The death of a British monarch is a very big event. Thousands of people may take part in the funeral and procession, with millions more lining up to pay their respects and billions more watching on television.
This didn’t always use to be the case, however.
In particular, there was one English King who not only didn’t get an elaborate funeral, no one knew exactly where his body was for over 500 years.
Learn more about the body of King Richard III and how it was lost and then discovered on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
If you were to create a list of the greatest monarchs in British history, Richard III would probably be very close to the bottom of the list.
For starters, he seized the throne in one of the most underhanded ways possible. If you remember back to my episode on the Prices in the Tower, in 1483, Richard had his nephews, the 13-year-old King Edward V, and his 9-year-old brother, Richard the Duke of York, sent to the Tower of London.
Richard was the regent for the young king, a position he was entrusted to by his brother, King Edward IV.
The boys eventually just disappeared in the tower, never to be heard from again. Richard created some trumped-up charges about how Edward V and his brother were illegitimate and had himself crowned king.
While no one knows exactly what happened to the boys, pretty much everyone assumes that Richard had them killed as he had the most to gain.
It goes without saying that killing children is not a great look when you are starting a new reign as king. There were many English aristocrats who supported Edward V and looked at Richard III very unfavorably.
Not surprisingly, soon after Richard was crowned, he faced an uprising known as Buckingham’s Rebellion, named after the Duke of Buckingham, who was one of its leaders.
Buckingham supported the claim of Henry Tudor to the crown. Henry was the nephew of Henry VI. Henry VI had been fighting Edward IV for the crown in a civil war known as the War of the Roses.
The ascension of Richard as king and the support of Henry Tudor was just the latest wrinkle in this conflict.
This all came to a head, and the War of the Roses came to an end on August 22, 1485, at the Battle of Bosworth Field, a little more than two years after Richard took the crown.
Richard was killed in battle, becoming the last British Monarch to do so. According to legend, he was struck in the head with a halberd by a Welshman by the name of Rhys ap Thomas. Supposedly the blow was so hard that Richard’s helmet was driven into his skull.
Richard was 32 years old.
After the battle, his naked corpse was dragged by a horse to the nearby town of Leicester, where it was strung up in a local church. Afterward, it was discretely buried without fanfare in the nearby Greyfriars Priory. In particular, he was buried in the choir.
The victor, now King Henry VII, paid for a marble monument to mark his grave as befitting his position as king.
So far, so good. He was king, he died and was buried, and there was even a nice little monument for him.
History, mainly through the works of William Shakespeare, hasn’t been kind to Richard III. He has been painted as a villain, a reputation which was well earned. However, Shakespeare also painted a physical picture of a man which significant physical deformities. In particular, Shakespeare claimed he had a hunch back, walked with a limp, and had a withered arm.
These physical deformities were highlighted by Shakespeare to provide an analog to his moral failings.
Where this story really begins in the reign of Henry VII’s son, Henry VIII. He banned the Catholic Church, and through a process known as the Dissolution of the monasteries, Henry VIII had most of the monasteries in England destroyed.
This included the Greyfriars Priory in Leicester.
In 1538, Greyfriars was completely destroyed and leveled. This included the monument to Richard III.
The plot of land it sat on was subdivided, and over the course of centuries, several different buildings were built on the site.
Supposedly, one of the owners of the property did erect a very simple stone on the site of the grave in 1612, which said, “Here lies the Body of Richard III, Some Time King of England.” However, that stone eventually vanished.
The burial site of Richard III was simply forgotten. Some said that his body was exhumed and thrown into the river when Greyfriars was destroyed.
However, the more likely story was that Richard remained right where he was originally buried, it was just that now there was other stuff on top of it.
Fast forward to the 21st Century.
A group known as the Richard III Society wanted to rehabilitate the reputation of the long-maligned king. They felt that Richard’s reputation was painted by the Tudors and their supporters after Richard lost the war for political purposes.
The Richard III society was actually formed in 1924, and the members call themselves Ricardians.
In 2004, a British writer by the name of Philippa Langley was in Leicester. She was walking around a parking lot for a social services building which was believed to be the site of the former Greyfriars Priory.
Her attention turned from writing about the life of Richard III to writing about his death and burial.
The reason why Philippa Langley was walking around the Leicester City Council’s car park was that it had been identified by several Ricardians as the possible resting place of Richard. An article published in 1975 and another in 1986 both pointed to this spot.
As interesting as the idea was, there was no real push actually to try and find the body.
This is important because mitochondrial DNA is only passed by women, even men. That means they could compare the mitochondrial DNA of these living female descendants to identify the remains of Richard III, should his remains ever be found.
This led to the the Looking for Richard project. The goal of which was “to search for, recover and rebury his mortal remains with the honour, dignity and respect so conspicuously denied following his death at the battle of Bosworth.”
The project quickly gained the support of the Richard III society, the Leicester City Council, the University of Leicester, and the Leicester Cathedral.
In 2011, a more formal study of the car park was conducted with the University of Leicester Archeology Department to try to narrow down where the exact spot might be. This included the use of ground penetrating radar.
They identified three spots where they thought they should dig. Two were in the car park, and one was in a nearby playground.
Almost everyone in the project felt that the odds of them finding the body were low. This was their first attempt at excavation for the body, and there was a good chance they wouldn’t even find the remains of the church.
The first spot they were going to dig was in a parking spot that had the letter “R” painted on the ground. R is the initial used for kings and queens, so Elizabeth II signed her name Elizabeth R.
The “R” in this case just meant that the parking spot was reserved.
On August 25, 2012, digging began.
Normally with this sort of story, I would tell you how this was the start of a multiyear search for Richard’s body. I would tell you how archeologists would suffer many setbacks and frustrations before finally stumbling upon the discovery of a lifetime.
That is not what happened.
On the first trench they dug, on the very first day, they found the remains of a man in his 30s.
The skull of the man suffered severe trauma. The spine of the man was in an “s” shape showing severe scoliosis. The position of the head and the arms indicated that the body was buried quickly.
Other artifacts found in the trench confirmed that this was the Greyfriars Priory, and in particular, the choir.
The remains were exhumed so they could be studied.
On February 4, 2013, a team at the University of Leicester announced their findings. All of the evidence, including radiocarbon dating, DNA analysis, the consistency of the wounds, and the surrounding artifacts, led them to conclude that these were the remains of King Richard III.
The big question now was, “what do they do with the remains?”
The Ricardians wanted him buried in York Minster, aka the York Cathedral. The descendants of Richard, if that even holds any weight 500 years after the fact, also wanted him buried in York Minster.
York Minister didn’t want anything to do with the remains of Richard.
The royal family was consulted, and the Queen also didn’t want anything to do it and rejected the idea of a full royal burial.
Others suggested Westminster Abbey in London, and others suggested a Catholic church would be more appropriate as Richard was catholic and died before Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church.
It was debated in parliament and all over the media.
Eventually, the courts got involved, and the decision was made that he would be buried in Leicester Cathedral. This was consistent with British law, which required any Christian remains found in an archeological dig to be reburied in the nearest consecrated ground to the dig site.
In March 2015, the reburial took place. For three days, Richard’s coffin lay in state where it could be viewed by the public. There were lines up to four hours long to pay respects.
The burial service took place on March 26. It was shown on live TV and had several dignitaries present. A poem was read by one of Richard’s distant relatives Benedict Cumberbatch, who actually played Richard III on TV the next year.
The royal family was represented by the Dutchess of Wessex and by the Duke and Dutches of Glouster, which was the title held by Richard before he was king.
The service was explicitly not a funeral, as it was considered to have already occurred during his first burial.
Today, you can visit the tomb of Richard at the Leicester Cathedral. The discovery of Richard’s corpse and its reburial has been great for the city of Leicester. There is now a Richard III visitor center that tells the king’s story and discovery of his remains. It is located where the car park was where the body was found.
With the discovery of Richard’s remains, the only English king that doesn’t have an identifiable grave is Henry I. He is buried somewhere in Reading Abbey, but the exact spot isn’t known. A similar project has been proposed to find his remains.
Richard Buckley of the University of Leicester Archaeological Services said he would eat his hat if the remains of Richard were found. He honored his promise by eating a hat-shaped cake.
He also probably best summarized the entire saga of Richard III. He said,
“…it is, of course, an incredible story. He’s a controversial figure; people love the idea he was found under a car park; the whole thing unfolded in the most amazing way. You couldn’t make it up.”
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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Tntmom left a comment on the Football, Soccer, and Rugby episode and said, I’m a huge fan of American Football and coached a few seasons of grade school soccer when my daughter was younger. We often teased each other over which one was true football. This episode is really interesting. Thanks for the brief history.
It is my pleasure tntmom. I always like tossing in a few episodes on sports, just to keep things interesting.
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