A history lesson, or: The 500-year-old case of a missing royal

I hadn’t realized until now that they never found King Richard III of England’s body after his gory death at the Battle of Bosworth Field — though it’s something I ought to have known, since I did know historians were fighting over just how deformed he was, a question that could be settled easily if we had his remains.

Well, it appears we have them now. Archaeologists found the skeleton of a man with a twisted spine and a nasty wound in the skull buried at a car park in Leicester, beneath the floor of a 500-year-old church:

[Archaeologists] Foxhall and Appleby point out that they have nothing but circumstantial evidence – but say it is “very, very strong circumstantial evidence”.

“We have a grown man, buried in a position of great honour near the altar in the church but without much in the way of ceremony, with a twisted spine and a terrible battle injury – he didn’t get that walking home drunk from the pub,” says Appleby.

The Telegraph has published a report, albeit unconfirmed, that DNA has proven the remains were Richard III’s and he will buried with the ceremony befitting a king, possibly at Leicester Cathedral. Though the official announcement hasn’t been made yet, if this guy ISN’T Richard I’d be very surprised.

This is a very exciting find for history buffs like me, comparable to when they found the bodies of the missing Anastasia and Alexei Romanov after 90 years. Except Richard’s been gone for a lot longer — since the 1400s.

I admit I don’t know an awful lot about the guy. I do know he’s a very controversial figure in English history. He was definitely a usurper and had his nephews, the rightful heirs to the throne, declared illegitimate and locked up in the Tower of London. Richard III was appointed their Lord Protector after the death of their father, but it seems he didn’t do a good job protecting them: the two boys, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, vanished mysteriously around 1483 and were presumed murdered. A lot of people believe it was on Richard’s orders. He certainly had a great deal to gain from their deaths, and I think it’s telling that when, in his lifetime, when people accused him of being a child murderer, he didn’t produce the Princes alive to prove them wrong. If he was truly innocent, that seems like the most logical thing he could have done.

But there’s no conclusive evidence one way or another. Royal pretenders kept popping up for quite some time, claiming to be one or the other of the missing boys. In the 1670s they found the bodies of two boys about the right age buried in the Tower, but I don’t think it was ever officially confirmed that they were the Princes.

Anyway, Richard III has been hated ever since and the image most people have of him is an evil, deformed hunchbacked man. His reign lasted only two years before he was killed in battle, his naked body slung on the back of a horse and carried ignominiously away. I’ve read that he was an able administrator and had other talents, and might have redeemed himself somewhat if his reign had been longer and given people a chance to forget about the whole Princes in the Tower thing. There are a couple of historical groups that are trying to rehabilitate his reputation. These societies argue, among other things, that the Princes in the Tower were probably killed by Richard’s successor, Henry VII (who married the Princes’ sister Elizabeth), or Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham.

Assuming he did killed the Princes (and I think he probably did), Richard III was hardly the first or the last person who would slaughter his way through the line of succession in order to assume the throne. Cleopatra, for example, had her half-sister Arsinoë murdered because she got in the way, and Arsinoë may have been as young as 15 at the time.

So, well, finding Richard III’s body is an archaeologist’s wet dream and it’s quite a Christmas present for me as well. Carry on.

8 thoughts on “A history lesson, or: The 500-year-old case of a missing royal

  1. libraryjobber December 25, 2012 / 1:24 pm

    Richard was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485.

    • Meaghan December 25, 2012 / 1:32 pm

      Oh, duh. I knew that. Really, I did. *smacks self* Will fix.

  2. Crystal December 25, 2012 / 8:47 pm

    Just a couple of things: Richard was never accused of the murder of the Princes while he was living, so it is not as if he was accused and then failed to produce them alive to confound his accusers. There was a narrow window between the supposed last sighting of the princes and Richard’s death in battle.

    Another thing to consider is that Richard could have easily brought about the death of the Princes and then said they died of disease (all too common, especially for children) and had their bodies displayed in state. Then everyone would know they were dead and there would be no danger of pretenders popping up in the future. (Richard had seen this done before when his own brother, Edward IV, ordered the murder of King Henry in the tower and then had him publically displayed). If he had them killed, he failed to take this crucial step. Richard was far from stupid and was politically savvy, so why would he contrive the deaths of the Princes in a way that would be the most disadvantageous to himself?

    Also, all surviving accounts from those who actually met Richard neglect to mention a hump on his back or a twisted arm. He was also a renowned battle commander, and it would be unlikely that he could have physically fought in so many battles with a severe deformity. Did he have something like moderate scoliosis? Maybe.

    One last thing: during the reign of Henry V!! there were many pretenders to the throne claiming to be the Princes. Henry had to go to great trouble to rid himself of them over the years. If he knew his predecessor to be guilty of the murder of the real Princes, why didn’t he just say so?

    • Meaghan December 26, 2012 / 12:01 am

      I have read from several sources that he was in fact accused (not formally of course) of killing the princes while he was alive. I wonder, if he killed them, whether it was planned out properly or whether he realized, in the aftermath, that it was a mistake — or perhaps that it was done by his lieutenants in a sort of Thomas Beckett “who will rid me of this meddlesome priest” mixup.

      My father has scoliosis. It was never treated and now it can’t be. It’s at the point where when he lies flat on his back, his head cannot touch the ground. I don’t really notice it, having lived with the guy my whole life, though I suppose other people do. I would not call it anything so serious as a deformity but I guess that’s all in the eyes of the beholder. I’m betting Richard had something like that — and now we’ll know for sure. It says the skeleton they found had a twisted spine.

      As for Henry VII, I know he had trouble with royal pretenders. I wrote about the execution of one of them. (Another was made a spit-turner in the royal kitchens and eventually rose to the position of falconer.) As far as I know the official story he gave out was that the Princes were dead, having been murdered by his predecessor. Obviously he couldn’t prove it, and 500 years later we won’t be able to do any better, but it’s certainly great fuel for armchair debates.

      I was never all that interested in the Yorkists or Lancastrians. I tried to read Alison Weir’s book about Richard III and the Princes in the Tower but gave up on it. I’m a Tudor girl.

  3. Crystal December 25, 2012 / 8:49 pm

    Sorry! I meant Henry VII, not V!!. I guess this is an exciting topic!

  4. Crystal December 26, 2012 / 8:28 am

    I have always felt that Richard could have ordered the murder of the Princes (if they were indeed murdered). He was a product of his time, after all, and royal murders were nothing new. I certainly don’t absolve him of the possibility that he was behind their disapperance.

    I just never saw the point of him keeping the deaths a secret. There would be nothing to gain by killing Edward’s sons if no one knew for sure they were dead. Richard would have known this.

    Well, we’ll never know. Too bad as I’d love to know for sure!

    • Meaghan December 26, 2012 / 9:44 am

      You do make an interesting point about not keeping their deaths a secret.

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