The Battle Over Richard III’s Bones…And His Reputation

Rival towns are vying for the king’s remains and his legacy now that his skeleton has been found 500 years after his death

A facial reconstruction of King Richard III, based on an analysis of his recently identified remains and artist portrayals over the years, was unveiled by an eponymous historical society on Tuesday. (Rex Features / AP Images)

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The Richard III Society was founded in 1924 to “strip away the spin, the unfair innuendo, Tudor artistic shaping and the lazy acquiescence of later ages, and get at the truth”. He didn’t kill his nephews, or his brother or Henry VI, and he didn’t kill his wife—that’s all the stuff that historians in the pay of the Tudors wanted everyone to believe. Moreover, according to the society, wise Richard III instituted a number of important legal reforms, including the system of bail and, rather ironically, the presumption of innocence before guilt; he was also a great champion of the printing press.

So finding his bones, for the Richard III Society, was in part about reclaiming the king from history’s rubbish pile. Langley, armed with “intuition” that his remains weren’t destroyed and historical research, determined that what was now a parking lot owned by the Leicester Council was in fact the site of the lost church and grave. In August 2012, digging began—with permission and help from Leicester—and a cross-disciplinary team of experts from the University of Leicester spent days painstakingly excavating the area.

What they found, in just three weeks, was the body of a man they believed to be Richard III. And on February 4, the university confirmed that the skeleton was indeed the last Plantagenet king. Not only did he fit the physical description depicted in historical sources—the famously curved spine, the product of the onset of scoliosis at age 10; slim, almost feminine—but his DNA matched that of two descendants of the king as well. 

Their findings also confirmed that Richard III was killed rather gruesomely—he was felled by one of two vicious blows to the head, including one from a sword that nearly sliced the back of his skull off. The team found 10 wounds to his body in total, including a “humiliation” stab wound to his right buttock and several to his trunk that were likely inflicted after his death; there was also evidence that his hands had been bound.

This fits with the traditional story that after the king was killed, he was stripped naked and slung over a horse to be brought to Leicester. Though he was buried in a place of honor at Greyfriars, in the choir, he was dumped unceremoniously in a quickly dug and too small grave, with no coffin or even a shroud—a deficiency that both the cities of Leicester and York would now like to redress. 

Leicester, the city of his death, has the trump card. In order to dig up the car park, the University of Leicester had to take out a license with Britain’s Ministry of Justice, basically a permit that detailed what they would have to do if they found any human remains. The exhumation license dictates that they must bury the bones as close to where they found them as possible, and do so by August 2014; this license was upheld Tuesday by the Ministry of Justice.

Leicester Cathedral is a handy stone’s throw away from the car park and it’s been designated as the new burial site. It has been the home of a memorial to Richard since 1980. Canon David Monteith of Leicester Cathedral is still a bit in shock over the discovery and the flurry of interest in it. “It’s the stuff of history books, not the stuff of today,” he says, laughing, adding too that they only found out the body was Richard’s the day before the world did. Though a spring 2014 burial is possible, it will be some time, he said, before plans to inter the king are firmed up, “Lots of things have to happen.”

Among those things will be finding an appropriate place to put him: The cathedral is small, but busy, and Monteith is aware that the king’s bones will become a tourist attraction. (Henry Tudor’s fears were apparently well-founded) Another issue will be what kind of service (Richard’s already had a funeral) an Anglican church should give to a Catholic king who died before the formation of the Church of England. And finally, there’s the question of who will pay for the burial and improvements.

But while the Cathedral makes its plans, the northern England city of York is putting in its own claim for the king’s remains. On Wednesday, York sent letters, signed by the Lord Mayor, city councilors, and civic leaders, and backed by academics and descendants of Richard III, to the Ministry of Justice and the Crown. It’s unclear how long the process might take; again, this is all pretty unprecedented. 

The York complainants pointed out that Richard grew up just north of York, became Lord President of the Council of the North there, spent a lot of time and money in the city, and granted favors to the city while he was king. York also claims that Richard wanted to be buried in York Minster Cathedral, where he was building a chantry for 100 priests.

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