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.