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.

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.

“The city is very keen to have the man have his living wish fulfilled,” says Megan Rule, spokeswoman for the city, adding that York loved Richard III even as forces converged to remove him from power. “York people were loyal to him then and remain so.”

Leicester, however, dismisses York’s claims. City Mayor Peter Soulsby says, “York’s claim no doubt will fill a few column inches in the Yorkshire Post, but beyond that, it’s not something that anybody is taking seriously. The license was very specific, that any interment would be at Leicester Cathedral… It’s a done deal.”

Moreover, the city of Leicester is already planning a multi-million-pound educational center around the king’s car park grave: In December, the City purchased a former school building adjacent to the site for £800,000 to turn into a museum detailing the history of Leicester, with a big focus on Richard’s part in it. The center is expected to be complete by 2014, handily in time for Richard’s reburial.

It’s also easy to dismiss the fight over his remains as two cities wrestling over tourists. Leicester has already debuted a hastily put together exhibition on the king and the discovery. But the debate has tumbled into a minefield of regional loyalties—though this is ancient history, it can feel very current. As Professor Lin Foxhall, head of University of Leicester’s archeology department, notes, “You get these old guys here who are still fighting the Wars of the Roses.”

The Richard III Society’s Phillipa Langley is staying out of the debate about where Richard’s remains should go—though she can understand why Leicester and York both want him. “They’re not fighting over the bones of a child killer—for them he was an honorable man,” Langley says. “This guy did so much for us that people don’t know about. They’re actually fighting for someone who the real man wants to be known, that’s why they want him.”

Others, however, are more skeptical about this whitewashed version of Richard and about what impact the discovery will have on his reputation. “What possible difference is the discovery and identification of this skeleton going to make to anything? … Hardly changes our view of Richard or his reign, let alone anything else,” grumbled Neville Morley, a University of Bristol classics professor, on his blog

“Bah, and humbug.” Peter Lay, editor for History Today, wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian on Monday declaring that the claim that the discovery rewrites history is overblown, and that the jury is still out on Richard’s real character—at the very least, he probably did kill the princes. And historian Mary Beard prompted a fierce 140-character debate on Twitter this week after she tweeted, “Gt fun & a mystery solved that we've found Richard 3. But does it have any HISTORICAL significance? (Uni of Leics overpromoting itself?))”.

Langley, however, is still confident that this discovery will have an impact. “I think there’s going to be a major shift in how Richard is viewed,” she says. “It’s very satisfying, it’s been a long time coming.”

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.