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)

Richard III may have died an unloved king, humiliated in death, tossed naked into a tiny grave and battered by history. But with two British cities trying to claim the last Plantagenet king’s remains 500 years after his death, maybe his reputation is finally turning a corner.

The discovery of his remains last fall (and the confirmation of the results this week) was the culmination of a four-year search instigated by Phillipa Langley of the Richard III Society. Both the search and the discovery were unprecedented: “We don’t normally lose our kings,” says Langley.

But it’s perhaps not too surprising that Richard’s bones were misplaced. Richard gained and lost the crown of England during the tumultuous Wars of the Roses period (1455-1487). It is a notoriously difficult period to keep straight: The country lurched from civil war to civil war in a series of wrestling matches between two branches of the Plantagenet house, the Yorks and the Lancasters.

Richard was the Duke of Gloucester and a York; his brother, Edward IV, had taken the throne from the Lancastrian king, Henry VI. When Edward died in 1483, he left Richard in charge as regent to his 12-year-old son, to be Edward V. But in June 1483, just before the boy’s intended coronation, Richard snatched the crown off his nephew’s head by claiming that the child was illegitimate. The boy and his younger brother were both packed off to the Tower of London—and were never seen again.

In the meantime, Richard III had his own usurpers to deal with. The Lancasters were out of the picture, but there was another upstart claimant on the scene, Henry Tudor. Two years and two months after he was anointed king, Richard faced a faction of Tudors at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22, 1485. He lost and was killed, only 32 years old. The Wars of the Roses were over, the Plantagenet house was swept aside, and the Tudors were on the throne. Richard’s battered body was brought back to nearby Leicester, where it was handed over to the Franciscan friars and quickly dumped into a small grave at the Greyfriars Church.

Given that they could barely keep a king on the throne in all this, keeping track of him after he was dead was probably even more difficult—especially since the new regime didn’t want to keep track of him. Henry Tudor, now Henry VII, feared that Richard’s burial site would become a rallying point for anti-Tudorists, so its location was kept quiet. When Henry VIII created the Anglican Church in the mid 16th-century, breaking off from the Vatican, England’s missions were dissolved; the friary was taken apart stone by stone and Richard’s grave was lost with it. Rumors even spread that his bones were dug up and thrown into a river.

The man too would have been forgotten, if not for the Bard himself. William Shakespeare, who always turned to history for a good plot, turned Richard III into one of the most sinister villains ever in his The Tragedy of Richard III.

It wasn’t hard: Richard III already had a bad reputation, especially according to the Tudor historians. His ignominious end and hurried burial was thought fitting for a villain who allegedly murdered his two young nephews to steal the crown; killed his wife to marry his niece; had his own brother drowned in a barrel of wine; and murdered all and sundry who dared challenge him.

In Richard III, Shakespeare further embellished the tale, doing nothing for Richard’s reputation. He opens his play by having Richard III himself claim that he was so ugly, dogs barked at him, and declaring: “And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover… I am determined to be a villain.”

Before the first act is over, he’s killed his brother and Henry VI, and goes on to murder the two young princes. Shakespeare also turned Richard’s scoliosis-curved spine into a hunchback, furnishing him with a limp that he might not have had and a withered arm that he definitely didn’t have, just to reinforce the point. Of course, Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard III is about as historically accurate as any period film Hollywood ever produced—dramatized to a point just past recognition. But on the other side, there are the Ricardians, who see the much-maligned king as a victim of Tudor propaganda.

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