Richard the Third the last Plantagenet

Richard III was, according to Shakespeare, one of the worst villans to rule England.  On the other hand, there were many, including Josephine Tey who believed otherwise.  And now, his bones have been found and identified.

The bones as discovered.

Greyfriars car park, Leicester, where the remains of King Richard III were found

Grey Friars car park, Leicester, where the remains of King Richard III were found.

According to the BBC

A skeleton found beneath a Leicester car park has been confirmed as that of English king Richard III.

Experts from the University of Leicester said DNA from the bones matched that of descendants of the monarch’s family.

Lead archaeologist Richard Buckley, from the University of Leicester, told a press conference to applause: “Beyond reasonable doubt it’s Richard.”

Richard, killed in battle in 1485, will be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral.

The Guardian detailed the careful science behind the declaration.

There were cheers when Richard Buckley, lead archaeologist on the hunt for the king’s body, finally announced that the university team was convinced “beyond reasonable doubt” that it had found the last Plantagenet king, bent by scoliosis of the spine, and twisted further to fit into a hastily dug hole in Grey Friars church, which was slightly too small to hold his body.

But by then it was clear the evidence was overwhelming, as the scientists who carried out the DNA tests, those who created the computer-imaging technology to peer on to and into the bones in raking detail, the genealogists who found a distant descendant with matching DNA, and the academics who scoured contemporary texts for accounts of the king’s death and burial, outlined their findings.

The skeleton’s injuries were consistent with accounts of Richard’s death.

Richard died at Bosworth on 22 August 1485, the last English king to fall in battle, and the researchers revealed how for the first time. There was an audible intake of breath as a slide came up showing the base of his skull sliced off by one terrible blow, believed to be from a halberd, a fearsome medieval battle weapon with a razor-sharp iron axe blade weighing about two kilos, mounted on a wooden pole, which was swung at Richard at very close range. The blade probably penetrated several centimetres into his brain and, said the human bones expert Jo Appleby, he would have been unconscious at once and dead almost as soon.

The injury appears to confirm contemporary accounts that he died in close combat in the thick of the battle and unhorsed – as in the great despairing cry Shakespeare gives him: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

Another sword slash, which also went through the bone and into the brain, would also have proved fatal. But many of the other injuries were after death, suggesting a gruesome ritual on the battlefield and as the king’s body was brought back to Leicester, as he was stripped, mocked and mutilated – which would have revealed for the first time to any but his closest intimates the twisted back, a condition from an unknown cause, which began to contort his body from the age of about 10. By the time he died he would have stood inches shorter than his true height of 5′ 8″, tall for a medieval man. The bones were those of an unusually slight, delicately built man – Appleby described him as having an “almost feminine” build – which also matches contemporary descriptions.

According to the Boston Globe story

Richard III ruled England between 1483 and 1485, during the decades-long tussle over the throne known as the Wars of the Roses. His brief reign saw liberal reforms, including introduction of the right to bail and the lifting of restrictions on books and printing presses.

The discovery of Richard’s bones will not resolve the controversy surrounding him, however.  Most believe in the Shakespearean image of him as a the evil hunchbacked killer of two young princes in the Tower of London.

After I read Richard III in high school, my mother introduced me to Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time.  Her detective character, Alan Grant, takes up the case while in the hospital with the help of a young researcher who does the leg work.  The Wikipedia article about the book has a good summary of what Grant concluded and Tey believed.

The main arguments presented in the book in defence of King Richard:

  • There was no political advantage for Richard III in killing the young princes. He was legitimately made king.
  • There is no evidence that the princes were missing from the Tower when Henry VII took over.
  • Although a Bill of Attainder was brought by Henry VII against Richard it made no mention of the princes. There never was any formal accusation, much less a verdict of guilt.
  • Henry never produced the bodies of the dead princes for public mourning and a state funeral.
  • The mother of the Princes, Elizabeth Woodville, remained on good terms with Richard.
  • The Princes were more of a threat to Henry VII as the foundation of his claim to the crown was significantly more remote than theirs.

Grant and his American collaborator argue that there is little evidence of resistance to Richard’s rule (ignoring Buckingham’s rebellion). They allow that there were rumours of his murdering the princes during his lifetime, but they decide that the rumours had little circulation, and attribute them to the Croyland Chronicle and to the Lord Chancellor of France, and ultimately to Tudor sympathiser John Morton. They also propose that Morton was the actual author of Thomas More‘s biography of Richard, suggesting that the incomplete manuscript found after More’s death was an unfinished copy by More of Morton’s lost original. They conclude that the princes probably remained alive throughout Richard’s reign and were later killed by Henry.

The Richard III Society which sponsored discovery and will have his bones reinterred will still have work to do to clear his name.  Where are the alleged bones of the princes and can we now do DNA on them?

Photograph of car park Darren Staples/Reuters

8 thoughts on “Richard the Third the last Plantagenet

  1. Pingback: Richard the Third – still controversial | FortLeft

  2. Pingback: Re-reading “The Daughter of Time” or was Richard III a murderer? « FortLeft

    • i think we both do. our laws and our culture certainly go back prior to the revolution with some 150 years as english colonies. plus, we very much like and admire your queen, whom we have known since our childhood. and we always enjoy listening to the prime minister field questions from parliament and wish we had more politicians on this side of the atlantic who could do so as ably, regardless of political persuasion….

      oh, i should add, i am maya’s husband.

      • Actually, all the royal events are broadcast here in the states and get great viewship. I like the idea that there is a royal family and then there is government. We tend to try to combine the two in the first family.

    • I’ve been interested in English history for many years. I first started reading English mystery stories in my teens and read the entire Thomas Costain history of the Plantagenets my senior year of high school. And yes, American history is very tied to yours in England.

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