Last Monday, February 4th, medieval history made big news when the University of Leicester announced that remains that had been found buried under a car park in 2012 were, without a doubt, those of King Richard III. History nerds around the world rejoiced! Jokes abounded and internet memes went viral in celebration.
But who exactly was Richard III? If you found yourself muddling along, pretending you understood the significance of this discovery but really not having a clue, well, today’s your lucky day.
Richard III was the last of the Yorkist kings of England and the last of the Plantagenet line. His death at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 represented not only the end of the War of the Roses, but is widely considered to be the end of the Middle Ages in England. He was succeeded by the man who defeated him, Henry VII, the first Tudor king and father to the great Henry VIII.
Okay, you say, but what made Richard III so important? Who was this man really? And why the heck did no one know where he was buried for over 500 years if he was the king of England when he died?
To understand that, you have to take a look at the War of the Roses and the tumult of the throne of England in the 1400s. So in the tiniest nutshell possible, leaving out great huge swaths of complicated history….
It all started in the 1300s with Edward III. Edward was a powerful king. Edward also had 13 legitimate children, including 5 sons. To satisfy them all as they came of age, he created the dukedoms of Cornwall, Clarence, Lancaster, York and Gloucester. These dukedoms and the men who claimed the titles became ridiculously powerful. Edward III was supposed to be succeeded by his son Edward, the Black Prince, but the Black Prince predeceased him. So when Edward III died the throne of England went to his grandson, Richard II, who was nine years old.
Nine year olds generally don’t make great monarchs. This was true for Richard II even when he grew up a little. It didn’t help that everyone that he named as his heir kept dying. Richard’s cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, son of Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt, who had been in exile, saw Richard II’s weakness and returned to England to claim his title of Duke of Lancaster. Henry had the support of the nobles and eventually deposed Richard II to become Henry IV.
You’ve probably heard of his son, Henry V. But similarly to Edward III, Henry V died suddenly, leaving a 9 month old Henry VI king. If you thought 9 year olds made bad kings, try being ruled by a 9 month old! To top that off, as he grew older it became apparent that Henry VI suffered from bouts of mental illness. So real control of the kingdom of England fell in and out of the hands of a series of ambitious dukes who called themselves protectors.
The Tudor Rose crest, which combines the red rose of the House of Lancaster and the white rose of the House of York
Henry VI’s branch of the family, thanks to his grandfather, Henry IV, was the Lancastrian branch of the Plantagenet family. The most powerful of the “protectors” of England during Henry VI’s bouts of mental illness was Richard, the Duke of York. Richard didn’t get along very well with Henry VI’s power-hungry queen, Margaret of Anjou, who was determined to see her line continue on the throne of England. By 1455, actual war had broken out between these two factions, the Lancastrians and the Yorkists.
Battles were fought. Blood was spilled on both sides. Mass amounts of history happened. Finally, Richard of York’s son, Edward, defeated Henry VI (and Margaret) and was crowned Edward IV. Which was all well and good until Henry VI won back the throne for a short time. But only a short time. Edward IV was able to regain the throne permanently.
In 1483 Edward IV died. And yep, once again England was left with a minor as king. Edward V was only 12 when he ascended the throne. Edward IV’s brother, Richard (hint, hint), son of the same Richard, Duke of York, who had been protector of the throne under Henry VI and helped Edward VI to come to the throne, very generously offered to take care of his brother’s children, young King Edward and his younger brother Richard.
And take care of them he did! Young Edward and Richard were moved into the Tower of London for safe keeping … and disappeared. To this day no one knows what exactly happened to them.
Poor Uncle Richard was devastated, of course. So devastated that he had himself crowned Richard III on June 26, 1483. Yes, folks, this is our Richard III of parking lot fame.
Richard III was so ruthless and vengeful that Machiavelli himself would have been proud. He deceived and murdered his way to the throne, and once he had it, all hell broke loose. As early as October of 1483 there was a rebellion by the supporters of Edward IV. Richard managed to put that one down.
In August 1485 there was another rebellion, led by Henry Tudor and his uncle, Jasper Tudor. Henry Tudor was a Lancastrian by descent, tracing his lineage back to John of Gaunt. Richard wasn’t so lucky this time. He met the forces of Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth Field. After declaring that he would give his kingdom for a horse (or so Shakespeare says), he was killed in action on August 22, 1485.
So why was he buried under a parking lot? And how come no one knew he was there?
Richard III died in disgrace, an unpopular, usurping monarch defeated by a rebel with a legitimate claim to the throne. Henry Tudor, Henry VII, was determined to bring an end to the civil war and stress of succession. He had Richard III buried quickly and without ceremony at a tiny monastic community of Greyfriars in Leicester. He then went on to marry Elizabeth of York, uniting the two warring houses.
A portion of the dig site where Richard III’s remains were found – Wikicommons, attr RobinLeicester
The monastery of Greyfriars was dissolved and demolished in 1530. Since no one had ever made a big deal about Richard III being buried there, the final resting place of the miserable monarch shifted to other uses and was eventually forgotten. There were records of where Richard III was buried, but the actual sight was lost to time. Until some intrepid archeologists went looking for it in 2012.
And voila! There he was! Thanks to radiocarbon dating, reconstructing what the face on the skull they found would have looked like and matching it to portraits of Richard III, and good old fashioned DNA analysis with modern descendants of Richard’s family, scientist and archeologists were able to identify the remains of the nasty king beyond a shadow of a doubt. And history nerds everywhere rejoiced!
Richard III’s remains are set to be interred at Leicester Cathedral at some point in 2104. I dunno though. Do you think a man who was so dastardly deserves to be buried with that kind of pomp and circumstance? Is 500 years enough to forgive a man for the crimes Richard committed?