In September 2012 a fifteenth century king made headline news in the UK. A body had been discovered in a Leicester carpark that was purportedly that of Richard III – the last Plantagenet king of England.
His modern day reputation owed a great deal to Shakespeare’s depiction of him in one of his longest historical plays. According to ‘The Bard’, Richard III was an amoral Machievellian figure who used intrigue and manipulation to seize power.
A number of groups had spent years – decades in fact – trying to challenge this negative portrayal of the lost king (one of the oldest ‘The Fellowship of The White Boar’ was founded in 1924).
The formal identification of the remains as definitively that of the lost king in 2013, along with his ceremonial reburial, prompted a more public re-evaluation of Richard III’s life and reputation.
The War of The Roses
The second half of the fifteenth century was to witness ongoing political turmoil – as well as periodic outbreaks of civil war – as the houses of York and Lancaster vied for control of the English throne – a period that would become known as ‘The War of The Roses’.
After his father and an elder brother were killed in battle, the young Richard – aged only eight – was sent to the Low Countries for his own safety. However, following the Yorkist victory at the Battle of Towton he returned to witness another surviving brother being crowned Edward IV.
Richard was caught up in the bloody politics of the period from an early age. He spent his formative teenage years at Middleham Castle in the Yorkshire Dales where he was in the care of his cousin the Earl of Warwick – the man responsible for his knightly training.
However, after Warwick’s defection to the Lancastrian side, Richard and his brother Edward were forced to flee to Burgundy in 1470. Although only eighteen, Richard would play crucial roles in the battles that would see Edward restored to the English throne.
Already a considerable landowner and possessed of inumerable titles, Richard’s loyalty was further rewarded with him becoming – among other things – the Lieutenant of the North and Commander-in Chief against the Scots. Although the Council of the North had been set up by Edward IV to administer government business, northern England was effectively under Richard’s control.
In York, where the council convened, as well as in the surrounding county, he was a popular figure. After his defeat at the hands of Henry VII, many in York remained loyal to Richard and refused to accept the legitimacy of the incoming king.
The Princes in The Tower
When Edward IV died in the April of 1483, he was succeeded by his twelve year old son Edward V. Richard became Lord Protector of the realm and provided a personal escort for the new king as he made the journey from Ludlow to his lodgings in the Tower of London. Edward’s coronation was supposed to take place shortly after, but before the young prince could be crowned king his claim to the throne was declared invalid.
Edward IV’s earlier marriage, it was argued, made the children from his second union illegitimate and thus unable to ascend to the throne. This view was upheld by an assembly of Lords and commoners, and just a day later Richard III was crowned king and began his reign. The two princes who had been ‘lodging’ at the Tower of London were never again seen in public after August of that year, and rumours went around that Richard had ordered them to be disposed of.
Endgame: The Battle of Bosworth
Just a year later in 1483, a number of disaffected gentry – many of whom were ‘Yorkists’ and supporters of Edward IV – conspired to depose the newly coronated monarch. Initially they had hoped to return Edward V to the throne, however after rumours circulated that he and his brother were dead their attention turned to the exiled Henry Tudor.
Orchestrated by the Duke of Buckingham, the plan was that Henry and his forces would arrive by ship from France to join with Buckingham’s army. However, bad weather forced Henry’s ships back and Buckingham’s men deserted in the face of Richard’s superior forces. Captured and convicted of treason, Buckingham was duly beheaded for his part in the rebellion.
In the August of 1485, after amassing an invasion force in neighbouring France – a motley collection of loyalists and mercenaries, Henry set sail once again. After landing in his native Wales, he headed northward to collect more reinforcements at Shrewsbury and then pressed east on into England. Meanwhile Richard, aware of the invading army, was busy gathering his forces at Leicester.
On 20th August they set off to intercept Henry Tudor as he marched toward London. The armies met two days later at the Battle of Bosworth. Although exact numbers are unknown, the Yorkists considerably outnumbered the Lancastrian army (it is estimated that Richard had in excess of 8000 men whilst Henry could muster only 5000, giving Richard a significant numerical advantage).
Being an inexperienced military leader, Henry Tudor passed the command of his army over to the Earl of Oxford and remained in the rear with his personal bodyguard. Whilst the two armies engaged on the main battlefield, Richard and a small detachment of knights sought to bring the fight to end by killing the enemy commander.
This proved to be an ill-fated gamble. Despite reaching Henry’s bodyguard, killing his standard bearer and getting within a swords length of the would be king, Richard and his men were pushed back. At this point, William Stanley, who was yet to commit himself to either side in the battle, sensing Richard was exposed, threw his forces behind Henry Tudor. According to Henry Tudor’s official historian, Richard ‘alone, was killed fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies’, but despite this he was struck repeatedly in the head and killed.
(Picture above: The Tudor dynasty that would subsequently rule England following the Yorkist defeat at The Battle of Bosworth)
Richard III: The Return
The last English king to be killed in battle, Richard III’s naked body was put on public display before being buried at Greyfriars Church in Leicester. In 1495, Henry VII – as he by then had became known – paid for a marble monument to mark the grave of his deposed rival and it is believed that a memorial stone could still be seen as late as 1612.
Following subsequent developments the exact location of the grave was lost, with some believing the body had been cast into the River Soar. It wasn’t until 2012 that efforts were begun to relocate the resting place of England’s last Plantagenet king.
The University of Leicester, along with the Richard III Society and Leicester City Council, began the search in August 2012. They soon identified the location of Greyfriars Church – which had been destroyed during the dissolution of the monastries in the sixteenth century – and the garden in which a memorial to Richard III had stood in the seventeenth century.
In one of the strangest episodes in modern archaeology, they discovered a body in the first location they excavated – a local carpark. What made this discovery seem even stranger was that the space above the body had an ‘R’ painted on it – ostensibly to signify a reserved parking space, although many drew their own more far fetched conclusions.
Using DNA, soil and dental analysis, Leicester University were able to confirm in early 2013 that this was, beyond reasonable doubt, the lost skeleton of Richard III. With analysis of the skeleton and the grave complete, the body needed to be reburied. The site for the burial was to become an issue of considerable controversy.
A group called the Plantagenet Alliance, representing fifteen individuals who claimed descent from Richard III, argued that the king’s final resting place should be York, as he had supposedly wished, rather than Leicester, the place of his unfortunate demise. Things began to get silly and more than a little heated. Kersten England, Chief Executive of York City Council, waded into the debate arguing that the city had the moral high ground in the argument.
A judge ruled that opponents could legally contest the location of the skeleton’s burial, although he urged the interested parties to reach a settlement out of court. However, a later ruling found that the courts had no right to interfere with the original decision. In a rather odd ceremony, featuring among other things a poetry reading from the actor Benedict Cumberbatch – a distant relative of the lost king, the skeleton of Richard III was reburied in Leicester Cathedral in 2015.
A Crooked Body and A Wicked Mind?
Due to the partial and subjective sources from the period, the debate about Richard III continues to this day. During adolescence Richard developed a condition called idiopathic scoliosis, which caused a curvature of his spine.
Many contemporary descriptions, however, suggest that he didn’t have any visible physical deformity. Modern archaeologists have also reached the same conclusion, arguing that this did not cause Richard a major issue and could’ve easily been disguised by clothing.
Historians would later draw a link between his outward physical appearance and his supposed twisted and scheming mind. Shakespeare restated these claims about his characteristics in his famous fictional portrayal of Richard III, giving the king a hunch, limp and withered arm, and establishing the dominant view that came down to the present day.
Opposing views of Richard were aired during his reign. Some claimed him to be a ‘good lord’ who ‘protected the commoners’, others risked punishment by denouncing him as ‘a Hog’. After his death, as might be expected, the negative image of Richard III as a king was emphasised by his Tudor successors – helping to legitimise their claim to the throne. The view of Richard as a ruthless moral-free operator bent on seizing power was supported by eighteenth and nineteenth century historians – despite their acknowledgement of contrary sources.
Despite this barrage of negative opinion, Richard III had his defenders. In the eighteenth century Horace Walpole published his ‘Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard the Third’ in which he argued that the much-maligned king had acted in good faith and the murder of the princes was merely an allegation rather than an established fact.
Later historians, whilst not exonerating Richard III of any he crimes he might have committed, have tended to assess his actions within the context of the times in which he lived. The product of a ruthless age, he belonged to a world of private feuds, rival claims to power and land, as well as blatant intimidation and open violence.
Find our more about the fascinating History of York here.