The King Under the Car Park
Updated: Sep 28, 2022
The Richard III Society commissioned Caroline Wilkinson, Professor of Craniofacial Identification at the University of Dundee, to reconstruct the King's features from his skull. The result was this face, looking younger and less careworn than the traditional portraits with which we are familiar. A man who appears calm, determined and thoughtful. But are they also the features of a murderer?
In August, my husband and I finally undertook a trip originally booked just before the Covid outbreak. This was an organised three-day tour centered around the discovery of Richard III's remains under a Leicester Social Services car park. The tour included one lecture by medieval historian Julian Humphrys on The Wars of the Roses, plus a second by the archaelogist who had headed the car park dig, Dr Richard Buckley, entitled: The King Under the Car Park - Greyfriars, Leicester, and the search for Richard III. We were also given guided visits to the impressive Richard III Visitor Centre next to Leicester Cathedral, to the Bosworth battlefield and to the site of Fotheringhay, where Richard was born.
Richard is one of England's most notorious kings and his death at Bosworth in 1485 - the last English king to die in battle - heralded not only the start of the Tudor dynasty, but a still-continuing dispute about whether he was responsible for the murder of the two young princes in the Tower.
Hundreds of words have been written on the subject, from Sir Thomas More's History of King Richard III, written some thirty years after Bosworth, to Horace Walpole's Historic Doubts on the life and reign of Richard III, to Josephine Tey's novel, The Daughter of Time, in which a modern police detective undertakes a 'cold case' investigation into Richard's alleged crimes. As a writer who is interested in character and motivation I, too, have struggled to understand how a deeply pious man - the loyal and trusted right-hand man of his oldest brother, Edward IV, during his life and the person entrusted with the safeguarding of his young sons after his death - could change in the space of months into a man capable of murdering them.
Despite having what we now know to be scoliosis, that Richard was both brave and a skilled fighter is never questioned. From his teens onward he was in the forefront of three significant battles and at Bosworth charged Henry Tudor's position, brought down his standard bearer and killed the six-foot-eight John Cheyne standing between him and the man taking arms against him. Had his horse not been brought down, he might well have triumphed.
Richard was greatly respected in the North and introduced forward-thinking laws. Unlike Edward IV, he refused monetary gifts when making his royal progress, saying that he preferred to have the people's love. Although having two illegitimate children, probably fathered before his marriage, he was not a womaniser like Edward. So did his character change after his brother's death? Will the truth ever be known?
Some questions, like the whereabouts of Richard's remains, have finally been answered. Others, like the fate of the two princes, remain a mystery. There is evidence that Richard was far from the villain painted by Shakespeare and that certain 'facts' provided by Sir Thomas More are questionable. Yet it is also true that Richard peremptorily executed Hastings and seized the throne for himself shortly after his brother's death - and that his two nephews went missing while under his protection. But were they murdered? And, if so, by whom? One imagines that Henry VII would have made strenuous efforts to find out what happened to those boys (his wife's young brothers) and would have relished the opportunity to publish proof not only of Richard's guilt but of his unfitness to be England's king. Perhaps none could be found. Had even one of the boys lived, of course, he would have been an embarrassment to Henry and provided Yorkist sympathisers with a rallying point. Perhaps one of them did survive, but was obliged to lead a discreet existence far from the public eye.
I like to think the truth may one day come out but, until then, like Winston Churchill and Jane Austen, we must agree to disagree.
That Richard's body was discovered is due to the perseverance of amateur historian Philippa Langley who not only convinced archaeologists to undertake the dig, but raised essential funds through the Richard III Society, of which she was at the time a prominent member. Dr Buckley, in his talk, admitted that his prime expectation was that they might discover the long sought foundations of the Greyfriars church. He had so little expectation of finding Richard III's remains that he stated, should they do so, "he would eat his hat".
A photograph of Dr Buckley eating a cake shaped like a yellow hard-hat is now on display in the Visitor Centre.
I must stress that I am a writer, not a historian, but one with a fascination with Richard's life. The above thoughts should therefore not be taken too seriously.