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
Ah, Shakespeare not only knew wat would play well,he was living in the reign of Henry Tudor's granddaughter. ;-) and in his time the only information came from the winning side. All the same, his Richard manages to get the audience on side for at least the first part of the play. Shakespeare just wasn't capable of creating a two dimensional villain. I've never visited Leicester or anywhere else connected with Richard unless you count York itself, where I had my photo taken wearing a hand knitted jumper with Richard's boar on it. Maybe next time I visit Britain. I did become a member of the Richard III Society after reading Daughter of Time.
It's rather sad that the most decent character in this story is the one whose reputation suffered. :-(
Great post! What a terrible shame that that stone-in-the-garden was lost... And there's been a recent relocation of the place where Bosworth experts think the battle took place too, hasn't there?
You're right, Harriet, and the archaeologists have uncovered an amazing haul of evidence.
Really? How fascinating. I must dig around online to find details...
Sue, I'm glad you mentioned Josephine Tey's lovely 'Daughter of Time' - it swayed me from Shakespeare's depiction of Richard III too. (So much so that I now refuse to read or watch the play!)
I remember learning about the Wars of the Roses at school and even at that young age being baffled that Richard III had supposedly killed his nephews.
I remember being taken to my grandfather's premises - a beautiful timbered building in Southgate Street - to see it before it was demolished for the underpass. What a lot of secrets must indeed be hidden in the rubble.
I don't think Leicester's been treated well by the planners. I did my PGCE there in the 70s, and assumed that the main shopping area must have gone up as a result of war damage. I was amazed to be told that the old centre had been destroyed on purpose!
Thank you Laurie for this brilliant post. I'm a Richardian and it's all due to The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey and The Sunne In Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman. Those novels made me go back and search the history books and come out with a totally different view of him. According to Annette Carson's biography of Richard, his remains now lie beneath the private car park of the Department of Social Services!
Excellent post! Thanks!
Brilliant reminder of two good novels - and how a strong fictional depiction or interpretation ends up dominating most popular response.
"Beneath a car park" sounds like an urban gangster ending. Maybe that's what those brutal 60's city planners were?
Actually, Michele, I heard about Daughter Of Time from my English teacher the year we studied the Shakespeare play, which I still love as fiction, so you might say I joined because I studied Shakespeare. You can have a sense of humour about these things; I remember sitting with other members of the RIII Society watching The Tower Of London with Vincent Price. While the others were bristling with indignation, my two friends and I were rolling around laughing; it was so awful it was good.
Poor Richard under a car park! Can't they let the archaeologists dig it up?
Although aware of Richard's evil reputation, I'd never worked through Shakespeare's play. I heard Daughter of Time when it was serialised on Radio 4 Extra (when it was still Radio 7) and was so impressed I sought out the book to read it for myself. Thank you ladies for a magnificent article and follow-up.
I saw Mark Rylance as Richard III at Shakespeare's Globe a few weeks ago. My first ever Shakespeare production and I have to say it was amazing. Seeing those words come alive, you're rooting for Richard all through the play, no matter how dispicable he gets. Rylance played him with such humor and flair. Loved it.
Thank you Laurie, always good to hear a word in favour of Richard III. I too first became interested after reading Ms Tey's book. But if any one person should take the blame for the 'monster' Richard it should be Sir Thomas More - indirectly Shax's source. However, perhaps even More can be forgiven - his book was probably written to entertain friends and not published in his lifetime - and, already as mentioned, regime change must be the main factor.
The car park theory has proved to be correct. Awesome.
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