Richard III’s Remains – York, Leicester or Somewhere Else?

Richard III Oil on Panel Late 16th Century

King Richard III by an unknown artist late 16th Century. Oil on panel on display in room 1 in the National Portrait Gallery

On Monday 4th February 2013 the Greyfriers skeleton which was exhumed several months earlier from a car park in Leicester was officially identified as that of Richard III King of England. Richard III had been buried in the small monastic community of Greyfriers in Leicester. It was known that Henry VII who defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 paid £50 for a monument to be placed over Richards grave.

Local legend had it however that during the dissolution of the monasteries Richards body was exhumed and thrown into the River Soar while his coffin was sold to an Inn Keeper as a horse trough! Some locals however still believed that the body was buried in Leicester. The land once occupied by the Greyfriers Monastery was developed over the intervening years since the dissolution and is now Local Council offices.

Greyfriars Leicester site

The dotted brown line indicates the area identified in 1920 as the extent of the Greyfriars grounds. The University of Leicester 2012 dig positioned the Church, Chapter House, Cloisters and monastic buildings as the pink area shown, with a black dot indicating the location of the grave which contained the remains of Richard III.

Using old maps and previous work to identify the location of the monastery a team from Leicester University identified land suitable for excavation in 2012. Their plan was to dig a number of trenches and hopefully intersect a wall of the monastery. From this they could work out where the choir was which is where Richard was said to be buried.

Amazingly the first trench immediately unearthed two leg bones; these were part of the Greyfriers skeleton which was ultimately identified as the remains of Richard III!

Richard III burial site

Richard III’s Burial Site, Trench 1

 

A barrage of tests were performed on the skeleton including radio carbon dating, DNA tests and cross referencing with historical accounts to prove beyond reasonable doubt that these were Richard III’s remains.

During the press conference announcing the findings, Sir Peter Soulsby, mayor of Leicester announced that the king’s skeleton would be reinterred at Leicester Cathedral in early 2014. Almost immediately rival claims to Richards remains erupted. Many people believe York should be the natural resting place for Richard whereas Leicester believes Richard should stay in the city he was first buried in over 500 years ago. Other potential claimants are Westminster Abbey where Richard’s wife, Anne Neville is buried, Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire where Richard was born and Worksop which is halfway between York and Leicester.

I think it’s unlikely that Richard will end up in Westminster Abbey and the Abbey itself has made no formal proposal for burial and neither has Fortheringhay. The Labour MP for Bassetlaw suggested Worksop but I doubt anyone has taken him seriously. The two cities with a credible claim I believe are York and Leicester.

York

York Minster

Stained glass windows at York Minster

Richard had close connections to York and Yorkshire, having spent much of his youth living at Middleham Castle in Wensleydale. King Richard visited York several times during his short reign, and stayed for three weeks in 1483. He planned to build an enormous chantry chapel at the Minster where 100 additional chaplains would pray for his soul. It’s believed he even planned to be buried at York Minster, breaking with the tradition of English monarchs being laid to rest at Westminster Abbey. The day after the Battle of Bosworth the Mayor’s Serjeant of the Mace reported in York

“King Richard, late mercifully reigning over us, was through great treason . . . piteously slain and murdered, to the great heaviness of this city”.

Richard has remained a popular figure in York and the Richard III Museum occupies the Monk Bar Gatehouse which was extended in 1484 by Richard himself.

Leicester

Leicester Cathedral

Leicester Cathedral

Where York may have the stronger moral claim to Richards remains Leicester perhaps have the stronger legal claim. The terms of the exhumation licence means that Richards remains must be reinterred as close to the discovery site as possible unless a legal challenge against it is mounted. Conveniently Leicester Cathedral is only 100 meters from where Richard was discovered. Leicester also point out that the Greyfriers monks claimed his body after the battle and gave him a religious burial which should still be respected. Whether it gives weight to Leicester’s claim or not it is worth noting the excellent work done by the team from Leicester University and the co-operation of the city council.

It is unlikely that this issue will be resolved any time soon and it is possible that a legal challenge will arise delaying the planned internment of Richards Remains in Leicester Cathedral. Only two days after the announcement thousands of people have already signed a petition calling for Richard III to be reinterred at York Minster and things could get even more complicated if Westminster Abbey wades in on the argument.

9 thoughts on “Richard III’s Remains – York, Leicester or Somewhere Else?

  1. I would think the last place he would wish to be buried is Leicester – the friars may have claimed the body, but hardly gave him a burial appropriate for a King. And what has Leicester done in the last 500 years apart from build a car park over the grave? I would support either York on the grounds of his connection with the city and Minster or Westminster alongside his wife. There’s also St. George’s Chapel at Windsor – that’s where his brother, Edward IV is. The legalities may point to Leicester, but we are talking about a King of England here – so let other considerations prevail.

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