The body found beneath a car park in Leicester really is that of King Richard III, it has been confirmed. So what should we do with him now? STEPHEN LEWIS reports
ON AUGUST 23, 1485, York’s city fathers gathered in the council chamber on the old Ouse Bridge to hear news of the war between King Richard III and the pretender Henry Tudor.
The news was not good. The King had been killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field – and Henry Tudor was now King Henry VII.
What the leading men of York did next speaks volumes about how highly Richard was regarded in the city.
Instead of writing a sycophantic letter to the new king, they ordered a tribute to the old king to be set down in the City House Book – the council minutes of the day. And they even went so far as to accuse those who had killed him of treason.
“King Richard late mercifully reigning upon us was, through great treason of the Duke of Norfolk and many other that turned against him… piteously slain and murdered, to the great heaviness of this city,” they wrote.
That was an extraordinarily brave thing to do, points out Richard Taylor, City of York Council’s archives development manager.
If the King had really been the monster that history has painted him, then you might have expected the leading men of York to flatter him during his life. But after he was dead?
“There was no longer any need for them to pretend loyalty,” Mr Taylor points out. “But… the council went out of their way to write down, not just mutter amongst themselves, their opinion that Richard had been ‘murdered’, and that this was to the ‘great heaviness’ of this city – quite a dangerous thing to do when a new king has just taken over.”
Richard has gone down in history as one of our most monstrous kings – the crippled hunchback who usurped the throne and had his two young nephews, including the 12-year-old rightful king, Edward V, murdered in the Tower of London.
So why was he regarded with such affection in York?
Because he was a ‘good lord’ to the people of the city, says Mr Taylor.
For more than a decade Richard had ruled the north of England on behalf of his brother, King Edward IV.
His official title was Duke of Gloucester, but he made his family home at Middleham Castle, and also owned Sheriff Hutton Castle – where rumour has it that his young son Prince Edward is buried – and the Lordship of Scarborough Castle.
“He acknowledged the north as his own,” says John Oxley, York’s city archaeologist. “This was his political power base and his family home.”
He continued to take a close interest in the region after becoming King in 1483. “He was what contemporaries called ‘a good lord’ to the citizens of York, honouring the city with ceremonial visits, grants of privileges and tax remissions, and doing his best to revive its prosperity,” says Richard Taylor.
“In 1483 he gave York the right to elect four MPs instead of the usual two, a privilege shared only by London, and established in the city the King’s Council of the North, which was developed by his successors as effectively a devolved government for the north of England based in York.”
As President of the Council of the North, he was a regular visitor to York, staying at the Augustinian Friary in Lendal, between where Guildhall and Lendal Bridge are today.
The city corporation repaid Richard’s favours with loyalty. They sent an armed force to help him against Henry Tudor in 1485. “Although through apparent treachery they were informed of Richard’s need too late to reach Bosworth Field in time,” says Richard Taylor.
Little wonder the city fathers were so upset at news of the King’s death.
More than 500 years later, following confirmation that the remains discovered beneath a car park in Leicester really are those of the King, attention has turned to where he should be buried.
The Mayor of Leicester, Sir Peter Soulsby, was quick to announce – within hours of the remains being confirmed as Richard’s – that the remains would be interred in Leicester Cathedral, “in whose shadow his remains have lain for 500 years”.
But don’t expect it to be quite as simple as that.
City of York Council chief executive Kersten England has said she will write to the Ministry of Justice arguing that the King should be brought to York for burial.
The council is supported by Welcome To Yorkshire and by an e-petition. Bedern Hall, meanwhile – once occupied by the Vicars Choral – has also put in a claim.
The Richard III Society, which was instrumental in discovering the body (see panel), admits it has also been bombarded since Monday with claims from other areas: among them Middleham, and Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire, where Richard was born.
There are even those claiming that since Richard was a Catholic he should receive a Catholic burial, says Richard Van Allen of the Richard III society.
The society is staying out of the argument – as is York Minster.
“The licence issued to the University of Leicester to allow for the recent exhumation declares that the remains should stay in Leicester, said a Minster spokesperson. “While some people may prefer him to go somewhere else, like York Minster, this is simply the legal position, and the Minster has made no claims to his remains.”
Nevertheless, there seems little doubt that Richard’s heart was in the North of England.
“His self-identification with the north and York is reflected in his plans for a chantry of 100 priests in York Minster where he wished to be buried,” says Mrs England.
In the circumstances, York can be forgiven for feeling it has a claim on this most misunderstood of English kings.
“I think there is a very strong case to be made for Richard to be buried in York Minster,” says city archaeologist Mr Oxley.
And so say all of us.
Good king – or bad king?
Opinion remains divided as to whether Richard III was a good king or a bad king. Much of the negative image we have of him – including Shakespeare’s portrait of the evil hunchback and tyrant – is undoubtedly the result of Tudor propaganda, says John Oxley. “History is written by the victors.”
The fact that Richard clearly suffered from a deformity of the spine – as the remains discovered last year in a car park in Leicester and now confirmed to have been his reveal – would only have played into his detractors’ hands.
In medieval times, such a deformity would have been regarded as a religious and spiritual punishment, says Mr Oxley – and so would have been easily used to portray him as an evil man.
The balance of probabilities is that he probably did murder the Princes in the Tower. But medieval England during the Wars of the Roses was a dangerous place to be a king. Richard was far from being the only medieval monarch to have tried to secure his position by eliminating potential rivals – and that didn’t make him a bad king by the standard of the times, Mr Oxley says.
How Richard was discovered
Philippa Langley is proud to call herself a Ricardian – one of those dedicated to unearthing the truth about Richard III.
It is not always an easy thing to be, according to the Richard III Society website. “You get used to people suggesting you might be a little odd.”
It had long been thought that, following his death in 1485, Richard was buried at Greyfriars Friary in Leicester. The friary was later demolished in Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries – and rumour had it the reviled king’s body was thrown into the River Soar by a jeering mob.
But Philippa, a screenwriter and Richard III Society member, was convinced Richard’s grave had not been desecrated.
She persuaded the people of Leicester that the king’s body could still be found. The University of Leicester Archaeolog-ical Services thought it was a ‘long shot’ – but decided it was worth looking for the site of medieval Greyfriars anyway.
Philippa began fundraising, and with the help of the Society, a 1741 map of Leicester, and a ground penetrating radar survey, established where Greyfriars was.
The Richard III Society and a sponsor stepped up with funding for a professional dig – and last September, archaeologists found remains beneath a Leicester car park on the site of Greyfriars that they believed were Richard’s.
Consistent with historical accounts that he died following a blow to the head, ten wounds were found on the skeleton, with eight injuries to his skull.
The skeleton also showed the king’s body was more than likely subjected to “humiliation injuries” by the enemy following his death, including a sword through the right buttock.
And in keeping with contemporaneous accounts of his curved back, researchers found the skeleton had severe scoliosis.
Philippa Langley herself says she knew, from the moment she walked into the car park, that the search was getting close.
“The hairs on the back of my neck stood up,” she says.
She remembers seeing a painted letter ‘R’ (for reserved parking space) on the ground. “And believe it or not, it was almost directly under that R that King Richard was found.”
That it was Richard was confirmed on Monday ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ by DNA evidence, which was compared to DNA from a direct descendant of Richard’s sister Anne of York.
NAOMI NIGHTINGALE asked people in York if Richard III should be brought back to the city to be buried
• Douglas Unwin, 48, photographer from West Yorkshire: “A man’s wishes should be respected whether dead or alive. It was his wish and will to return to York. For someone whose death and burial was humiliating bringing him home would work to restore his dignity.”
• Jenny Hough, 67, retired from New Earswick: “It makes sense for him to be returned to York. This was his home and that was his wish.”
• Peter Donichey, 58: “It would be ideal if the remains were returned to York. If a person died on a motorway you would not leave them where they died. It is a similar principle.
• Sicily Blench, 22, graduate: “I think it would have been best to leave him to rest where he was. Now that is not possible he should remain in Leicester”
• Michael Heeley, 29, driver from North Yorkshire: “He should be buried in York Minster, it’s the noble thing to do”
• Rachel Hugh, 40, homemaker from North Yorkshire: “In life we all have certain wishes we hope will be respected. Richard III made certain requests, our knowledge of them means we should respect them.