On Sunday week, August 19th, the customary commemoration of the Battle of Bosworth will take place in Leicestershire. It’s one of those very English events: a military re-enactment and an (approximately) medieval-themed market - this would be a good place to upgrade your chainmail or stock up on axe heads - preceded by a service in Sutton Cheney church, where King Richard prayed before the battle. Some people attend every year, a pilgrimage that perplexes those who confuse Richard III with Laurence Olivier’s portrayal of him. Why commemorate evil incarnate, they wonder? And after 527 years, who cares?
I have several reasons for promoting the cause of King Richard. First there’s an element of vicarious atonement for the harm a writer can do. Our negative image of Richard was shaped largely by Shakespeare. Well, he had his reasons. He knew what would play well with the audience. Then there’s the fact that Richard’s death on Bosworth Field was a key moment in English history. It marked the end of the Cousins’ War, as the War of the Roses was then known, and heralded the rise of the Tudors including, eventually, regrettably, Henry VIII. That moment, in a muddy Leicestershire field, changed everything.
Principally though, I feel a local loyalty to Richard. I grew up in Leicester, a city that has, or at least had, many Ricardian connections. Richard slept in Leicester the night before the battle. One legend says the quick-thinking innkeeper of the Blue Boar changed its name to the White Boar on hearing the Yorkists were looking for a billet. According to another, more credible version, the inn was originally the White Boar, niftily repainted blue when news of Richard’s defeat reached Leicester. I certainly remember a Blue Boar Inn on Southgate Street in the 1950s. It was a Victorian building but built close to the site of the original. Don’t look for it today. It was demolished to make way for the Southgates underpass.
That Richard’s body, stripped, trussed and thrown over a horse, was brought back to Leicester after the battle is well-established. It’s also fairly certain his body was displayed in the now long-gone Church of the Annunciation in the Newarke, close to Leicester Castle, and then taken away by the Grey Friars to be buried ‘without ceremony’ in their priory chapel. The Grey Friars were doomed of course, when Henry VIII went into the roof lead recycling business. Their monastery was destroyed and its land built on. In the early 17th century Robert Herrick’s uncle had a house there, with a stone in his garden that marked where King Richard lay, but house, garden and stone have disappeared, and the whereabouts of the tomb has been lost to posterity. There is a story that the grave was opened and the King’s bones thrown into the River Soar, but I have never been convinced by it. Richard was an anointed king and Leicester had no reason to treat his remains so spitefully.
So most likely his dust still lies in Leicester city centre, somewhere beneath the disappeared footprint of the Greyfriars’ Priory. On the rare occasions I return to my home town I always walk the neighbourhood where King Richard was buried: Southgate Street, Peacock Lane, Greyfriars, Friar Lane. I feel sure he’s in there somewhere, perhaps beneath a car park.
Richard was the last English king to die in battle, his reputation was worked over to great theatrical effect, and yet he is one of our very few monarchs to have no known grave. I commend to you the work of the Richard III Society which does so much to deal fairly with his reputation and to keep his memory alive.
Laurie Graham's latest book is A Humble Companion. Read a review HERE and find out more about her at her at lauriegraham.com