Day 973: Richard III’s Weird Goodbye

originally published August 30, 2014

A depressingly small amount of great historical tales end up in a parking lot. In the case of Richard III, King of England and the final monarch of the Plantagenet dynasty, that’s exactly where the conclusion was written. A public parking lot – probably the kind of place where young lovers searched for a way across home plate, where despondent laid-off businessmen wept in their Saabs before going home to their families, and where illicit exchanges of cash for drugs no doubt peppered the veil of darkness.

It’s an unlikely closing chapter for a king who spent his final day in a gruesome battle for control of the throne in what would be the blood-splattered climax of the War of the Roses. But deceased winners get sent to the unknown in a flourish of pageantry; the dead on the other side get swept beneath the planetary carpet and forgotten about. And the guy who was in charge of the losing side? It’s fair game for that poor schlub.

The fate of Richard III endured the typical kaleidoscope of historical record, branching out in luminous tales of colorful desecration and mesmerizing hyperbole. But the truth? The real truth? Grab a shovel, move that Miata out of the way and let’s do some digging.

Back in the days before leaders conscripted the poor to fight their battles, Richard III wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. The War of the Roses had been raging for four decades, with the House of Lancaster yearning to snag the crown away from the House of York. Richard was new to the throne, having acted as Lord Protector for his 12-year-old nephew, Edward V until 1483 when it was decided that Edward was just not up to kinging. There was skepticism about Richard: why did Edward and his younger brother disappear suddenly? Why did Richard’s wife die under mysterious circumstances? Was Richard involved?

On the Lancaster side, Henry VII was hoping to take the royal seat at the head of the table. The two men were present on the battlefield during the Battle of Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485, but Richard never lived to see how it ended. The story goes that Sir Rhys ap Thomas delivered the fatal blow, after which Richard was stripped naked, hauled to Leicester and displayed for two days as an example of what cruddy kingery can do to a guy.

What happened next is the big mystery. He was tucked into the ground beneath the Franciscan Friary, and Henry VII paid for a monument to mark the grave. Over time the grave either decayed or was destroyed. One story tells of Richard’s body being exhumed and hurled into the River Soar, his coffin being sold to a local innkeeper for use as a horse trough. Eventually the monastery was leveled, and the land turned into a garden owned by Robert Herrick, the mayor of Leicester. At this point there was no marker left to point to the grave.

Time danced its shuffling steps, and the city modernized. Numerous graves were found when houses went up, and a school was built. An office building was constructed, and the Leicester City Council moved in to call the place home in 1965. The area that was once Robert Herrick’s garden was paved over and turned into a parking lot. Then in 2007, a single-story building on the property was torn down, which gave archeologists the opportunity to do a little digging. This is where things got interesting.

Dr. John Ashdown-Hill, who probably doesn’t always wear that funky hat, tracked down two 17th-generation matrilineal descendants (that’s through the mother’s side) of Richard III’s sister, Anne of York. He felt that if they could dig around and unearth some old bones, perhaps modern DNA testing could confirm the results. In 2009, a woman named Philippa Langley, who worked with the Scottish branch of the Richard III Society (yes, there is such a thing), teamed up with Dr. Hill in hopes of making a kick-ass TV special. If they found Richard III’s bones, it would be a hit. If not, it would be Geraldo digging up Al Capone’s vault. Either way, it’d be watched.

Using ground-penetrating radar, a team tried to pinpoint where exactly the friary had been located. They narrowed it down to two parking lots and an unused school playground. It didn’t take long to get results. Two leg bones were uncovered on August 25, 2012 – the day after they’d started digging. They continued digging to the southwest and uncovered some medieval walls and rooms, as well as a few other bodies. They also learned that the area where the first body had been unearthed was probably the eastern wing of the church where Richard III would have been stashed.

It was looking good. The rest of the body was revealed and brought in for analysis. Definitely an adult male with severe scoliosis, with what looked like an arrowhead in the spine and some severe skull injuries. They weren’t ready to call it a win yet through – they wanted conclusive proof.

Joy Ibsen, one of the maternal descendants who could be linked to Richard III, died in 2008. Her son was instead called upon to provide the DNA swab for testing. It was enough – a DNA match was found between the younger Ibsen, another unnamed maternal-line descendant and the bones under the Leicester parking lot. Further testing would be done, but it looked like a fairly solid bet that they’d found the missing king.

As for the condition of the bones, it appeared that the cause of death was a couple of blows to the head by a well-aimed weapon. There were other injuries as well, but a number of them were written off as “humiliation injuries” inflicted after the king’s death. There was no indication of a shriveled arm, such as the one ascribed to Richard in Shakespeare’s biographical play. But the scoliosis was quite severe, and it’s certainly believable that the specifics of any deformity may have been twisted through the gossiping yammer-mill of history.

Not that the research team was 100% finished with their testing. Radiocarbon dating suggested the body had died at least 25 years earlier than Richard, though mass spectrometry produced evidence that the body had consumed a fair amount of seafood back in the day, which is known to distort the results of carbon-dating. Heads were crammed together and doubts were eventually put to rest. For the purposes of the official record, this was the king.

What to do with the kingly remains was yet another controversy. The Mayor of Leicester said the bones would leave his district “over my dead body.” Some felt the king should be in Westminster Abbey, alongside 17 other English/British kings. Others felt he should be buried at York Minster, where Richard apparently had wanted to be tucked away after his death. The current royal family expressed no opinion. The Leicester crowd won – Richard III now sits beneath a sacred monument in Leicester Cathedral. Much nicer digs than under the parking lot.

It’s hard to fathom how much of a big deal this was to English folks – we North Americans have no basis for comparison. This really shook up the populace; Richard Buckley of the University of Leicester Archeological Services said he’d “eat his hat” if they actually found the body – when they did, he did just that. Well, he ate a hat-shaped cake. The pussy.

There are a lot of other historical mysteries out there, waiting to be discovered. Next time you swing by your local Walmart, it’s worth taking a moment to pause and wonder if there might be something earth-shatteringly important underneath that display of Sham-Wows.. History loves hilarious endings.

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