AN ASTONISHING DISCOVERY
“King Richard III is one of the most maligned characters in English history. Shakespeare portrayed him as an evil scheming hunchback who murdered his own nephews. Every English student knows Laurence Olivier’s gruesome depiction of him in the 1955 classic film. In recent years however, historians have begun to revise their opinions, and an astonishing discovery last summer has reawakened widespread interest in the man and his life. Rather than revealing a wicked tyrant, fresh research seems to show he was a brave, dutiful young man, and a devout Catholic with links to the Franciscan Greyfriars.
Richard, the last of the Plantagenets, had one of the shortest reigns in English history. Killed, aged 32, at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, which left the way clear for Henry VII to take power, it seems he was hurriedly buried in a Franciscan church in Leicester. Known as the Church of the Greyfriars, the structure was completely destroyed 50 years later at the Reformation. While the true whereabouts of his grave was forgotten, rumours spread that his body had been dug up and thrown into a river. From the time of his death, the Tudor propaganda machine began spreading defamatory stories about him that echo to the present day.
A POPULAR LEADER
Not everyone, however, was convinced of these. There is a good deal of contemporary evidence to show that he was a just and popular leader. Cambridge University bravely held a Requiem Mass for him for about 80 years after his death. The Richard III Society have held annual Requiem Masses for him since the 1920s. The Society has long campaigned to restore his reputation, and searched for years to discover where he was buried. Last August, an archaeological excavation by the University of Leicester, discovered the location of a Franciscan Friary (on Friary Street!) in Leicester, under a car park. Philippa Langley from the Society was convinced Richard was there. Amazingly, in the first trench they dug, a skeleton was discovered. ‘It’s almost as if he wanted us to find him,’ said Philippa.
The bones were those of a man about 30 years old. His spine showed signs of a quite severe spinal scoliosis (curved spine), which doctors think would have begun when he was about 12. They said it might not have been very visible if someone was clothed, but it could have been quite painful. There was also evidence of a number of battle injuries, including a large gash on his skull which was probably the blow that killed him.
On 4 February 2013, the University of Leicester confirmed that the skeleton was beyond reasonable doubt that of Richard III. This conclusion was based on mitochondrial DNA evidence; historian Dr. John Ashdown-Hill discovered it was an exact match to a living descendant of the king’s sister; soil analysis, and dental tests. The physical characteristics of the skeleton were also highly consistent with contemporary accounts of Richard’s appearance.
Philippa Langley said, ‘When Richard fell in the battle, he was stripped naked and his scoliosis became known and was used to denigrate him. Today, we find the idea of using physical disability against a person as abhorrent. Let this now be a break from the Tudor medieval mindset.’
On 5 February, Professor Caroline Wilkinson of the University of Dundee constructed a forensic facial reconstruction of Richard, based on 3D mappings of his skull. It bears a strong resemblance to a contemporary painting of him. She described the face as warm, young, earnest and rather serious.’
Following the discovery, the Mayor of Leicester announced that the king’s skeleton would be re-interred at Leicester (Anglican) Cathedral in early 2014, and by the same date a Richard III museum will be opened in the Victorian school buildings next to the grave site.
While campaigners welcome plans for the museum many are also calling for the last of the Plantagenet Kings to be given a Catholic funeral and burial.
A petition has now been set up, which reads: ‘The remains of Richard III have been discovered and exhumed. The suggestion is that he will be buried in Leicester Cathedral. However, it seems wholly inappropriate and disrespectful to bury the former Monarch in the grounds of a church of which he never was a member, and which was created by the son of the man responsible for his death and ingnominious burial. I am not petitioning on religious or sectarian grounds, but I believe the dead of any persuasion have a right to be interred in a place appropriate to their beliefs.’ To see the petition go to: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/38533
Dr Ashdown-Hill said, ‘Having played a major role in the recovery of Richard III’s remains (by finding the living DNA link which proved his identity, and as a Catholic who, for many years organised annual Requiem Masses for Richard III and his family, I’d like to support the idea that Richard’s remains should now be given a Catholic reburial. He was a sincerely religious man, and I believe this is what he would have wanted.’
Richard III appears to have had links with the Franciscans. Dr. Ashdown-Hill said, ‘We don’t know why he was buried at the Franciscan friary in Leicester. There were many religious houses there at the time. We don’t know if they were asked or offered to take him. But we know historically that the friary did support his family’s cause. We know Richard III had a Franciscan Friar as his chaplain.
‘Another thing which is intriguing, is that Richard’s sister, Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, chose to be buried in the Franciscan Friary at Michelin in Belgium. Her instructions were rather strange. She asked to be buried under the steps leading to the choir. This is exactly where we found Richard III at the Friary in Leicester – under steps leading to the choir.’
Dr. Ashdown-Hill doubted that the story of Richard III killing his nephews (the Princes in the Tower) is true. The Princes in the Tower were Edward V of England and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York. Then 12 and 9 years old, they were lodged in the Tower of London by Richard himself, who was then the Lord Protector, the Duke of Gloucester. This was supposed to be in preparation for Edward V’s coronation as king. After Richard became king, it is assumed that they were murdered. This may have occurred some time around 1483, but apart from their disappearance, the only evidence is circumstantial.
However, the historian added, ‘There were many other people who would have benefited from their deaths, and the case for their being murdered at all is very shaky. There are accounts of a physician visiting the Tower, and there are also medieval records of Edward (the eldest child) dying of an illness.’
Dr. Ashdown-Hill continued, ‘Richard III’s name has been blackened. But it is completely overlooked that the man who took the crown from him, Henry VII, systematically killed all his opponents.’
The historian went on to say, ‘Richard and his wife Anna were devout Catholics. They gave many chantry endowements (prayers for the dead). They endowed King’s College and Queens’ College at Cambridge University. Richard planned the establishment of a large chantry chapel in York Minster, with over 100 priests.’
Dr. John Ashdown-Hill, author of ‘The Last Days of Richard III’, revealed other fascinating details, ‘Richard’s prayerbook is at Lambeth Palace in London (the headquarters of the Archbishop of Canterbury). Many people had these beautiful illuminated Books of Hours – often they were like a modern coffee table book to browse into occasionally. But Richard III’s is not like that. He has added little prayers and notes of his own. That shows that he didn’t just have one, but that he used it. It’s interesting the way it has survived. Contemporary records say a prayerbook was found in his tent at the Battle of Bosworth. They say it was given to his sister Margaret. The one at Lambeth Palace has her name on it. So it’s likely that’s the one he used before the battle. It is also said that he owned a Bible in English. His sister was also very devout and, like her brother, a reformer aswell.’
In his short reign, Richard achieved a number of progressive reforms. In 1483 he instituted what later became known as the Court of Requests, a court to which people who could not afford legal representation could apply for their grievances to be heard. He also introduced bail in January 1484 to protect suspected felons from imprisonment before trial and to protect their property from seizure during this time. He banned restrictionson the printing and the sale of books, and ordered the translation of written Laws and Statutes from the traditional French into English.
Philippa Langley is a writer and is currently working on a film script on the life of Richard III. Dr. Ashdown-Hill is writing a book about Richard’s sister Margaret, and he is also investigating the story of the Princes in the Tower. The scholar concluded, ‘What we have achieved is not the end. As a historian I’m concerned about finding the truth and respecting people’s reputations.'”
– This article by Josephine Siedlecka entitled “Villain or Hero?” was published in “Messenger of Saint Anthony”, issue May 2013. To subscribe, please contact: Messenger of Saint Anthony, Basilica del Santo, via Orto Botanico 11, 35123 Padua, Italy