What a stroke of luck

23rd March 2015

What a stroke of Luck

The story of how King Richard III came to be buried in Leicester

Editor Trevor Locke looks at the life of Richard III and how his remains came to be discovered under a car park in Leicester.

Richard's statue with white roses placed by the public
Richard’s statue with white roses placed by the public

The bones of the mediaeval king, Richard III, were unearthed in the city of Leicester. If we ask ourselves why that happened, a remarkable story unfolds.

The week of 22nd to 27th March 2015 witnessed a series of events in Leicester that were of interest around the world. Tens of thousands of people converged on the city to see one of the biggest tourist attractions of the year; certainly for Leicester, if not for England.

The link between Richard and Leicester.

Part of the facade of Leicester Castle
Part of the facade of Leicester Castle

Richard III visited Leicester in 1483 when he stayed at Leicester Castle. Richard stayed at the castle in 1483 and wrote to the King of France, signing the letter ‘from my castle of Leicester.’  [Arts in Leicester]

During his short reign, Richard was continually on the move. He rarely stayed in the same place for long. He was either rushing round the country from one battle to another or attending meetings with nobles. These were turbulent times and there was continuing friction between the houses of York and Lancaster.

Why did the battle take place?

Richard was killed at the battle of Bosworth in 1485 at the age of 32. His life had been full of activities of one kind or another.  He was born into the House of York and to the Plantagenet dynasty – during the reign of Henry VI – in 1452, at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire. The period was marked by troubles and conflicts of interests – not uncommon in mediaeval times. When Henry VI died in 1471, the crown passed to Edward IV.  Likewise, when Edward IV died, his eldest son Edward was due to inherit the throne. Before that could happen, both Edward and his brother Richard were declared illegitimate. Under the law of time, this put paid to either one of them inheriting the crown. As the next person in line, with the strongest claim, Richard took the crown in 1483. Richard III might have been crowned King but there were many in the House of Lancaster who would like to depose him. Richard had close relatives who felt they too had a claim to the royal blood line.

In 1483, he became the Lord Protector of the realm, charged with looking after the affairs of the 12 year old King Edward V. Not only did he shoulder the complicated affairs of state but he also had to tackle rebellions by powerful nobles.  In July 1472, he married Anne Neville, daughter of the Earl of Warwick.  A couple of months earlier, in May, the Yorkists had defeated the Lancastrians at the battle of Tewkesbury. Even Richard’s marriage gained him enemies and he forced to give up part of his lands. The Pope even declared that his marriage was unlawful. When he was only nine years old, Richard was made Duke of Gloucester, a high status title in the ranks of the nobility. His lifetime saw many changes of land holdings and titles in the constant struggles between the houses of York and Lancaster.

Richard’s life was in a state of constant turmoil with battles, rebellions and power struggles  surrounding him throughout his life.

Why did the battle take place near to the small town of Market Bosworth?

Henry Tudor was so aggrieved about what Richard had done, by taking the crown in 1483,  that he raised an army with the intention of seizing the English throne and claiming it for himself. Henry and his army left France and landed in Wales. Richard’s scouts were sent out to report the movements of the Lancastrian army. When word of Henry’s invasion reached Richard III, he raised an army and headed out to fight Henry Tudor.  In August 1485, Richard III was at Nottingham when we heard of Henry’s invasion; Richard used Nottingham Castle as the headquarters of his army.

Richard’s army started to muster in Leicester on 16th August. Richard reached Leicester on 20th August; his aim was to prevent Henry Tudor from reaching London. The paths taken by the various armies lead them towards the Leicestershire town of Market Bosworth and it was near there they decided to pitch camp and prepare for battle the following day.

The site of the battle has become known as ‘Bosworth field’ but historians came to believe that it was actually fought on Ambion Hill, following writings in the 19th century. Archaeologists later decided on an alternative location, following detailed research of the area. This was close to the villages of Dadlington and Stoke Golding, to the south west of Market Bosworth. The area was a watery marshland.  By late afternoon, on the 20th August, Richard learnt from his scouts that the army of Lord Stanley was at Stoke Golding while William Stanley was at Shenton. Henry Tudor and his men were at Atherstone. The battle took place on 22nd of August; it lasted for about two hours and was over by noon.

During the battle, the 32 year old Richard was killed by two severe blows to the head. His body was stripped naked, thrown over the back of a horse and taken to Leicester.

After the king was killed, why was his body taken to Leicester?

Leicester was the largest big town; it was nearer to the scene of the battle than Nottingham. The victorious Henry, having been crowned king at Bosworth, wanted to reach London as soon as possible. Richard was buried in Leicester; but why not in London, where his wife Anne Neville was buried, after her death in March 1485, when she was interred in Westminster Abbey in an unmarked grave. Henry had to act quickly to keep ahead of the Yorkists who were all over the country.

King Henry feared that news of Richard’s death could cause civil unrest.  He decided that he needed to show people that Richard was dead. The corpse was taken to Leicester (rather than to Nottingham) and paraded through the streets.  His body was put on public display in the Church of the Annunciation, in The Newark, a Lancastrian collegiate foundation with which Henry Tudor had connections.

Leicester was known to be a place in which many people supported the House of York. Richard’s two visits to the town might have won him some friends and supporters there.  Henry Tudor knew that he would have to convince them that the king was in fact dead, if he was to avoid an uprising.

Richard was buried in the chancel of the priory church of the Grey Friars – a Franciscan priory that had stood in the centre of Leicester since 1230. The priory church had probably been built in around 1255. History writer Polydore Vergil records that the dead king was buried two days later without pomp or a solemn funeral.

He was buried by the Franciscan monks from Grey Friars  Priory. They dug his grave in the choir of their church, an appropriate position for someone of very high status. The choir was just in front of the high altar. Even the original stone commemorating Richard, was placed between the two sets of choir stalls in Leicester cathedral.  King Henry erected a tomb over the grave in 1495. We know very little what this tomb looked like, other than it was constructed from either alabaster or marble. After the dissolution of the Monasteries, the tomb disappeared and the site of Richard’s burial was lost for 500 years.

It is clear from the archaeological analysis of the skeleton and the earth in which it was found, that the king had been buried in a hurry. There was no detectable sign of a coffin, or even a shroud and the skeleton was lying in an odd position. Some believe that the body was still naked when the Friars placed it in the hole they had dug. It was however common practice to bury bodies naked but usually the dead were wrapped in a burial shroud or winding sheets.

Bear in mind that at this time, England was a catholic country; it would be nearly another fifty years before Henry VIII separated England from the church of Rome. After some years, Richard’s tomb was lost. During the reign of Henry VIII, the monasteries were dissolved and Grey Friars was dissolved in 1543.  Much of the stonework used in the building of the church was robbed away, some of it being used to repair the nearby church of St. Martins (at the time a parish church and now the cathedral.)

Richard III lies in repose
Richard III lies in repose

A story was told by the father of the architect Sir Christopher Wren, that whilst he walking in the garden that was once part of the Grey Friars Priory, accompanied by Robert Herrick,  they came across a pillar on which were inscribed the words ‘Here lies the body of Richard III sometime king of England.’

Why did they dig for the bones in a car park?

The Richard III Society had been bringing together people with an interest, in this enigmatic English king,  since 1924. With its numerous branches, located in various parts of the world, the Society’s aim had been to find the truth about a king who was surrounded by myth and legend. For more than 88 years the society tirelessly sought to find the monarch’s remains. The Society had plaques erected in various places to draw attention to Richard; they also had a stone, commemorating his death, placed in front of the altar of Leicester Cathedral.

In 1986, historian David Baldwin published an article about Richard’s grave in which he examined the historical evidence for where the king was buried and concluded that it probably lay underneath the St. Martin’s end of Greyfriars Street – almost exactly where it was in fact found 26 years later.

Leicester had the right experts to both conduct the dig and then to examine and analyse the finds. The excavation took place only a couple of miles from the University of Leicester. At the time that people were pointing their fingers at the car park in Leicester, prior to the commence of the dig,  the University was already acclaimed for two important areas of knowledge and expertise:  one was archaeology and history and the other was DNA. Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys discovered the technique for ‘genetic finger printing.’ He was the first person to produce a genetic finger print, in September 1984. Sir Alec’s work led to the development of this technique and it went on to be used in a variety of problem-solving fields. The  University of Leicester Archaeological Services team, an independent professional unit of archaeologists, embedded in the School of Archaeology and Ancient History,  was a prestigious outfit with a fine record for archaeological research . The existence of these two fields of expertise meant that the skills and knowledge required to dig for the remains of the long-dead king were available in the same city in which he was buried. Once the bones had been discovered, scientists at the local University where then able to apply their techniques to verify that he was in fact the long-lost monarch and to use mitochondrial DNA analysis to establish that these were in fact the remains of Richard III.

Had the car park site not been dug in 2012, it is possible that it would have been sold to developers and the site damaged by building work, the remains being either left undiscovered and built over or worse still disturbed by excavation for building foundations.

So, Leicester became the last resting place of a mediaeval monarch. A local university had all the technical skills and resources to both excavate his remains and to verify that the bones were in fact those of the long lost Plantagenet king.

That strikes me as being several strokes of luck.

Portrait of King Richard III
Portrait of King Richard III

See also:

Our article giving the background to the life and times of Richard III

The king’s remains arrive at Leicester Cathedral

Places of interest along the route of the procession

News about the reinterment

Our feature article on Richard III