Richard III: not as nasty as you thought?

Notebook, August 31, 2012

A car park in Leicester may be home to the last king of England to die in battle: Richard III. Last weekend archaeologists from the University of Leicester brought in heavy diggers to the city’s Greyfriars car park, which historians believe to be the site of the old Franciscan friary where the last Plantagenet was buried.

It’s an exciting time for fans of Richard III, of whom there are many, this king having societies all over the English-speaking world dedicated to softening his image. This is a little strange, considering that Gloucester was a usurper and probably had his young nephews, Edward V and his brother Richard, murdered in the Tower.

The Richard III Society originally began as an informal group of amateur historians in the 1920s. But the Ricardian movement only took off after Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film amid a general culture of historical revisionism and scepticism. Since then has there have been favourable historical novels, the latest by bestselling author Philippa Gregory, a television “trial” in which he was found not guilty and even the original Blackadder, in which Richard is a kindly uncle and Henry Tudor a scheming liar.

Best of all for Ricardians, there came proof in 1973 that a “hunchback” had been drawn on to the famous painting in the National Portrait Gallery, no doubt part of the Tudor black propaganda. Certainly no contemporary account ever mentions any deformity, at a time when a disability would be the central feature of someone’s public persona. And while two young skeletons found in the Tower in the 17th century were shown to be too young to be Henry Tudor’s doing, science has yet to prove they were the princes.

What is certainly the case is that people at the time believed Richard to be the culprit, and he was unable to disprove them by producing the boys. And yet this horrific crime seems out of character for a king who was devout and viewed as a wise and considerate lawmaker.

If Richard is rescued from a car park (a fate that has also befallen John Knox), the only questions are where he should be re-buried – would it be Westminster Abbey, where the majority of late medieval kings rest? – and whether this pious man would have a Catholic ceremony.


Even if Richard were responsible for the princes’ deaths he would be nothing like as big a villain as his great-nephew Henry VIII, who destroyed Greyfriars Abbey in Leicester in the worst episode of cultural vandalism in English history. Among the many jewels ruined was Battle Abbey, built by William the Conqueror during one of his brief spasms of guilt over the deaths of 7,000 men here in 1066.

My wife and I visited the Abbey last weekend, where I made my three-year-old daughter take part in a re-enactment for children (it will give her something to put in the misery memoirs). This was yards from the traditional spot where King Harold became the second to last English monarch to die in battle, although the last remains of this tragic figure also remain a mystery. The most likely candidate remains Holy Trinity in Bosham, Sussex, although a request 10 years ago to have the remains exhumed and tested was rejected by the Diocese of Chichester.


The English squirearchy remain the politest people on earth. Having enjoyed the hospitality of a friend’s parents we were suitably well-trained to write a thank-you note, only to receive one in return thanking us for our thank-you note. Should we respond, or will this never end?