People do weird things with dead bodies. We dress them
Richard III, the infamously villainous Yorkist king, had his body returned to his intended burial plot at Leicester Cathedral this weekend, more than 500 years after his death. So what took so long? The story of Richard’s path from battlefield death to final resting place is a fascinating one that involves car parks and Canadian DNA tests.
Richard III was born on 2 October 1452 in Northamptonshire to Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York, whose conflict with Henry VI was a primary cause of the decades-long War of the Roses. Richard’s death at Bosworth Field in 1485 marked not only the end of this war, but the end of the Middle Ages.
While there is much we do know of Richard’s life, the general perception of the king has been shaped by William Shakespeare’s version of history. For example, while it is generally believed that Richard killed his two young nephews (the “princes in the tower”), the full extent of his villainous acts has never been proven and is actually rejected by some historians. Also, Richard is known to have had a curvature of the spine, the limp and other “deformed” qualities were Shakespeare’s own liberties: an attempt to give an outward representation of his evil nature.
So how did a king end up in a parking lot in Leicester?
When Richard was killed in battle, the Tudors dragged his body from the battlefield and displayed it, naked and exposed, before burying the former king at Greyfriar’s Church. There were records of a £50 alabaster tomb bought by Henry VII, with instructions for it to be built over Richard’s grave at the church. The problem was that Greyfriar’s had been demolished under Henry VIII, and many believed Richard’s remains had been dumped into the River Soar.
Photo via BBC.
In trying to find Richard III’s remains, archaeologists used a 17th-Century map that ended up having Greyfriar’s misidentified, placed in the location of what was actually Blackfriar’s. Finally some archaeologists at the University of Leicester were able to determine where the original church had been, and in August 2012, the excavation of what was now a car park began, resulting in the discovery of a body closely resembling what we know of Richard III. The body had the expected curvature of its spine, along with a crushed skull and multiple injuries similar to the results of a violent battle.
But was this Richard?
Sure, a man with a curved spine and some battle wounds could be Richard III, but archaeologists aren’t known for settling for circumstantial data. Luckily, years earlier, historian Dr John Ashdown-Hill had traced Richard’s lineage all the way to his last living relative. After chasing many dead-end branches of the family tree, a descendant of Richard’s sister, Anne of York, was found in Canada. When the newly found parking lot discovery was tested against the Canadian DNA, it was indeed a match.
This weekend, a large ceremony in Leicester paid tribute to Richard’s return. More than 5,000 people gathered to view his coffin, with a wait of up to four hours. His body will be re-buried later this week.