Richard III and the Legend of the Car Park
You all watched the documentary, saw the news. It was September 2012 and thanks largely in part to the endeavors of Philippa Langley, a small council office car park in Leicester city centre, was pinpointed as the possible site of the church of the Greyfriars Abbey, the original burial place of short-lived King Richard III, killed by his successor Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.
Headlines grabbed the nation as, with the help of a team from the University of Leicester’s archaeology department, trenches were dug and under the ominous letter R from the reserved parking space it covered, a skeleton emerged, with its hands crossed as though once bound, and a spine glared in the spotlight with its obvious twist. Langley made much of the signs, and asked if the box to which the remains were transferred could be covered with a heraldic flag. The archaeologist was uncomfortable with the suggestion and so Langley ceremoniously covered the small box herself before it was wedged in the back of a small van, beside the shovel and wellies, tools of the trade for a working dig.
Some months later, DNA results were returned using a sample taken from a traced line through Anne of York’s (Richard’s sister) to Michael Ibsen, a London-based cabinet-maker originally from Canada. The DNA was a match and it was confirmed that the remains were indeed those of Richard III, Last Plantagenet King of England. All hell broke loose in the world of “How to bury a rediscovered monarch”, as so-called descendants of the Plantagenet line raised an appeal in response to the plans to inter Richard in Leicester cathedral. They wanted their “family” buried in York Minster, rather than a “poxy ex-parish church” as one person described the Cathedral in Leicester.
The appeal raged on for months, whilst quietly in the background the wheels of organization continued on with the planned “funeral for a king”. Money was again raised to cover costs via donations and so forth, and Ibsen set to work making a coffin. Several designs were drawn up and one chosen for a tomb, and extensive re-modelling began inside St Martins to house Richard’s remains. The former cemetery outside was landscaped and work began on the Visitors Centre, to house a permanent exhibition for tourists. A temporary exhibition was set up in the Medieval Guildhall next to the Cathedral. The Judge ruled in favour of Leicester and the re-burial went ahead. Millions of people watched the proceedings, shown live on television; thousands criticised the venture with such insults as “Leicester was scruffy”; “Leicester lost the King for over 500 years”, and “Richard deserved to be buried in York”. The mud-slinging continues to this day, and still many thousands of armchair fanatics armed with unsubstantiated claims to know what the King himself would have wanted refuse to let the matter rest.
So here’s my take on it. With a little truth thrown in, that wasn’t made public for the sake of sensationalism. Or something. (Well the public loves a good drama, why let the truth get in the way of that eh?) Oh and for the record, I am from Yorkshire stock, but born and raised (on and off) in the Leicester area so you can be assured in this article you will only hear the truth.
When I was a teenager, we learned about the Wars of the Roses, including the Battles of Empingham and its more famous big sister, Bosworth, both of which took place nearby. We visited the battlefield of Bosworth, since revised of course, and in my own time I researched and learned all about the period, and visited many of the key places. Going to school near Stamford obviously helped with the back story, after all, it wasn’t simply a case of two armies pitching up and throwing rocks at each other for a few hours until everybody was either too tired or too dead to continue, lots of the key players held titles and so on in the area, and their connections with my neighbourhood stretched to more than one battelfield on one August day. I lurked in St Martins cathedral on many a quiet Saturday afternoon, sitting at the side of the ledger stone, a simple slab memorial dedicated by
the Richard III society to Richard in the early 80s. Its inscription read:
‘Richard III, King of England. Killed at Bosworth Field in this county 22 August 1485. Buried in the Church of the Greyfriars in this Parish.’
During my moments of quiet contemplation, a nice gentleman often stopped by and chatted to me about the whole period. I think his name was Peter…. He had a connection with the Cathedral, and was very knowledgeable of local history. I looked forward to our discussions and I learned a lot from him. Not just the whole period of the Wars, but also about the history of Leicester in general and how the two combined. One thing I do remember was the photos he showed me, of Peacock lane onto which both St Martins and the Greyfriars site opened. In the early part of the 20th Century, there remained a wall, part of the original monastic perimeter stonework. It was demolished soon afterwards, sometime in the 1920s from most accounts. Peter taught me about how the site of the Greyfriars was dissolved in 1538, and how the buildings were demolished and sold off, eventually coming into the possession of wealthy Leicester Businessman and three-times mayor Robert Herrick, who built a grand house with landscaped gardens. Christopher Wren visited in the early 17thC and recorded viewing a magnificent memorial stone which read “Here lies the body of Richard III, some time King of England” positioned
within the garden
Peter also spoke of the story of how the fine alabaster tomb, paid for by Henry Tudor himself, ten years after his adversary’s death, was destroyed by his son’s supporters during the dissolution just 43 years later and Richard’s body removed and unceremoniously dumped from the nearby Bow Bridge into the River Soar, which allegedly Richard had bumped into on his way to battle and bumped again on his slightly less than victorious return some hours later, dead and slung naked over a horse. Peter maintained the story was a myth perpetuated by Richard’s sympathisers and the remaining friars of Greyfriars, in an effort to prevent further desecration of the King’s remains. In time the myth became “fact” to be peddled in every history book written; it served its purpose, it kept the King’s remains safe.
Peter told the story of how at some point in more recent history, I forget when, a group of “experts” came to Leicester on a mission to rediscover the site of the Friary. They were unsuccessful. Largely as a result of mixing up their monasteries and doing a heck of a lot of ill-fated work at the nearby Blackfriars monastery site. Oops. Peter always maintained the carpark site across the road, on Peacock Lane was situated – as was well known locally and had been since the period in question – on the site of the old Greyfriars. The surrounding buildings and street names attested to that; Friar Lane, Greyfriars, Greyfriars offices and so on. There was never a mystery. That was where the church once stood and that was where Richard was buried. After 500 years of redevelopment, including banks, schools, offices and houses, Herrick’s mansion site was still plotted, as were his gardens. The carpark area, once the playground of the old Alderman Newton School, remained the only plot on the entire site which had never been disturbed or built upon. Even the carpark used the old foundation mortar as its base.
The only question was down to a matter of scale. Modern maps versus old maps told different stories of the exact position of the Church. Peter explained simply, it had to be where the carpark stood, mainly because it had never been “uncovered” in other development phases. Richard was not the only “important” figure in history to have been interred within the church, should any remains have been uncovered, alongside walls and so on, it would have been noted. It wasn’t, therefore it was still there. Richard was never “lost”, he was always safe.
Fast forward thirty years, and once again a resident in the area, after moving back from my hometown in Yorkshire, I watched as Ms Langley and the Leicester University team went the whole nine yards with the “spooky” paranormal feeling by the letter R and the ensuing “discovery” of the skeleton of the King. Okay, but she had previously visited the site some three years prior, and the RESERVED marker wasn’t there then; No “R”, no spooky! Sorry. Big myth. Also the remains were found metres away from the R entirely. And, Ms Langley was working purely on the groundwork and research put together by other people over the previous years. It has been claimed that her own hard work pinpointed, with the help of John Ashdown-Hill the exact position of the Friary and Church. Not really true. The carpark, some fifty yards’ square was in actual fact the only patch of ground in that corner of the city centre that has remained un-developed in 550 years. There wasn’t actually anywhere else the Church could have been, unless it was under one of the later builds and we would think such a thing would have been recorded, knowing as they did that Richard lurked in the area somewhere.
The dig was not for Richard’s remains, as far as the University were concerned. They were purely and simply looking to find the church remains and plot another section of the city’s history. Finding Richard was the cherry on top. They also found five other sets of remains, including that of an unknown chap in a splendid coffin, on which they continue to analyse. Theories include that he is William of Nottingham. Also an unknown high status lady, buried near to the high altar, in a very fine tomb; she is thought to be an early benefactress of the Friary.
Now here is where it gets sticky. The fund-raising and lobbying by Philippa Langley raised enough cash from donations to dig three trenches, recover up to three sets of remains, ensuing scientific tests etc and the “making right” of the site. The university team formed an official body comprising of experts but separate to the University interests. They held the dig licences and therefore was the legitimate owners of anything recovered. At the point where remains were found, the extra funds were raised and the required exhumation licences obtained By Professor Buckley, on behalf of the team and therefore he was the last say on what happened next. Due to previous conversations between Ms Langley and all interested parties when the idea became a reality back in 2009, including the Ministry of Justice, Church of England and HM the Queen, it was always agreed and set that Professor Buckley was the lead man on the team, and that any remains, particularly those of the King, if found, would be reinterred within the nearby Cathedral Precincts, across the road, as per Church of England AND Ministry of Justice requirements. This was specified on dig licences and contracts. Even the Queen had agreed to this, citing no official interests in the reclamation of remains. There was never any debate as to the outcome of discovery.
At some stage in the proceedings, Leicester council as owners of the site, got involved and flexed their muscles, muddying the water somewhat, and then tactfully withdrew when it became apparent their involvement was not helping matters and could cost Leicester the whole deal as well as money they would have to commit if they remained successful in keeping Richard in the city. Personally, from reading the official documentation of the whole thing, I feel that it’s entirely possible a quiet word was had in the relevant person’s ear to shut up and go away, before her ill-perceived red-tape tripped everybody up. She chose to take the advice. A tiny uproar was further created when it was stated that the remains recovered would be placed on display within the University or at an alternative setting. Some people, rather stupid ones we must assume, mistakenly thought this meant Richard too. No. Silly, silly people.
When the matter eventually reached court, after some presentations, and statements from all concerned, it was ruled that the appeal committee had brought nothing new to the table, York Minster maintained their neutral stance of the outcome, standing by their original statement that the remains were to be interred in St Martins as planned. The Queen continued her stance that the crown had no interest in providing any sort of funeral process, or burial. Westminster, acting on behalf of the Queen as a Royal Peculiar maintained that the Queen had the final say, and besides there was no room at the inn as it were. The Ministry of Justice confirmed they never intended changing the decree set by themselves and Professor Buckley. The Church of England maintained that they followed the law in regard to reinternment in the nearest consecrated ground to where the discovery was made – St Martins, just fifty yards away. And Leicester council kept their mouths firmly shut, and neutral. Meanwhile St Martins plugged quietly away, constructing a befitting space for the tomb of a king. The Judge ruled that ownership of the remains could not fall to the appeal committee as all possible descendants were not represented, being as in all probability numbered into the tens of thousands and their line of descent was such that it was mooted. Had they been within living memory then the outcome would have been opened to familial concern.
Contrary to popular notions that he was fond of York, that he considered York his home, that he was building a chantry chapel, intending to be buried there after his death, being that he was of the House of York. Ok… one at a time. Richard III was never about York. It was his late father’s title, and as such his family were collectively umbrella’d under the name of York. By rights, upon assuming the crown like his brother and others before him, upon ascending the throne, Richard took the title Duke of Lancaster which is synonymous with the crown since the days of Henry Bolingbroke. Prior to the throne, Richard was the Duke of Gloucester, but Gloucester cathedral was not given thought. Richard was born in Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire – where his father and brother were eventually buried alongside his mother. Fotheringhay dismissed notions of internment there on account of visions of thousands of stampeding tourists descending on the small town. Nearby Peterborough was a possibility and had a vacant spot previously tenanted to Mary, Queen of Scots, alongside Catherine of Aragon. That idea failed to gather steam. Other suggestions consisted of various mid-way points including Nottingham and Middleham. In reality he had links with any number of places and ties with none.
It is foolish to contemplate the notion that the chantry chapel he requested was his desired burial place; if anywhere his wish would have been to be interred with his Queen, Anne in Westminster, hence her own rather hurried internment in Westminster, most likely in the interests of permanent final resting place to follow upon his own death. The chapel at York was intended to be a place of worship and teaching for a large number of new priests, possibly to say prayers on his behalf after his death. Working on the Catholic belief of Purgatory, the doctrine stated that the time spent there after death depended solely on the number of prayers offered by living sponsors and the extent of one’s own patronage of the Church and other good works. To have a chapel of your own, with 100 dedicated priests saying prayers for your soul 24/7 would ensure your short term stay in Purgatory before your hopeful ascension to the realms of the Kingdom of God. But in the short term, it’s highly unlikely that Richard had actually given that much thought to his own demise.
Oh and during the later named Wars of the Roses, which wasn’t actually anything to do with the places of York versus Lancashire, rather than the titles of the main players at its inception, York remained for the most part a supporter of the House of Lancaster. Richard’s affinity with the county of Yorkshire as he knew it, was more his connection with Middleham and his bribes and promises to the population – not to mention the nobles – in an effort to keep their favour and support.
Finally… Leicester is not some dingy backwater. It is a vibrant multi-cultural city with lots to offer, including two thousand years plus of visible history. Castles, monastic ruins, a roman bath-house, Anglo-Saxon churches, many links with famous Kings and nobles of the past, museums and so on. It contains the first living memorial to the Great War, medieval hospitals, previously unknown species of dinosaur… the list goes on. There are battlefields nearby, and other just as famous burials, both known and undiscovered. And Richard was always there. But no, they didn’t bury him under a carpark in 1485…. Not unless you can prove that the Greyfriars drove a Ford Focus or something…… He was given a hasty funeral in a consecrated Church by sympathetic monks. They did the best they could in the time available, when they could easily have said “No”. The following 500 years of events was just circumstance. Before we preach at the “loss” of his remains, think about the more permanent loss of the remains of many other monarchs and nobles in similar and different circumstances. In case you are all interested, Leicester also houses the remains of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, disgraced Archbishop of York and long-time confidante of Henry VIII in another Friary around the corner, also owned by the University of Leicester; Also “lost”. The only reason Richard became so famous upon the recovery of his remains is because his remains were recovered. Most people probably knew bugger all about him until then. Where are the shouts to recover all those other lost remains? I’m sure if you all chuck a few pounds or dollars in, you can get up your own archaeological team to do the research and dig for them, then pay for your own funerals and so on in a place of your choosing. You know, like Leicester did for Richard.
The residents raised a great deal of the £3 million required for the upgrades inside and to the vicinity of the Cathedral, and all the associated preparations and so forth. Not through taxes, and not from the city funds. The people of Leicester are proud of their city, and to insult it, insults them and all the hard work they put into the celebrations of Richard’s life the work needed to provide his final resting place, and the facilities so the rest of the world can enjoy it too. All the nay-sayers who continue to sit at home criticizing, would do well to remember two things. 1) The story you saw from the comfort of your armchair was a heavily sensationalized account of events. The truth is there if you care to read it. 2) The people of Leicester care very much about Richard, and their efforts to give him a dignified burial. They paid for it and they attended it and they continue to take pride in it.
Was it about money? Yes, to a certain degree, keeping the remains of the last Plantagenet king is a great revenue and footfall boost for a forgotten city which could lead to a renewed interest in other historic sites the city has. But you can’t tell me that York wouldn’t have had the same benefit. And they already have a tremendous tourist income. Why shouldn’t Leicester rejuvenate with a slice of that pie? Richard has been here for over 500 years, why move him now? If it had been down to me, I would rather have put him back in the car park than hand him over to someone else after all this time. Why on earth should Leicester do all the work for someone else to reap the rewards? I’ve stood by that carpark many times since I was a girl. I told any interested parties that Richard was buried in there; most laughed.
The “dodgy DNA” thing? While it is entirely possible that there may be a break or indeed several, in the Y line of the DNA, prior to Richard, the only way of detecting this would be to go up from Richard to the possible first offender (Edward III) and back down to the person it allegedly affects now, DNA testing all the way. No this doesnt throw the present Queen’s line into question as she descends from the Jacobean line through action of Parliament rather than direct descent, via the Hanovers. All this is in fact irrelevant as the person whom this “break” directly affects has been notified and is aware of where the break occurred, going back just four generations. But when all is said and done, there have been a number of innocuous bids for the Crown over time, including Richard’s own. DNA is just a new way of framing that!
Things I can’t comment on – I heard rumours regarding the design of the tomb, between the one that was chosen by the “funeral committee” and the one chosen by the RIchard III society. The rumour mill claimed that because the society design was not chosen, the members tried to renege on their donations towards the cost. Toys out of cot moment? I don’t know. You will have to ask them. Did Richard kill those two nephews of his? You’ll have to wait until my book comes out for my thoughts on that. But that’s another story for another day. Let’s leave that for the Richard III society for now, and Philippa and John. I’m sure they have plenty to say on the matter which will keep you occupied until then.
In conclusion, I’m a Yorkshire lass and I’m from the Leicester area. And as a Historian I am happy to say Richard is in the right place. Resting in peace, as he has done since 1485, in a new improved space.
Sources for the legal and practical aspects and procedures of the dig are available on request.
The rest you will have to climb inside my head for, but before you cry foul… remember this: Being weaned on credibility as a Historian, I wouldn’t put my name to it, if it wasn’t true. I have no reason to lie.