The story is almost unbelievable: a king buried for five centuries under what is now a car park, identified through mtDNA analysis with the last surviving matrilineal descendants of his sister.
But it seems it’s true. Archaeologists from Leicester University have confirmed that the remains were those of Richard III, King of England from 1483 until his death at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.
The identification awaits peer-review, but assuming the identification is, as the archaeologists say, “beyond reasonable doubt”, a host of questions now arise.
The history books do not need to be rewritten – the body cannot tell us whether Richard was a “good” or a “bad” king – but what the English do next will say a great deal about their collective identity.
Surprisingly, most of Richard’s royal relations have been disinterred and reburied, often for political and dynastic reasons. Many of his ancestors lay at Westminster Abbey around the shrine of King Edward the Confessor, but following the burial of Henry V at Westminster in 1422, royal funerals were dispersed among other locations.
Richard III’s father, Richard Duke of York, was buried at Pontefract, Yorkshire following his death in 1460. Edward IV, Richard’s brother, had their father reburied in a grand ceremony in 1476 at Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire – the parish church of one of the family’s favoured residences. The ritual asserted that the elder Richard should have been recognised as king in his lifetime, shoring up the claims of Edward IV to the throne.
The Yorkist monarchs subsequently moved the body of Henry VI from its grave in Chertsey Abbey to their grand new burial ground at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Here, Edward was buried in 1483 with an incomplete monument incorporating a silver effigy.
Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty who claimed the crown on defeating Richard III in battle, returned to Westminster Abbey, building a magnificent chapel for himself following the death of his wife Elizabeth of York in 1502. This established Westminster as the preferred site of royal burials for another 250 years, although Henry VIII, was buried at Windsor.
Royal disinterments continued in the seventeenth century. Remains alleged to be those of Richard’s nephews, the infamous “Princes in the Tower”, were found in the Tower of London in the 1670s and reburied in Westminster Abbey.
But the grandest reburial of all was reserved for Mary Queen of Scots. Mary, successively Queen of France and Queen of Scotland, and would-be Queen of England, was executed by Elizabeth I in 1587 and her body buried at Peterborough.
When Mary’s son, known as James VI when he was King of Scotland and James I when he was King of England, succeeded to Elizabeth’s throne, he determined that Elizabeth and Mary would both be honoured with tombs at Westminster Abbey. Mary’s tomb – the larger of the pair – was ready in 1612, so her body was reverently exhumed and brought to London in procession by night for reburial at the Abbey. This extraordinary move attempted to rehabilitate Mary’s memory, from a disgraced queen executed as a traitor to the mother of the founder of a new British royal dynasty.
Some are already arguing that Richard III should be buried at York, in honour of his title as Duke of York, or at Westminster. Burial with his brother at Windsor, or his parents at Fotheringhay would be other possibilities.
Initial media reports suggest the outcome will be a new tomb nearby in the medieval church of St Martin’s Leicester, which has been an Anglican Cathedral since 1927. Even in this secular day and age, a royal tomb is a great asset, with only a handful of buildings outside Westminster and Windsor endowed with the resting place of an English monarch.
What kind of memorial service will be held? Should the Queen attend as Richard’s heir? Should the service be one fit for a king complete with heralds, politicians, and bishops?
Richard died a generation before the Reformation; should the service be Anglican or Catholic? Or is a multi-faith service more appropriate to the 21st century?
Will there be more, disturbing, disinterments to confirm Richard’s identity, or to solve other puzzles such as the veracity of the remains of the “Princes in the Tower” at Westminster?
The way monarchs are commemorated through the manipulation of bodies and tombs tells us a great deal about power and authority in ages past.
Whatever happens, the fate of Richard’s remains reveal a great deal more about how the English think about themselves, their monarchy, and their place in the contemporary world, than they will about the reign of England’s most infamous monarch.
More than a hunch: identifying Richard III with DNA – Jane Devenish-Meares, The Conversation