The Wars of the Roses Refought over Richard III’s Re-burial

As anyone watching the news, reading the press or visiting social forums will know, the discovery of Richard III’s remains under a car-park in Leicester last year has sparked a war of words as bitterly waged as any medieval battle. Practically from the moment his skeleton was unearthed, the tides of invective began to flow. An early target was Philippa Langley, a long-standing member of the Richard III Society whose years of research, lobbying and fund-raising had enabled the excavation project to go ahead in the first place. ‘Only in it to big herself up and get on TV,’ sniffed some folk of Ms Langley’s painstaking historical detective work. Hmm… is that the rank whiff of sour grapes I smell? Me, I think she deserves a medal for her efforts and the contribution she’s made to Ricardian history.

Worse was to come when the vexed question of where to re-inter the king’s remains arose. The poor Dean of York and President of the Richard III Society received abusive communications from the pro-York camp simply for trying to take a neutral, objective stance on the issue. The Chief Executive of the American Richard III Foundation was derided for her passionate advocacy of York because ‘what’s it got to do with Yanks, anyway?’ The Richard III Society was accused of Machiavellian plotting, cover-ups and withholding information from members. The motives of many individuals concerned with the project, including the Mayor of Leicester, were publicly impugned in such terms that it’s a wonder nobody ended up in court for slander or libel. Venom has dripped from the pages of Facebook and sundry news sites. Altogether, it hasn’t been pretty – and frankly, I’m amazed I’ve escaped the vitriol after some of the stuff I’ve blogged on here.

But now, at last, someone has effectively presented the case for a York re-burial. Yes – in the latest Ricardian Bulletin, (journal of the Richard III Society), David Johnson lays out the reasoning in a well-researched, eloquent letter mercifully free from the inaccuracies and hysterical over-statements that have bedevilled the arguments of some other York supporters.

I might challenge his statement that there is an ‘overwhelming public view that Richard should be laid to rest in [York] Minster’. It depends on the public you’re asking. The Plantagenet Alliance’s on-line petition for a Parliamentary debate on the matter closed with 31,260 names – almost 70,000 short of the 100,000 it needed; another petition for a York re-burial closed with 31,340 names – I’d call that distinctly under-whelming. Meanwhile a rival petition for Richard III to remain in Leicester has 33,247 signatories with three days left yet to run… so I think it’s fairer to say that public opinion is divided.

Otherwise, David Johnson’s letter is highly persuasive. It draws on the Privy Seal Register and Fabric Rolls of York Minster to argue that Richard III’s intention to found a college for 100 chantry priests, with six altars erected within the Minster for their use, parallels his brother Edward IV’s creation of St George’s Chapel at Windsor, and for the same reason – to make a new royal mausoleum. That the sources contain no mention of a tomb, or plans for a chapel to house a tomb, can be explained by the fact that the project was still in its infancy at the time of King Richard’s death.

It’s the best justification I’ve yet seen, and Johnson may well be right that if Richard III had lived out his full span, he would have expected to lie in York Minster. However, one problem is that it still doesn’t prove this was the case; we’re still second-guessing the intentions of someone who died over 500 years ago. And what might those intentions have been on the eve of Bosworth? Richard had the advantage, the ordnance and the larger army of home-grown soldiers to pit against Henry Tudor’s Welshmen and foreigners. I assume he expected to win, kill his rival and hang on to his crown; but it would seem strange if a soldier so experienced in the uncertain fortunes of war hadn’t at least considered the alternatives: that the battle might be indecisive, leaving them both alive to re-group and continue the campaign; or that he would himself die, if not on the field then later, as a defeated captive.

What then of his posthumous fate? Could he trust a new regime to honour his last wishes, if he made them explicit – or to take spiteful pleasure in thwarting them? To what degree, under those circumstances, did Richard III actually care what became of his body, beyond a conventional hope that it would lie in consecrated ground rather than in a mass pit on the battlefield? If he made a will, or issued any form of instruction, it either has not survived or has not yet been found. If he did not, what does that say about his state of mind – that he was sublimely over-confident of victory? That he didn’t want to ‘tempt fate’? Or that if he could not live as King of England, he was not greatly concerned about anything else?

David Johnson ends his letter by saying, ‘one assertion we can make with absolute certainty is that Richard III never chose to be buried in Leicester’. Or can we? It may not have been a positive choice, but one by default; he may have assumed that, in the event of his death, he would end up in a nearby village churchyard (like Lord Dacre of Gilsland, killed at Towton and buried in Saxton) – or in the nearest major settlement to Bosworth…

Of course, I don’t know – but the point is, nobody knows, conjecture as we will. The only things I am certain of is that the battle for Richard III will go on, ironically fought by larger armies than he or any other king could have commanded at the time; and that whether the decision goes with Leicester Cathedral or York Minster, I’ll be shedding no tears (except a few for Richard himself) – I’m just too pleased that he’s going to get a proper tomb somewhere, at last.

15 thoughts on “The Wars of the Roses Refought over Richard III’s Re-burial

  1. Yes, Helen Philippa definitly does deserve a medal for getting this off the ground.
    Sadly though the Society has not come out of this blame free – how can they be neutral when they are supposed to be for King Richard? It is hardly neutral when Mr Stone openly advocates Leicester and is involved with their marketing plans.
    The Leicester petition can be proved to have been conducted in a highly suspect way…. people making multiple signatures [false email addresses] misleading the public outside York minster etc etc…. I suspect that most people who have signed are not really sure who KRlll is – they have just been given coupons etc in newspapers, hassled outside football stadiums.
    Mr Johnson is only re-iterating what loyal, sensible but passionate Ricardians have been saying from Day One – none of the false ramblings and outlandish claims from Leicester but documented facts and proven sources linking Richard with York. Does it actually matter whether Richard left a will? Just reading about his life makes it obvious where he should lie in peace for eternity and forever be in the place he CHOSE to be when possible – to forever feel the wind in his hair, the sun on his face and hear the call of his hawks as he gallops over the hills he loved……. and not lie in the place he was betrayed and treasonably killed, brutally humiliated and thrown into a hole not even big enough – with his hands still tied. Left there, unloved, unlooked for until a way of making money for the regeneration of the town centre was needed.

    • Depends on your viewpoint: I think it’s possible to be ‘for’ King Richard without necessarily agreeing that he should be re-buried in York, (for which there’s a highly persuasive case but no absolute proof that this was his wish at the time of his death). As to the rival petitions, this cuts both ways: I expect some people have signed the York petition in the mistaken belief that Richard, Anne Neville and/or Prince Edward were variously born/raised/died/buried there, thanks to misleading stuff that’s come out in the media. Sad, really – there’s no need to exaggerate Richard’s Yorkshire credentials when the documented facts bespeak them well enough. And as for Leicester making money out of him: although I appreciate that financial exploitation seems distasteful, the mayor, councillors and heritage officers wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t fight their city’s corner and eagerly embrace an unprecedented chance to improve local fortunes. The same will go for York, if he’s buried there; it’s inevitable that publicity will be generated, and money made from the people (I’ll be one of them!) who visit his tomb. Maybe it’s because I started out as an archaeologist then spent years working in cash-strapped local authorities/the wider heritage profession – but despite my own feelings about Richard, I can see and sympathise with other sides in this whole argument.

    • “The Leicester petition can be proved to have been conducted in a highly suspect way…. people making multiple signatures [false email addresses] misleading the public outside York minster etc etc….”

      Then prove it. Don’t just accuse Di, if that is the case then you have the right to expose.

      If not, retract that comment or be seen as a malicious rumour monger.

      Your call.

      • Fair challenge, Neil. I’d welcome proof anyone has of abuses on either petition, and the extent to which they have/haven’t occurred. Although I don’t condone the practice, it raises further interesting questions – and I’d be fascinated to see how far some folk of whichever persuasion are prepared to go to try and sway the issue.

      • I can prove it…. When I have time I will post it on here. I didn’t,t think to at the time……. There are screen shots of people boasting on face book of what they have done and there are photos on twitter of some idiot outside York minster…..

      • tsk, tsk – thanks, Dianne. i’d be interested in the links, if you’d like to post them – or if you don’t want to give the individuals concerned further publicity, perhaps you could pm me?

  2. Great post pointing out the absolute superfluity of the venom that’s been brought to this discussion.

    I’m a professional historian / professor, and in grad school one learns about Ricardians … well, then I started blogging about Richard Armitage, who’s been a party of interest on the side in all of this, and the very first time I ventured to express a professional opinion about something (after weeks of research, I might add) what I wrote got jumped on in the most belligerent terms — I am a twenty-year veteran of conferences and academic infighting and I’ve never been subjected to that kind of thing. It makes everyone look bad, which is unfortunate, because this hate seems to be spread in the name of someone everyone involved claims to love and honor.

    • thanks, Servetus. I’ve been very saddened by it, at a time when there’s so much to celebrate and be grateful for. I’m all for robust debate, and I understand how passionately many people feel about the issues (I’m pretty passionate about Richard myself). But you’re right – the intensely vicious and personal attacks all this has generated do no-one any favours… and some of the inaccurate or unsubstantiated claims made do no favours to history, either.

  3. Pingback: King Richard III in Print | King Richard Armitage

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  5. A well-argued, honest and objective assessment, Helen. It’s good to see someone in Yorkshire taking a balanced view of matters. However, I disagree completely with your view of David Johnson’s paper which I thought was just cherry-picking evidence to support an a priori argument (more detail on my blog: As with so much else in the pro-York lobby, the principal basis of Johnson’s argument is the documentation of Richard’s undoubted connections with York while ignoring his connections with Durham, Nottingham, Leicester, Tunbridge Wells, Gloucester and all the many other places where he said and did things.

    Dianne Penn’s comment above is sadly typical of the spurious claims made in favour of York and against Leicester, citing all manner of things which can be ‘proven’ or are ‘obvious’ but not actually offering any evidence.

    Also, a point of accuracy: the petition with 31,340 names is the same petition that had 31,260 names: the number increases slightly after closure due to the two-stage voting process.

    • Ooh – thank you for those useful comments and link – I’ll certainly check your blog out! I’m familiar with some of Richard’s religious works elsewhere, like his founding of the college at Middleham St Akelda’s – but know little of his associations with the other places you mention, and am always glad of a chance to learn more. Thanks also for the clarification on the petition numbers.

  6. I don’t claim to know a lot about Richard iii but I do have a few questions and some fairly basic things to point out.
    Why would King Richard want to be re-buried in the Lancastrian capital, Leicester? Wasn’t he fighting the Lancastrians at Bosworth, and subsequently bludgeoned to death by them?
    From what I’ve read, his remains were found under a carpark with a pathetic ‘R’ on the space almost above where he was found, is this the best Leicester could do to honor his grave site?
    Richard iii was a Yorkist, he spent every spare moment there, he grew up at Middleham Castle so shouldn’t he be returned to York? Just because he happened to die in a battlefield in or near Leicester, and be taken to a nearby convenient location to be dumped in an unworthy grave doesn’t necessarily lay claim to him being re-buried there. The Leicester people say that he’s been there for 500 years and should be returned there…they didn’t even know for sure he was there so how about York have their turn?
    I’ve read a lot of posts and comments from the Leicester people viciously and negatively portraying Phillipa Langely, shame on you!

    One more thing to point out. Richard iii’s descendants are rallying the public to raise funds to fight this because they truly believe Richard had many strong links to York. Has there ever been anything strong enough linking him to Leicester that would show he would WANT to be buried there?
    Just curious.

    • In fairness to Leicester, the car-park with the ‘R’ on it was just a weird coincidence – Richard was buried in a church destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries and the site subsequently lost (like Alfred the Great’s grave). Alas, in the absence of a will, we don’t have any direct evidence about where he did or didn’t want to be buried… although at the time it was quite common to inter battle dead, even important people, close to the site of their demise. And Richard III’s links to Yorkshire/the north as a whole were a lot stronger than any specific links to York – a city in which, as far as I know, he didn’t spend an unusual amount of time either as Duke of Gloucester or King…

    • I am with you there SARAH! But to be fair, the ‘R’ was just to denote a reserved parking space!
      Richard did spend a LOT of time in Yorkshire and being as the Minster is the main Cathedral in Yorkshire, it IS the place for Richard. He was after all ‘Lord of the North’ for twelve years and ‘only’ King for not quite three.

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