The discovery of Richard III's skeletal remains has become what you might call a bone of contention between Leicester and York, two cities whose rivalry had previously been confined to cricket matches. Recently, though, with bones found in a shallow grave under a parking lot in Leicester being positively identified as those of the last King of the House of York, the City of York has traded its batting glove for a gauntlet, which it has thrown down with a vengeance.
For those not familiar with what a Telegraph editorial gushed as being "one of the most dramatic archaeological discoveries of modern times," the exhumation of Richard III came about in August of last year, after a team of University of Leicester archaeologists found a human skeleton on the first day they began work on a dig, initiated by the Richard III Society, in a council car park.
His skeletal remains.
Lest you should think the team was working on a "hunch," there was strong evidence before the dig got underway that the site was the place of Richard's grave. That evidence was provided by Sir Christopher Wren's father, whose written records of a visit he'd paid in 1612 to the Mayor of Leicester, Robert Herrick, included mention of a "stone pillar" he'd seen in the Alderman's garden. A pillar which, according to Wren Senior's records, bore the inscription, "Here lies the body of Richard III sometime King of England." Ee, by gum, there's no flies on us Northerners!
Revealing his curved spine.
It turns out that after being defeated in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth, Richard was buried in the monastic community of Greyfriars in Leicester, and a decade later Henry VII paid £50 for a marble and alabaster monument to mark the grave. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the late 1530s by Henry VIII, Greyfriars was demolished and the monument destroyed. It was re-erected in the early 1600s by Herrick, who purchased the land on which Greyfriars had stood to build a large mansion house with an adjoining garden, in which the three-foot pillar was built.
Herrick's descendants sold the mansion house and garden in 1711, and by the mid-1800s the pillar was no longer visible. Eventually, around 1870, the mansion house was pulled down to make way for the municipal buildings. Herrick's garden, or wasteland, as it had by then become, remained intact until 1940, when it was tarmacked over to become a car park for Leicester City Council employees.
Screenwriter Philippa Langley.
Fast forward to a hot summer's day in 2009, when screenwriter and secretary of the Scottish branch of the Richard III Society Philippa Langley was visiting Leicester in a quest to find out the most likely site of Richard's interment for a documentary she wanted to make called Looking for Richard: In Search of a King. As part of her research Langley visited the car park and immediately got goose bumps. On a subsequent visit, she noticed a small white "R" painted on the exact same spot where she'd previously got the chills. Although the "R" stood for "reserved," Langley took it as a sign that she was indeed walking on Richard III's grave and her mission intensified.
The tenacious Langley obtained permission from Leicester City Council, commissioned a dig by University of Leicester Archaeological Services, and when funding fell through at the last minute, managed to raise £13,000 in just two weeks from her fellow "Ricardians," whose purpose is to reclaim the reputation of the 500-year-old King.
"R" marked the spot!
Formed in 1924, the Richard III Society believes that Shakespeare might have been more than a little prone to exaggeration in his depiction of the nasty scheming hunchback. According to Shakespeare, Richard III was a ruthless tyrant who killed or was instrumental in the deaths of 12 people, including his uncle, his brother, his nephews, his wife, and his right-hand man. Shakespeare might not have been historically correct in his portrayal, but to his credit he has managed to keep Richard in the public eye for over 400 years. Sort of like a reverse spin doctor. Even though Richard might have been egging Shakespeare on from the grave to "say what he like about him as long as he said something," Richard's supporters are determined to set the record straight and strip away the spin.
The revelation of an intact skeleton appearing to show scoliosis of the spine and displaying signs of a fatal, slicing blow to the head with a piece of rusted iron lodged in its vertebrae, proved evidence enough for the archeologists to conduct extensive carbon-dating and DNA tests. The results, along with other historical, scientific, and archaeological evidence, were revealed on February 4th of this year, when the University of Leicester publically announced that the skeleton had been positively identified as that of the Plantagenet King, Richard III. A day later the battle lines were drawn.
Monk Bar location
of The Richard III
Museum in York.
Historians called for a state funeral and reinternment at Westminster Abbey alongside 17 other British monarchs, while those in York demanded that the only northern King be returned to his "spiritual home" and be buried at York Minster. The people of York have a good case; not only was Richard known as Richard of York before his coronation, he grew up at Middleham Castle in the Yorkshire Dales, and during his two-year monarchy was a frequent visitor to the gated-walled city. Yorkshire is even home to the world's only Richard III Museum, a Richard III Hotel, and a Yorkshire-made Richard III Wensleydale cheese, which is something decidedly not to be sniffed at.
Possession, however, is nine-tenths of the law, and as such the Ministry of Justice who issued the exhumation license says "finders keepers" and argues that Richard's remains should be buried in Leicester. Preparations have, in fact, already begun for burial in 2014 at Leicester Cathedral, a stone's throw from the car park in which the remains were discovered.
Richard III's skull.
Yorkshiremen are a stubborn breed, however, and the York City Council's online petition to return Richard's remains to York totaled 23,000 at the last count. Backing them up are nine of Richard's direct descendants, who say they believe that's what the King would have wanted.
As the various parties continue to compete, one has to wonder if the manipulative protagonist of Shakespeare's play is once again working his charms. Let the Battle for the Bones begin.