Burying Richard III once and for all?

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As someone who is interested by late Medieval history, particularly the Wars of the Roses, it won’t surprise you to learn that I’ve been following with some interest the debate, and resulting courtroom wrangling, over which city should provide the final resting place of Richard III. Ever since the University of Leicester announced the positive identification of the bones found under a Leicester car park, much ink has been spilt over the rights and wrongs of where the last Plantagenet King should be buried. The considerations of a substantial boost to tourism, the rights of (admittedly very, very distant) relatives, the mishandling of the affair by some of the parties concerned and the emotional response of many of Richard’s adherents has led to an increasingly heated debate.

As I write this, the courts are deciding whether to recommend a full consultation on the decision to bury Richard in Leicester. I don’t propose to comment on this, or any of the other peripheral, legal or other parts of the discussion, simply to present what I think is a likely explanation based on the historical evidence as to where Richard should be buried in a 15th century context (which is when he lived and died), rather than a 21st century one. I will claim to have no axe to grind personally as I have a great affection for both York and Leicester; I was an undergraduate at the former and did my postgrad at the latter. These are just a few thoughts I’ve had for debate…

The first thing to state, quite clearly, is that we have no definite evidence as to where Richard III himself intended to be buried. He left no will or instruction that survives. It is a best guess based upon the available evidence, but there are two real candidates based on what perhaps he himself would have wanted.

Richard’s connections to York are undeniable, ironic given the fact that the city was pro-Lancastrian for the majority of the Wars of the Roses. It is a common misapprehension that the words ‘Yorkist’ and ‘Lancastrian’ have anything to do with geography, but instead are related to branches of the Royal family in this period of political infighting that rather resembled a battle for supremacy within a Mafia dynasty. In fact the north and west of England tended to support the House of Lancaster, whilst the south and east were more Yorkist. Richard knew the north very well though, having spent his youth being brought up in the household of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick at Middleham Castle in North Yorkshire.

After his brother Edward IV regained his throne in 1471, Richard was sent to bring the north on side, something he seems to have done very successfully, not least as he seems to have gone out of his way to represent the interests of York at court, was a very competent administrator and a fair adjudicator of disputes. Richard seems to have gained a substantial personal following in the north in general and in York in particular as a result, and was given a rapturous reception when he visited the city as King in 1483. The city reacted with horror to his death at Bosworth in 1485, famously noting in the civic records “King Richard, late mercifully reigning over us, was through great treason . . . piteously slain and murdered, to the great heaviness of this city”.

The main evidence cited for Richard’s desire to be buried in York, other than his frequent visits and obvious affection for the city, is that he commissioned plans for a Chantry Chapel at York Minster on a grand scale, which would also have 100 chaplains to pray for his immortal soul. This was a large project, the construction of a powerhouse of prayer to usher the King’s soul through Purgatory as quickly as possible after his death. A wealthy and devout man such as Richard would have considered these prayers an essential part of his spiritual journey. These plans were never completed due to his death, and there is no indication that there was a tomb planned for this chantry, although it is possible. Certainly prior to becoming King, Richard may well have planned to have been buried at York, something which was quite possible for the Duke of Gloucester and brother to King Edward IV.

This would seem far less likely once Richard became King, simply as there was little precedent for a monarch to be buried in such a manner. Post 1066, the Norman and Angevin Kings had largely been buried in their French territories, considering these the more important parts of their empire than England. Since these lands had been lost, most had been buried in London as the centre of power, the now established capital, and by being buried at Westminster Abbey they were in close proximity to the revered patron saint of English royalty, St Edward the Confessor. There were exceptions – King John at Worcester and Edward II at Gloucester, but these could be considered, I suppose, as Royal ‘Black Sheep’ that were kept out of the way. Henry IV was the one monarch who bucked the trend through personal choice, being buried at Canterbury Cathedral, most likely as he had a particular attachment to St Thomas Becket.

By the mid 15th century, Westminster Abbey had a problem as the Royal Mausoleum, as the historian John Ashdown-Hill has pointed out, as it was getting rather full. There was nowhere to build a Royal tomb, indeed Henry VII had to build a new chapel to extend the Abbey, originally intended for the re-interment of Henry VI had he been canonized, but used instead for his own tomb (and those of many Tudor and Stuart monarchs too). As such, Edward IV established through his building programme at Windsor Great Chapel a new Royal Mausoleum, where he buried Henry VI and himself was laid to rest.

It is romantic to suggest that Richard might have liked to have been buried at Westminster, where his Queen, Anne Neville, had been buried after her fatal illness. However, had Richard triumphed at Bosworth and continued his reign he would have certainly remarried, not least to produce a new heir and prolong his dynasty. Negotiations were already underway to secure the hand of Princess Joanna of Portugal at the time of his death; had Richard lived and taken a second wife he would have been buried with her, particularly if she gave him an heir. In order to accommodate a suitable burial place, the most likely spot would have been at Windsor.

My suspicion, based on the evidence, is that had Richard been given the option of where to be laid to rest, his heart might have said York, but his head and political reality would have said London, most likely Windsor Great Chapel, alongside his brother. In order to cement his dynasty Richard would have needed to curry favour in the south, particularly as many felt alienated there by the northern influence he brought to court, and to ensure a smooth succession to any heirs it would be politically expedient to be buried near to the capital. It would also send out a clear message about the legitimacy of his rule.

But there’s a problem with all this, simply put, it wasn’t Richard’s choice. He had been defeated and killed in battle, and it was therefore up to the victor, Henry VII, as to where he should be buried. This is something which keeps being forgotten in this debate.

Even so, he still presented a unique problem. What on earth do you do with the body of a dead King? This may sound strange, but actually there was no precedent for what to do about a royal burial under these circumstances. Medieval kings had died of injuries, disease, old age or had been murdered, but none had died having been defeated in battle since King Harold had been killed at Hastings in 1066. The closest parallel was Richard I, mortally wounded by an arrow in a siege in 1199, but the siege was successful and he was able to give instructions to his followers about the disposal of his body. Richard III did not have that luxury, having been killed, his supporters dispersed and his corpse being part of the spoils of war to the now victorious Henry VII.

Whilst there wasn’t a precedent for a King, there was a precedent for how to handle royalty under these circumstances. In 1471 Edward of Lancaster, the son and heir of Henry VI, was killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury. His body was recovered and laid to rest in Tewkesbury Abbey, which had been the scene of some of the violence at that day. Tewkesbury Abbey provided a suitably dignified resting place for someone of high status within proximity to where he had fallen, but without providing the honour of a full royal burial in London.

I’d argue that the same thinking was applied to Richard III and his burial in Leicester. Richard’s body was taken back to Leicester and displayed for two days to the populace so that enough people could attest that he was actually dead. This was important in an age when ‘Pretenders’ had a habit of popping up, as Henry VII was to keep finding out. Perhaps following similar practice to Edward of Lancaster – who Henry would certainly have known about – Richard was buried in the house of the Greyfriars in Leicester, a religious house that provided some status to the burial, whilst keeping it away from the recognition of a royal tomb in the capital. In time, Henry even paid for a suitable tomb to mark Richard’s grave.

In short, by the unfortunate turn of events and spoils of war and based perhaps on what limited precedent there was, Richard III was buried at Leicester on the decision of another anointed King, Henry VII. Perhaps, therefore, that is where he should remain. Anything else could be seen, arguably, as altering the decisions of history to suit modern sensibilities; perhaps almost unconsciously on the part of some people to try to somehow reverse the outcome of the Battle of Bosworth.

Whatever the decision of the courts, I hope that the acrimony and wrangling can finally be put to rest, and a brave man who died as the last Plantagenet King can finally be laid to rest – in all senses – once and for all.

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71 thoughts on “Burying Richard III once and for all?

  1. A well-written piece. I’d argue that “Richard’s connections to York are undeniable” as they do seem to be largely based on exaggeration, misinformation and selective evidence. If we ignore all his connections with Nottingham, Durham and everywhere else, he seems to have strong connections to York, but the fact is of course that he barely knew the city, visiting it only briefly a few times. Much of the argument for York is based on his connections with Middleham, but at 36 miles distant that’s actually further from York than Fotheringhay is from Leicester. There does seem to be a general assumption by most people that there was a close connection between Richard III and the City of York without actually bothering to look for evidence or considering the context of his work nationally.

    I would be particularly interested to know your view on the unedited version of ““King Richard, late mercifully reigning over us, was through great treason . . . piteously slain and murdered, to the great heaviness of this city”. The full text is available online somewhere and it’s significantly different from this heavily edited version which is widely quoted. Far from being (as often claimed) a brave move of showing loyalty to Richard in the face of the Tudors, the full version seems to be me to be a deliberate, cynical move to pin the blame for Richard’s death on conveniently dead Yorkist general the Duke of Norfolk, thus absolving Henry Tudor and all his allies from the sin of regicide. Just a few sentences later the York rolls record the city’s determination to find out how they should properly behave under the new regime “for the welfare and profit of this city”. Pretty awful behaviour but then, as you note yet so many people choose to ignore, the principal loyalties in that part of the world were Lancastrian.

    • Hi Mike,
      Glad you enjoyed it. I’m inclined to agree with you that Richard’s relations with York are exaggerated by many, although they would be stronger than a lot of other places (see Rosemary Horrox’s ‘Study in Sevice’ for examples of ways in which Richard went out of his way to benefit York), and I’m not sure Fotheringhay is comparable. York was at least county town for Middleham and the political sphere for the North of England, Fotheringhay was dominated by nearby Peterborough (which incidentally was as large and probably more significant than Leicester at his time, not least to the wealth of Peterborough Abbey, one of the wealthiest religious houses in the UK). Richard, like most noblemen of his period, would have lived a semi peripatetic lifestyle, travels across estates to ensure they were well managed, so a firm connection to a place as we would understand it today is rather different by 15th century standards.
      Funnily enough I was looking at the original document cited the other day – it’s currently on display in the Yorkshire Museum in York. You’re quite right, it is edited, and Norfolk is named. It is less equivocal perhaps than sometimes alleged, not least as an element of fence sitting would be required to fit in with the new regime, but that was regarded as standard during the Wars of the Roses anyway. It was politically expedient for the new regime to overlook such changes as long as they remained loyal to you, after all, yesterday’s traitors are tomorrow’s subjects. I still think it’s interesting and unusual that they bothered to make such a comment, although York’s loyalty to Richard might be better demonstrated by his arrival on Royal progress in 1483, when they pulled out the stops in celebration than for any other medieval king, and that a York mob murdered Northumberland a couple of years later during a tax riot, crying that he had been responsible for Richard’s defeat at Bosworth (which arguably he had…)
      So many things are misconstrued or misinterpreted when talking about Richard III, often without looking at the evidence… Plus ca change…
      Hope that helps,
      Stuart

    • Hi Beth,
      I do think this has been blown out of all proportion, and could have been better handled by some of the parties involved. It’s a very emotive subject for some people, and the problem is, he’s got to be reburied somewhere for legal reasons. We’ll see what the court says tomorrow…

      Stuart

  2. I read that Richard III was buried under what is now a parking lot, but in what city? What was that plot of land before it was a parking lot? It seems like a man should be buried with his family if they basically got along.

    • Hello,
      Richard was buried in the Abbey Church of the Greyfriars in Leicester in 1485. The Abbey was closed down – like all such institutions – in the religious changes brought about by Henry VIII and the church fell into disrepair and was pulled down, although the grave being underground was up disturbed. By 1611 it was a garden, later the grounds of a school and the site is today a car park. I recommend John Ashdown-Hill’s book ‘The Last Days of Richard III’ if you’re interested in the process by which the site of Richard’s grave was identified, as he did most of the historical research.

      Regards, Stuart

  3. No, this discussion is irrelevant. He has lain all that time in the ground, it’s inappropriate to move him now. Put him back under the car-park and leave him there, perhaps with a plaque to commemorate the person and the place. Tony

    • Hello,
      You’ll notice I haven’t got involved in the discussion as it were, the aim was to provide an historical perspective as to why Richard was buried where he was, which may have relevance on the contemporary debate. As it happens legally under the licence for excavation they can’t just rebury him in the car park, so a decision will have to be made one way or the other.

      Regards,

      Stuart

  4. Enjoyed the article. I have just started blogging and would really appreciate if you could read my articles and advise me about the pros and cons of a successful blogger. See my blog and tell me am I doing it right?

  5. I’m a student of the Wars of the Roses and found your piece to be quite well-written and thoughtfully laid out. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

  6. I watched the special on the Smithsonian channel the other month on finding Richard III’s body, but I have to admit I never thought about where they would re-inter him. Thanks for getting me up to date!

  7. Truly interesting. I’m one of those superficial Richard III appassionati who has no true research behind her but merely a deep and abiding emotional interest. To read contemporary output from someone who has the research – and I know not to what degree the interest – is most gratifying. It’s only as I’ve grown old that I can recognize the utter fascination of history (as a schoolgirl I never passed a history exam); and no period interests me as much as the late Middle Ages, because of Richard. Seems to me that the Tydders were the original and best exponents at the dubious art of propaganda that we shall ever know – with thanks due to The Bard, amongst others – so that the phrase I had clung to having now been junked because of being part of it, I’m bereft. Sighh …

    • Thanks for the kind comments. Couldn’t agree more – Shakespeare was a brilliant playwright, but a rubbish historian. Not only is his portrayal of Richard dubious, but he did a hatchet job on Macbeth, who it appears was quite a competent king in reality, and airbrushed over some of the darker parts of Henry V’s reign, such as the persecution and burning of the Lollards.

      Stuart

  8. I stumbled across this blog by accident, having read some of the books recently published about the ‘find’. I grew up in Leicester and was taught as a child about Richard and the Battle of Bosworth, and the mystery as to his resting place. I seem to remember I was taught that his body was put in the Soar.
    To an ex-Leicester girl, the answer is simple. He should be re-buried in a suitable manner in a suitable location in Leicester. Not necessarily the cathedral, perhaps at another Monastery.

    • Hi. It is an interesting article but as you get close to in your comment is what sort of place should he be reburied. Some argue that as he was a Catholic he should have a Catholic re-burial. Indeed it has been suggested that he be buried at Dominican Friary at Holy Cross Church in the centre of Leicester. Seems a no brainer. Why would a Catholic king be buried with an Anglican service in an Anglican cathedral it would probably horrify him.

      • Hi Simon, thanks for the compliment. I’m undecided and open to the issue of where he should be buried regarding denomination. It’s not something that would have been an issue in Richard’s time (as everyone was Catholic), hence didn’t fall within the scope of this article, which tried to give a 15th century perspective. It could be argued though that Leicester Cathedral could still be suitable as it was a Catholic Church in Richard’s time. After all we don’t dig up medieval burials in what are today Anglican churches because the denomination changed… Stuart

      • Hi Stuart. Thanks for your reply. We will never know what what Richard would have wanted. I think that the concept of what happened under Henry viii would have been an anathema to him. If you start there and then consider what should be done with him, it puts a different perspective on matters. It is inconceivable I put it, that he would want a non Catholic internment, in a cemetery not consecrated for Catholic burial. Although he has had his funeral and internment once you could argue. I doubt that we will see a reflection on what we believe he may have wanted. Rather what people want now, for a variety of motives.

  9. Pingback: Burying Richard III once and for all? | yvanmcgregor

  10. This was a wonderful post and I wholeheartedly agree with you. My degree is in Medieval Studies and I am fascinated with this time period as well. I am wondering though, about your thoughts regarding the young Princes in the Tower. When their bodies were discovered in 1674 (correct me if I’m wrong with that date), they were buried in Westminster Abbey I believe. Did a similar discussion take place then or is this a modern fixation? I also find it surprising that now that we have a known family member (Richard III) from which to extract and compare DNA that such a test has not yet been approved to prove that the bodies discovered in the Tower were indeed the young princes.

    • Thank, you, glad you enjoyed it!
      Regarding the alleged bones of the Princes, the partial skeletal remains of two children were discovered during building works over 300 years ago as you say, and are buried in a marble casket at Westminster Abbey. As far as I’m aware, there are no plans to do a DNA test on the bones, as a) that would require permission from the Queen to open the casket, and b) the testing on ancient DNA is not conclusive proof anyway. The tests done on Richard showed the skeleton dug up in Leicester showed the same Mitochondrial DNA (same female DNA line elements) as a distant descendant. This only puts him in the same DNA group as thousands of others (albeit a rare one). It was only this coupled with all the other scientific evidence – radiocarbon dating, diet patterns, the battle wounds, the age, gender & skeletal deformities and the facial reconstruction that allowed the Leicester burial to be positively identified as Richard. It is very unlikely there would be the same material to allow such a similar process on the children’s bones, particularly with likely contamination from them being dug up and re handled several times.
      Also, even if it could be proven it’s them, it gives no indication of how they got there or who was responsible – that’s a whole other question! ;) Stuart

  11. Hi, I developed a non-academic interest in Richard III a couple of years ago, since then I have read a fair few books on the subject.. I find it riveting.

    My husband found your blog and said I ought to read it. (I joined Word Press at the beggining of the year, just finding my way round it too.) I think you have written a wonderful blog account of Richard, who I do feel has had a bad press, which has continued through the centuries – the recent controversy over his bones, seems about to continue as the Judges did not give us an early judgement. I enjoyed reading all the comments people have sent you -lot of interest in the subject, not only in England either!

    I shall look forward to reading your future blogs.

  12. I think that Richard the 111 should be buried in York where h was king but it might be better just to bury him where he died rather than disturb him, if it hadn’t been for the car park being dug up he would have still been there where he was found

  13. Personally, I think it’s more important that Richard III is laid to rest with the dignity a King of England deserves, and soon, rather than his remains sitting in a box for years while people bicker over where. The squabbling that has broken out since the remains were identified has really marred what should be a wonderful discovery.

  14. I believe it is very important that Richard III’s wishes are respected, that is to say, that he be buried in a monastery where monks could pray for him and say masses for him. He was, after all, a very religious man and devout in his faith. Mount St. Bernard, just outside Leicester, would be an ideal burial ground for his remains as it befits his final wishes as king and it is close to where he died.
    Derek Ruff, Wilden, Bedford

  15. Bury a King with Kings honours – to date, the only city to honour his memory is Leicester – his burial was crude, without honours and failing for an English King. Leicester wishes to right this wrong – re intern this king in a city that will honour his memory for eternity. The wrongs of Henry Tudor shall be re-written in modern history – ‘Search for him, Find him, honour him’

      • One wonders that these somewhat irrelevant people are gifted the right to make such a pronouncement.
        I know that SOMEONE has to … and I suppose it must be them … but … ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

      • I think the idea is to get an independent, dispassionate view. There’s been a lot of emotion in this debate which has coloured things for too many people…

  16. What do you do with the body of a dead king? Make absolutely sure that it is him, with full, peer-reviewed publication of all the evidence, that’s what. The evidential process should end, not begin, with a press conference. Harrumph!

    • Hi Terry,
      Agree with some of your sentiments. Whilst it was inevitable that there would be a big public announcement through the huge amount of interest, some of the hoop-la has been used and abused by a small minority of those involved. I’ve no doubt it will be fully published, although as usual with such reports it can take several years, which is not helpful in terms of the re burial as there is a limited timescale in such cases due to the burial licence. At no point was anyone likely to find a dog tag or a sign saying ‘this is Richard III’, but having read up as far as is possible I think the evidence for this being him is as conclusive as it can get, and some of the recent challenges in the press a but spurious. Simply put, the DNA evidence is not categoric, but shows that the skeleton is in the same 15% of the DNA population as a provable descendant. It’s a male skeleton of the right age, carbon dated to the right period. The skeletal evidence matches Richard’s description and the facial reconstruction his portraits. It’s buried in the right place based on the documentary evidence, was in a high status place but buried in a hurry, without clothing and with hands tied, with post mortem ‘insult’ injuries, consistent with the circumstances of Richard’s corpse in Leicester. Evidence suggests a highs status diet rich in fish and meat, and the mortal injuries are consistent with other known medieval battle wounds (such as the Towton burials) and the fatal wound is to the back of the head, again tying in with the account of Richard’s death. Taken together this provides a pretty compelling case, and begs the question who else it could be… Stuart

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