followed. The practice is for remains from excavated Christian burials to be reburied in the closest consecrated ground to their original burial place. In February 2013, Leicester Cathedral announced plans to place Richards’ remains in a place of honour within the Cathedral. Preparations took two years.
On 22nd March 2015, Richards’ bones were placed in a lead ossuary. The ossuary was then placed into a wooden coffin. The coffin was constructed of English oak, from the Duchy of Cornwall, and had been hand- made by Michael Ibsen, the 16-times-removed nephew of Richard whose DNA had played a key role in the identification of the body. The coffin was taken by motor hearse from the University of Leicester through the site of the Battle of Bosworth and Market Bosworth itself. Upon entering the City of Leicester, the coffin was transferred to a horse-drawn hearse and brought to the Cathedral, where it lay at rest until Wednesday 25th March. People queued for up to four hours to pay their respects.
On 23rd March, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, celebrated two Masses for Richards’ soul in nearby Catholic churches.
On 26th March, Richard III was reburied in the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Sophie, Countess of Wessex and the current Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, among others. A short, non-denominational memorial service was held.
The coffin was placed in a brick-lined vault below the Cathedral floor. Over this was laid a plinth of Kilkenny marble, carved with the Kings’ name and his motto “Loyaute me lie” (“Loyalty binds me”) and inlaid with Richards’ arms. On the plinth was placed a table-tomb of Swaledale limestone, quarried in Yorkshire, marked with a deeply-incised cross. The part of the Cathedral in which it stands has been designated a space for quiet meditation. I suspect Richard could do with a little of that!