He has become one of our most celebrated literary villains: a power-crazed child-killer, struck down by bloody nemesis at Bosworth. Shakespeare’s Richard III is a murderous hunchback, twisted both inside and out by the deformity that repels his peers. But while this spectacular character assassination plays fast and loose with historical events, Shakespeare’s monster is merely the fullest flowering of a Tudor drive to discredit the last Plantagenet king. This victor’s history has proven so effective that controversy rages to this day about almost every aspect of the man behind the myth, right down to the true nature – if any – of his famous disability.
Richard III’s short reign ran from 1483 to 1485. Appointed Lord Protector of the 12-year-old son of Edward IV following the king’s death, Richard was soon on the throne himself. After Edward IV’s marriage was declared invalid, Richard’s coronation followed on 6 July 1483. It proved a controversial start to a controversial reign. Dogged by accusations that he had murdered the princes – Edward IV’s sons – in the Tower of London, and facing political unrest, Richard proved unable to consolidate his grip on power. Instead, on 22 August 1485 his army was defeated by Henry Tudor’s at Bosworth Field, west of Leicester. Killed during the battle, Richard III became the last English king to fall in combat.
It is recorded that after the battle Richard was ‘brought dead off the field unto the town of Leicester, and there was laid openly, that every man might see and look upon him’. What happened next is less clear. Many myths have grown up about the fate of Richard’s body, including a tradition that it was hurled off Bow Bridge into the River Soar. In around 1490, however, John Rous noted that Richard ‘finally was buried in the choir of the Friars Minor [Greyfriars] at Leicester’. Further Tudor sources also name Greyfriars, while a sum of £10 1s drawn from Henry VII’s household accounts in September 1495 seemingly paid for Richard’s tomb there. Locating the friary – and in particular its church choir – seemed a promising start for any attempt to find his body.
Finding the friary
Founded by the Franciscans in 1230, Leicester Greyfriars was one of the first friaries built in England, but it suffered the same fate as many above The Soar River in Leicester. One tradition, dating back to at least the 18th century, was that Richard III’s body was unceremoniously dumped into the channel.
Main Image This is believed to be the earliest surviving portrait of Richard III. Executed within about 25 years of his death, it was probably based on a lost original painted during the king’s lifetime.
| Issue 272
H: Carly photo other religious buildings during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. In the years following its suppression in 1538, the friary was plundered for building materials – recycled in numerous local construction projects and repairs to nearby St Martin’s church. Over time its precise location was lost. When the Richard III Society approached Richard Buckley of the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) about the possibility of an excavation to find the friary’s church – and Richard III’s grave site – it seemed a long shot. Historic mapping suggested that the most likely location for the religious complex was now covered by modern redevelopment, with just one accessible area: a small car park behind the buildings of Leicester City Council. With no guarantee the body had survived the Dissolution – if it had ever been there – Richard Buckley summed up the odds by offering to eat his hat if they found the missing monarch. But as there had never been an archaeological investigation of the site, the project seemed like an opportunity to examine the friary itself.
www.archaeology.co.uk | current archaeology