I was recently invited to submit a summary of the news media surrounding the search for and discovery of King Richard III by the chief editor of the Midwest World History Association’s online journal, the Middle Ground. I happily complied, and the following is what I wrote, summarized from the numerous links I have posted on this blog’s Facebook page. Please note that I have deliberately left out any real personal commentary. I will be musing on that later. 🙂
In other exciting blog happenings, I will be soon creating an archived page of news media and additional resources for Richard III. I followed this entire search with great eagerness, not necessarily because I hope his nasty reputation is exonerated but because he is such a controversial and fascinating figure. I will leave it up to my readers to create their own informed opinions. I am here simply to supply links and information to the best of my ability.
“Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant [discuss at length] on mine own deformity;
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”
-William Shakespeare, Richard II, 1.1.1
“Richard the third son…was…little of stature, ill-featured of limbs, crook-backed, his left shoulder much higher than his right, hard-favored of visage…in other manner otherwise, he was malicious, wrathful, envious…”
-Sir Thomas More, The History of Richard the Third
These sixteenth-century pieces of literature from two prominent English authors set the stage for one of the most notorious people in history, King Richard III of England. Richard, duke of Gloucester (1452-1485), was the third son of Richard Plantagenet, duke of York, and the formidable Cecily Neville. The duke of York was the most senior male member of the York branch of the Plantagenet family who was kin to the ruling Lancastrian family. The head of this family was King Henry VI, a monarch with a weak and malleable personality. By the time young Richard was three years of age, the two rival branches of the royal family became embroiled in a civil war spanning the next thirty years.
Both branches claimed descent from among the five sons of King Edward III (1312-1377). When Edward III’s eldest line ended with the death of his grandson Richard II in 1400, another grandson, Henry Bolingbroke (son of Edward III’s third son) usurped the throne. It is through this line that the Lancastrian line through Henry VI originated. Richard of York’s family was descended from the second and fourth sons which meant York had a “stronger claim” to the English throne.
The young duke of Gloucester’s elder brother Edward deposed Henry VI and became King Edward IV in 1461. Over the next ten years, the throne exchanged hands twice more until Edward IV had his Lancastrian cousin murdered. Edward ruled until 1483 when he died after succumbing to an illness. Gloucester was named regent until Edward’s eldest son reached the age of majority when he could reign in his own stead. In a move that still raises a few eyebrows today, Richard then usurped his nephew’s throne. Young Edward V and his brother Richard of York subsequently disappeared from history soon after Gloucester’s ascension to the throne.
Fierce controversy continues to this day about what happened to the “Princes in the Tower”. The last time the young princes were seen was in the Tower of London. Workers found the remains of two small bodies during the seventeenth century which were then reburied in Westminster Abbey. It has been forensically determined that the bodies were those of two boys aged similarly to the Princes, but they have not been conclusively identified. Even greater a mystery is who had them murdered (if that is indeed what happened). Richard III is typically the suspect though Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII, is another.
This notoriety associated with the king made the recent search for, and ultimate discovery of, his body all the more interesting. Richard was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in August 1485, the final battle of the so-called War of the Roses. In addition to being the last Plantagenet king, Richard was also the last English king to die in battle on British soil. After his death, his body was unceremoniously thrown into a grave at Grey Friars Church in Leicester, England. His life and death still attracted the attention of people well into the twenty-first century.
In August of 2012, a group of people assembled to try to find the body of Richard III. Representatives from the University of Leicester, the Leicester City Council, and the Richard III Society joined forces to try to discover the location of the old church and to use contemporary sources to locate the location of Richard’s body. Richard III Society member, Philippa Langley indicated that this dig would be both of great historical and modern significance.
“This archaeological work offers a golden opportunity to learn more about medieval Leicester as well as about Richard III’s last resting place – and, if he is found, to re-inter his remains with proper solemnity in Leicester Cathedral. A filmed record will be made of the entire historic project.” (1)
The first two weeks of the dig proved very fruitful. The archaeological team under the direction of Richard Buckley of the University of Leicester Archaeological Services determined the location of the medieval Grey Friars church, the eastern cloister walk, and the chapter house after removing a portion of a car park (the British term for parking lot). Originally scheduled for two weeks, the Mayor of Leicester extended the dig by a week due to the overwhelming show of interest from the public.
The most exciting news came on September 12, 2012 when archaeologists announced that they had discovered skeletal remains of a male with spinal deformities and a cloven head. Remains of a woman were also uncovered, but the male remains garnered more attention since they bore a striking resemblance to the historical anecdotes concerning Richard’s appearance.
The question then turned to the identity of the skeleton. In order to determine if the remains were indeed Richard III, the archaeologists needed a sample of DNA to compare with the body’s. Fortunately for everyone involved, a seventeenth-generation descendant of Richard’s eldest sister provided the much-desired DNA. Historian Dr. John Ashdown-Hill linked Canadian-born Michael Ibsen and his two siblings to the Plantagenets back in 2005 when researching the location of the Gray Friars Church. The University officially declared the discovery of Richard III on Monday, February 4, 2013 after a series of scientific tests.
The skeleton’s finding and subsequent pronouncement as Richard III has ignited a myriad of emotions. Ibsen was “shocked and startled” after the initial dig uncovered the bones. A furious debate rages about the location of Richard’s interment. Some claim Richard should be laid to rest in Leicester Cathedral because his body was found there. Others maintain Richard’s dying wish was to be buried in York, a city with a historical love for the monarch. A compromise may have been reached where Richard’s body will lay in state at York Minster and then be transported back to Leicester. Additional debates consider whether Richard should be buried in a tomb or under a stone slab and what importance this archaeological find will have on people’s perceptions of the king and on his own life. These will continue to be debated for the foreseeable future, and perhaps history indeed may be rewritten.)
(1) HeritageDaily, “Historic search for King Richard III begins in Leicester,” HeritageDaily, 27 August 2012. http://www.heritagedaily.com/2012/08/historic-search-for-king-richard-iii-begins-in-leicester/ (accessed 1 April 2013)