Wednesday, 13 February 2013


You no doubt heard the fascinating news that the body of King Richard III has been found under a car park.   Richard was King of England for two just years until he died in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.  Because of his defeat at the hands of Henry Tudor, the subsequent King Henry VII, he was not given a proper burial, but was thrown into an unmarked grave in Greyfriars Church, conveniently demolished by Henry VIII with the dissolution of the monasteries, and thus lost for 500 years.

Through a remarkable piece of detective work, the site of Greyfriars was located under a Leicester Council car park and excavation was begun last year.  The plan was to dig three trenches across the car park and thus locate a wall of the church from which proper excavation could be undertaken.  By extraordinary luck (or skill) the first trench uncovered some bones.  By the time the rest of the work was completed, the archaeologists came back to the bones and began to realise that they had in fact found King Richard III on the first day of the dig.

Richard's body had a number of clear characteristics, not apparent in any of the remaining pictures of him.  Pictures of monarchs were of course notoriously flattering.  He was described by contemporaries as 'little of stature, ill-featured of limbs, crook-backed' and 'deformed of body ... one shoulder higher than the right'.  The skeleton displayed these sorts of deformities.  And DNA tests eventually proved beyond doubt that the skeleton was indeed his.

Whilst the physical descriptions of Richard do appear to have been accurate, what followed his death. however, was a textbook example of spin.  As well as deformed, Richard was described as 'hard-favoured of visage, devious and flattering', while planning the downfall of both his enemies and supposed friends.  This was of course Tudor propaganda.  A publication at the time, describes him as both 'a man ill-shaped, crooked-backed, lame-armed' and as 'tyrannous in authority.'  He is portrayed as a man motivated by personal ambition, who uses everyone around him to get his way.  The unconfirmed stories of him marrying for gain, taking lands and murdering the owner, and having the young Princes murdered in the Tower of London so that he could seize the throne, soon became 'fact'.  As was clear from the remains now found, Richard's body was abused and humiliated after death to demonstrate public hated and his loss of power.  

So successful was this propaganda that the Richard III character in Shakespeare's play is the main image we have of him today.  In the play, which was in fact written 100 years after his death, he was a physically deformed Machiavellian villain, describing himself as being afflicted with a curse and cheerfully committing numerous murders to gain power.  

This image persists.  But he is beginning to be viewed somewhat more benevolently today.  It was interesting to note that, in the BBC poll of some 10 years ago, Richard III was voted No 82 and Henry VIII only No 40 (but beating Boy George, who came in at No 46). The remains are now to be interred with due ceremony in Leicester Cathedral and I have no doubt more favourable propaganda 
will soon be all the rage on TV.  

What struck me most about the whole business was the difficulty of finding a descendant from whom to take a DNA sample.  You'd think it would be a straightforward task of swabbing inside the mouth of The Queen and comparing her cheek cells.  But of course the Royal line was broken with Richard's death and the Tudors, who then reigned for 150 years, were not directly related to him.  In fact the term 'Tudor' was also dropped at the time, since it only served to remind everyone of their non-aristocratic beginnings.  The nearest living descendant of Richard turned out to be Michael Ibsen, a Canadian carpenter, who was a 17th generation descendant.  Just think, in another time, he would have had a claim to the throne.

What next?  Now I think we should have a go at finding the body of King Alfred.  Alfred was King in the 9th century and is the only British monarch to be given the epithet 'Great', as in Alfred The Great.  He successfully defended his kingdom against the Viking conquest (otherwise, as someone pointed out the other day, we wouldn't now be needing the subtitles to Borgen), he encouraged education and improved the British legal system and military structure, and certainly didn't burn anyone's cakes. Incidentally, he was voted No 14 in the BBC poll.

After his death, Alfred was buried in Hyde Abbey, near Winchester, but the location of the grave was again lost, as with Richard, after the Dissolution.  A prison was later built on the site and the bones are then believed to have been scattered.  The graves (of his wife, children and others too) were certainly robbed.  Subsequent attempts to locate them failed.  But now is clearly the time to try again, probably looking under the Winchester Council car park.  I wonder who will be found to be a living descendant of Alfred.

Anyway I thought I would end with this song from The Postal Service.  You no doubt heard the recent news of the band's reforming and the release 2 days ago of their first song for 10 years.  But it was the words of this song that I thought were so appropriate to Richard III.


  1. A quite remarkable piece of detective work. I managed to miss the actual Channel 4 programme about it, but have read a couple of articles following it.

    Another highly amusing picture to illustrate your post :-))

  2. We have been hearing about it on the news here for weeks. It is a fascinating story but I don't think most Canadians give two figs about it. I am just weird. Your blogs are always so interesting. Isn't blogging a great hobby? I spend way too much time at it but at least I am not doing mindless facebook games.

    1. Not weird at all, Karyn. Who knows, after tracing King Richard back to a Canadian carpenter, you might be found to be the nearest relative of King Arthur. I agree - I'd rather write than waste my time away on games. Bridge is not just a game of course . . .

  3. Very interesting and very good piece of detective work. Our appartment block is built on a sort of graveyard. They started digging again last year and promptly found a skeleton. We have a place nearbye that was called gallows street many years ago, and the chopping block was in our village. Here is my blog about it
    The Skull

    1. Your blog was fascinating, Pat. Interesting that there are no real records of who is buried there.