A skeleton that lay undisturbed for 500 years and was found last year buried under a council car park in north England is that of reviled king Richard III, the last English king to die in battle.
The skeleton buried under a Leicester City Council car park was positively identified after five months of exhaustive research including DNA analysis and carbon dating – as well as research of centuries old historical records confirming conclusively the body was that of the king.
The poor old king – “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” – apparently didn’t go easy. He went down fighting – investigators from the University of Leicester revealed that the remains bore the marks of ten injuries inflicted shortly before his death. Researchers even know the weapon that was used to kill him – death was determined to have been with a blow to the base of the skull, consistent with a blow from a halberd consisting of an axe blade topped with a spike mounted on a long shaft. Ouch.
Injuries to jaw and cheek after death were determined to have been “humiliation injuries” inflicted after death. Other wounds showed he had been stabbed in the back and the buttock, again after death and possibly as his body was being paraded, and concluded that his hands were tied when he was buried awkwardly in the pit below what was then a friary; no coffin or shroud or even clothes.
As a debate rages over what to now do with the 500-year-old king, it could literally unearth more buried skeletons with calls to now open up a sarcophagus at Westminster Abbey that supposedly contain the dead remains of his two child prince nephews.
With Richard’s DNA sequence information established, there is some interest to now test the bones of a set of children found in the Tower of London in 1674 which are said to have belonged to Richard’s two nephews whom he was supposed to have murdered to seize the crown.
Throughout history, Richard was painted as a murderous hunchback – thanks largely to Shakespeare’s portrayal of the king apparently at the behest of the Tudor kings who had earlier defeated Richard in the War of the Roses and wanted to discredit his memory – who killed his brother then his brother’s two sons.
The bones in the Tower were later moved into a white marble sarcophagus in Westminster Abbey with the inscription:
“These brothers being confined in the Tower of London and there stifled with pillows were privately and meanly buried by the order of their perfidious uncle Richard the Usurper”.
But various King Richard supporter societies claim the king did not kill his nephews and there was no proof the bones in Westminster Abbey were even those of the princes which history recorded were last seen in the Tower in 1483. DNA tests could show that and clear his name in history at least from this murder.
Indeed, historians now agree that Richard wasn’t by any means all bad – he established certain rights and freedoms which we would consider an important part of modern society today.
Richard was widely praised – and liked – for improving conditions in the north of England when he was in charge there before becoming King himself. In December 1483, Richard instituted what later became known as the Court of Requests, a court to which poor people who could not afford legal representation could apply for their grievances to be heard. He also introduced bail in January 1484, to protect suspected felons from imprisonment before trial and to protect their property from seizure during that time. He founded the College of Arms in 1484, he banned restrictions on the printing and sale of books, and he ordered the translation of the written Laws and Statutes from the traditional French into English. Not exactly the grasping baddie he is generally considered to be.
Basically, though, he was something of a stumbling, unlucky king. He only held the throne for a couple of years, during which he quite failed to conjoin enough of his noble supporters together to protect his reign, and he lost the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, a defining moment in the civil War of the Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster, despite being numerically superior to Henry Tudor, who duly went on to become Henry VII.
There is considerable evidence that key allies deserted him at the last moment. The traditional view of the cause of the King’s famous cries of “Treason!” before falling has been that during the battle Richard was abandoned by Baron Stanley (made Earl of Derby in October). Despite his apparent affiliation with Richard, Baron Stanley’s wife, Lady Margaret Beaufort, was Richard’s opponent, Henry Tudor’s, mother.
The switching of sides by the Stanleys severely depleted the strength of Richard’s army and had a material effect on the outcome of the battle. Also the death of John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, his close companion, appears to have had a demoralising effect on Richard and his men.
Perhaps in realisation of the implications of this, Richard then appears to have led a courageous impromptu cavalry charge deep into the enemy ranks in an attempt to end the battle quickly by striking at Henry Tudor himself. Accounts note that Richard fought bravely and ably during this manoeuvre, unhorsing Sir John Cheney, a well-known jousting champion, killing Henry’s standard bearer Sir William Brandon and coming within a sword’s length of Henry himself before being finally surrounded by Sir William Stanley’s men and killed.
The Burgundian chronicler Jean Molinet says that a Welshman struck the death-blow with a halberd while Richard’s horse was stuck in the marshy ground. It was said that the blows were so violent that the king’s helmet was driven into his skull. The contemporary Welsh poet Guto’r Glyn implies that the leading Welsh Lancastrian Rhys ap Thomas, or one of his men, killed the king, writing that he “killed the boar, shaved his head”.
The discovery in 2013 of King Richard’s body clearly suggests the king had lost his helmet. The skull showed that a blade had hacked away part of the rear of the skull.
The battle was famously chronicled by Shakespeare, including the famous line Richard was supposed to have yelled after he fell from his mount in the middle of the battleground: “a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse” before he was killed.
The King was returned to Leicester tied to the pommel of his horse but then secretly buried in a small friary, to keep away from those who wanted to possibly destroy the body many suspected had murdered his brother and his two prince nephews to seize the throne. The friary was later levelled by the Tudor kings and lost in time.
A feud in England has now developed as to where King Richard should be buried. Possibilities include burying him at Westminster Abbey or Windsor Castle with the other kings; taking him back to York for burial; burying him at Leicester Cathedral, where he has been in its shadow for centuries; or a burial and grand ceremony at the Catholic Westminster Cathedral in London, because he was a Roman Catholic. It currently looks like Leicester Cathedral will win … and fair play, too. They have had a monument to the dead King in the cathedral for some years.
Anyhow. Welcome back. Dickie.
The daily rate for a Leicester NCP car park is £18.50. Richard III has been there 192,649 days. He therefore owes £3,564,006.50 in parking fees. Presumably the crown can pay …
Meanwhile the Twittersphere has exploded with funny stuff. So far my favourite is one wag who opined: I promise I will buy any paper who runs the headline DICK HEAD FOUND IN CAR PARK. Gold.
(I am indebted to my old friend Peter Chegwyn for the maths and to News Ltd for the story, amongst others.)
- Richard III: ‘highly convincing case’ skeleton is the king (telegraph.co.uk)