As in his life, so in his death, and now even in his rediscovery, Richard III generates speculation, investigation, and controversy. A research team comprising historians, geneticists, and archaeologists at the University of Leicester has announced that a skeleton found on the site of what used to be Greyfriars Priory in Leicester is that of the last Plantagenet king of England and the last English king — so far — to die in battle, in Richard III’s case at Bosworth Field in 1485. That Richard III is, perhaps deliberately, vilified throughout William Shakespeare’s eponymous tragedy is well enough known, and the skeleton shows the scoliosis for which he was noted, though the condition was less serious than the play and other documents suggest it was. This Plantagenet, however, certainly attracted considerable opprobrium in his insecure and blood-soaked times, and was all but accused of usurping the crown after the death of his elder brother, Edward IV. In addition, he probably made yet more enemies by being a capable administrator and lawgiver who tried to clean up official corruption.

Richard III was killed by a violent halberd blow behind his left ear, and his body was treated with contempt by the army of Henry Tudor, the victor at Bosworth, who then became King Henry VII; by some accounts, Richard was stripped naked. The bones also reveal wounds inflicted after his death, one a stab in his buttocks; his hands and feet were tied, and, “sprinkled in mire and blood”, he was thrown across the back of a horse for transportation to his burial. Although he was interred in a priory, the humiliations continued; there is sign neither of coffin nor shroud, and he may have been buried naked. Even his grave was not long enough, and his head was forced sideways against one end of it. The controversy around him, nevertheless, does not cease. Leicester Council has opened an exhibition and plans a visitors’ centre after he is reburied in Leicester Cathedral. The Ministry of Justice exhumation licence requires local reburial, but as Richard grew up in what is now North Yorkshire, York Council wants him back; expected tourism revenues are probably part of the thinking on both sides. Even the reburial could raise a theological problem; there will probably be an Anglican ceremony, but Richard III died nearly 50 years before the Church of England was founded, and nearly 90 years before the Anglican and Catholic churches separated. In addition, tourist revenues might have to go towards a gigantic parking fine, as suggested on Twitter, because the remains were found underneath a car park in Leicester. The late king stirs up trouble, and possibly even farce, from beyond his cramped grave.


‘Lost king’ found in car parkFebruary 4, 2013

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