When Richard III’s skeleton was discovered, with its distinctive curved spine, all that archeologist Richard Buckley could think was “No way.” © University of Leicester/Rex
On a recent windblown afternoon I went to meet a doctor called Phil Stone at London’s Victoria Station. Stone is in his late sixties and works as a consultant radiologist in Faversham. Since 2002, he has also been the Chairman of the Richard III Society, a historical organisation devoted to restoring the reputation of England’s most infamous King. Since the discovery of Richard’s skeleton in a council-owned car park in Leicester last year, the society has almost doubled in size, to 4,200 members, and stands as one of the chief symbols of the strange power that a monarch who ruled 530 years ago continues to exert on our national imagination.
Finding Richard’s bones was a triumph for the society. The dig was inspired and masterminded by the secretary of its Scottish branch, a screenwriter called Philippa Langley, and throughout the search Stone acted as her mentor. At one point he stepped in with his own savings to rescue the project, and at another he helped Langley put out a worldwide appeal to Ricardians—as Richard III enthusiasts are known—which raised a critical £17,000 to cover about half of the cost of the two-week excavation in the summer of 2012. In the maelstrom of publicity that followed, Stone got used to drafting press releases in hotel rooms and giving interviews between hospital shifts (he is in the process of retiring). His wife prepared a description for journalists going to meet her husband: “White hair. White beard. Think Santa Claus.”
So I had no trouble recognising Stone. It helped that he was also wearing a signet ring engraved with a rampant boar. (The white boar was Richard’s heraldic symbol, and most devoted Ricardians have it on their person somewhere). To be honest, though, he looked exhausted. Like Father Christmas on Boxing Day. He slumped down at a café table. “And I was looking forward to a nice, peaceful reign…” he said.
For many of those intimately involved, the rediscovery of Richard III has been one of the greatest events of their life, but it has also proved exceptionally turbulent. Within weeks of the exhumation, the outlines of a bitter struggle about the future of the remains became visible: Where should the King be reburied? And how? The dispute has gone on to divide cities, archaeologists and Ricardians. In crude terms, the argument has often been characterised as a contest between the city of Leicester, scene of Richard’s downfall and hasty burial in 1485, and York, which claims him as one of their own—Richard was England’s last Yorkist King. But, not unlike the Wars of the Roses, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Just as the nation’s 15th century dynastic war between the noble houses of York and Lancaster contained a multitude of smaller conflicts, the fight over Richard’s bones is also about memory, money and what happens when a university department joins forces with a group of passionate amateurs—and a myth becomes a real skeleton in a cardboard box. “There were some hungry dogs,” as one senior member of the Richard III Society told me, “and they all wanted a bone.”
As leader of the world’s largest group of Ricardians, Stone has had the impossible the task of keeping the peace. He has strenuously maintained the neutrality of his society—refusing to take a poll of members’ views—and faced insults all the while. “One member wrote to me calling me deceitful and a liar,” Stone said mildly. “It was actionable, but you don’t. Do you?” Instead, he has tried to concentrate on the positive contributions that the discovery has made. We now know the King had scoliosis, a spinal condition, rather than a hunchback, for example. “There’s no denying it’s the greatest thing in Ricardian history in 500 years,” said Stone. Even so. He has his moments. He watched the commuters go past. “There are occasions when I wish she hadn’t found him.”
Digging up Richard was never much of a preoccupation for Ricardians. The bones were gone. The monastery where he was buried in Leicester, two or three days after his calamitous death at the Battle of Bosworth about 10 miles outside the city, was pulled down during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century and—the story went—his remains thrown into the River Soar. The King’s tomb, it was said, became a cattle trough.
Instead, Ricardians have always devoted themselves to something much more intangible: a fair hearing for England’s last Plantagenet King. Horace Walpole, the novelist and son of the country’s first Prime Minister, is generally reckoned to have written the founding Ricardian text, Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard III, in 1768. “Does antiquity consecrate darkness?” he asked. “Does a lie become venerable from its age?” Walpole argued that Henry VII, who defeated Richard at Bosworth, invented a creature of moral and physical deformity in order to shore up his own shaky legitimacy. Richard became a hunchback who killed his wife, brother, nephews (the Princes in the Tower), Henry VI, anyone who got in his way—an infamy later embroidered by Shakespeare and sewn into our memories ever since.
Ricardians, therefore, are driven by justice. “It is proof of our sense of civilised values that something as esoteric and as fragile as reputation is worth campaigning for,” said Richard, the current Duke of Gloucester, and patron of the Richard III Society, in 1981. They do not deny the eccentricity of their task and are often at a loss to explain why it drives them. Like many Ricardians, Stone became entranced by the King as a schoolboy—and in particular, Shakespeare’s tragedy, Richard III—but that doesn’t get to the bottom of it: the ache, the sense of calling. “For nearly 30 years I have asked myself this question,” he said, “and you will gather that I still haven’t come to a conclusion: Why Richard?”
The power of these pent-up hopes meant that, for many Ricardians, encountering the King’s physical remains was, at least at first, almost too much to take. Recent scholarship had thrown doubt on the River Soar story, but there was scant support for Langley during the eight years she spent trying to dig up the car park of Leicester’s social services department. Then there was the uncanny manner of the discovery. Richard’s leg bones were found on the very first day of the dig, under the very parking spot that Langley believed they would be, and when Jo Appleby, an osteologist from the University of Leicester, removed a layer of soil to reveal a strongly knotted spine, Langley almost collapsed in shock and recognition. Stone was one of the first people she called. “Are you sitting down?” Langley asked. “Are you sure you’re sitting down?”
Although it took a different form, the power of the find was just as considerable for the academics and city officials who had teamed up with the Richard III Society to carry out the excavation. “No way. No way,” was all that Richard Buckley, the archaeologist in charge, could think. “Bugger,” said Peter Soulsby, the Mayor of Leicester. When Vivienne Faull, then Dean of Leicester Cathedral, called in one of her canons, Pete Hobson, to break the news, he could not fathom what she was talking about. “She said:
‘We’ve found Richard!’ And I thought to myself: ‘Who’s gone missing?’”
This was nothing compared to the wave that broke when the University of Leicester announced that “Skeleton 1” was a “prime candidate” for Richard a week later, on 12th September 2012. “The reaction we got was just literally overwhelming,” Lin Foxhall, the head of the university’s archaeology department, told me. For the next five months, as geneticists, engineers, historians and archaeologists did the delicate scientific work to try and analyse the bones, the university was solidly besieged—mainly by journalists trying to get ahead of the story—until it felt compelled to announce its positive identification on 4th February 2013. “It was dreadful,” said Foxhall, who described the eventual announcement as a “controlled explosion.” “Publishing your research by press conference is not an ideal way to do it. For God’s sake, I’m an academic. I know that.”
The announcements that day also confirmed that, in accordance with a licence issued by the Ministry of Justice, Richard’s bones would be finally laid to rest in Leicester Cathedral. The location of the King’s reburial had been a concern since long before the dig. Philippa Langley told me that it came up in her first meeting with Sheila Lock, the former Chief Executive of Leicester City Council, when she approached the city for its cooperation in early 2011. (The car park was owned by the council). “I said, ‘If we find him, what happens to him?’” Langley recalled. “And she said, ‘No, it stays in Leicester. That’s the deal.’ And I did throw in, ‘What about the Abbey?’ [Richard’s wife, Anne, is buried in Westminster Abbey]. But it was, ‘No.’”
Normal archaeological practice is to rebury human remains exhumed after more than 100 years in the nearest piece of available consecrated ground. Five days before Richard’s bones were dug up, the University of Leicester applied to do just that. Leicester Cathedral is less than 100 yards from where “Skeleton 1” was found and contains masonry from the Franciscan friary where Richard was buried in 1485.
For those running the project, the question of the King’s reinterment was largely settled. So they didn’t pay much attention to the first mutterings about alternative burial places. An online petition was got up by citizens in York—“where he was regarded with much love and affection” they said—and there were noises about Middleham Castle, in Yorkshire, where Richard grew up; Fotheringay, in Northamptonshire, where many of his family are buried; and Windsor and Westminster, where most monarchs of the 15th and 16th centuries ended up. The tone was mostly good-natured. “York people were loyal to him then and remain so,” said a spokeswoman for the city, when York’s civic leaders wrote to the Queen and the Ministry of Justice to complain. “If I’m honest it was a bit opportunistic and with some light-heartedness,” Kersten England, the city’s Chief Executive, told me.
The tone began to turn about a month after Richard’s identity was confirmed. At the Richard III Society’s annual conference, which took place in Leicester in March, Stone told members that a facial reconstruction of Richard, which had been paid for by the society, would be given to the new visitors’ centre being built in the city. There was a discernible chill. “I got an email a couple of days later,” he said. “‘Why are Leicester getting it? Why are Leicester getting everything?’ That’s when I started to realise there was going to be trouble.”
Even so, nobody predicted what would happen next. Within weeks, a brand new Ricardian group calling itself the Plantagenet Alliance emerged. The group announced that it was going to the High Court to challenge the granting of the University of Leicester’s exhumation licence. The lawsuit, in the form of a judicial review, proved surprising for several reasons. First, no one—not even in Ricardian circles—had heard of the Plantagenet Alliance, which claimed to be made up of collateral, or indirect, descendants of the King. (“Quite frankly a lot of people think it’s a scam,” said Joe Ann Ricca, the leader of the Richard III Foundation, an American breakaway faction of the Richard III Society).
Second, the grounds for the legal challenge seemed unlikely to succeed. The Plantagenet Alliance claimed that, as descendants of Richard III, its members should have been consulted about the plans for the King’s reburial—even though demographers think there could be up to 17m other living descendants of Richard, and the group did not even exist when the licence was issued.
Third, and most surprising of all, the case got the green light to go ahead. On 15th August 2013, Judge Charles Haddon-Cave, sitting in London, ordered a full hearing to take place towards the end of the year. “It is plainly arguable,” he found, “that there was a duty at common law to consult widely… [given the] intense, widespread and legitimate public interest” in the reinterment. The hearing would not decide where the bones would end up, but it might throw out the original licence—allowing rival claims for the King to be heard.
Everything changed with the lawsuit. Plans for the reburial in Leicester Cathedral were put on hold. Attitudes hardened. The Ricardian community splintered. Facebook pages—for York, for Leicester—were set up. Yorkists dared to hope. Leicester’s city officials and academics who had overseen the dig became defensive. They had followed standard procedure, after all. Their counterparts in York started to make quiet plans for what they would do if they got the bones instead. There were whispers in high places that the royal family itself was divided.
For those long steeped in the history of Richard III, these manoeuvres—the sight of battle lines being drawn up—have been as familiar as they remain hard to explain. “I think a lot of people may not fully understand their own motives for getting so involved in this,” Philip Schwyzer, a professor of Renaissance literature at Exeter University told me. “People are almost stepping into old roles whether they know it or not.” When I tracked down Charles Brunner, a night club owner in Kansas and 17th great-nephew of King Richard who is one of the leaders of the Plantagenet Alliance, he also spoke of a strong compulsion to right ancient wrongs, without exactly knowing why. “I am going along and doing really what in the depths of my being is the right thing to do,” he said. “I am single-mindedly thinking, ‘This is what needs to be done’… It’s been really weird.”
Richard reborn © Rex/Kippa Limited
Richard was the last King who belonged to the House of York. The historical case to bury him in the city, rather than Leicester, is based on the way he kept coming back during his lifetime. He grew up at Middleham Castle, in Yorkshire, and was lieutenant in the north for his brother, Edward IV, responsible for its government in the 1470s. When Richard took the throne from his nephew, Edward V (later to disappear, mysteriously, in the Tower of London with his younger brother) in the bloody summer of 1483, the new King chose to return to his northern heartlands to display his power.
Over several days that August, 13,000 felt boars were made and distributed throughout the city; the King and his Queen sat wearing their crowns “until the sixth hour of the night”; and Richard’s son, Edward of Middleham, was installed as the Prince of Wales in the Archbishop’s palace. Records from York Minster at the time show that the King intended to build a huge chantry chapel, stocked with 100 priests, to commemorate his family.
But the trail then runs cold. Richard was dead within two years of his triumphal visit, at the age of 32, the back of his skull cleaved off in Leicestershire. He left no will that might have indicated where he wanted to be buried. The chapel was never built. “The good hard documentary evidence that we as historians would look for is really lacking,” said Mark Ormrod, professor of history at York University. “All that we have got is this sort of circumstantial material.”
The circumstantial material, though, is where the Yorkist case comes alive. More than anything, the argument for laying Richard to rest under the pale, rook-filled skies of the north, is about feeling. It is about loss. The day after Richard’s death at Bosworth, York’s city leaders mourned “King Richard late mercifully reigning upon us.” The cause of his downfall, they said, was “grete treason” and he was “pitiously slane and murdred to the grete hevynesse of this citie.” Two months into the reign of Henry VII, the city records were still talking about “the most famous prince of blessed memory, King Richard.” Transmogrified by the centuries, that grief, in some form, remains—for a time of northern kings, and northern power. “I think there is probably in York a holding on to those moments in which we appeared to be of national and international significance,” said England, the city’s chief executive.
In 1622, almost 150 years after Richard’s death, and 30 years after Shakespeare’s play, Francis Bacon compared the memory of the King in the north to the sediment in a barrel of wine. “It lay like Lees in the bottome of mens hearts,” he wrote, “and if the Vessell was but stirred, it would come up.” This phenomenon, powerful as it is, can be foul—even today. By strange accident, the Dean of Leicester Cathedral, Vivienne Faull, moved to York a few months after Richard was dug up to take the new, much bigger job of running York Minster. Aware of the long-standing arrangements for reinterment in Leicester, and anxious to avoid the sight of cathedrals squabbling, Faull approved a statement saying that the Minster “commends Richard to Leicester’s care.” The result was a torrent of abusive emails and a boycott of the new Dean’s sermons. “It was construed that I was being, if you like, Lancastrian in a Yorkist city,” Faull told me. “It was visceral… I think I did say at one point to the acting Dean of Leicester, ‘We go too far down this and someone dies.’”
The more time I spent in York, the more I got the impression that opposition to Richard’s reburial in Leicester was about more than chantry chapels and even geography. For many Ricardians, rescuing the King from the place where he was killed and humiliated (his corpse was stabbed through the buttock, buried shroudless, and with its hands tied) is also about rescuing him from history. It goes to the heart of the Ricardian project.
It happened to be Guy Fawkes night the evening I agreed to meet Vanessa Roe, the spokeswoman for the Plantagenet Alliance. Fireworks banged across the city. There was usurpation in the air. We went to a pub a few yards from the old walls, where the severed head of Richard’s father, the Duke of York, was once impaled and put on display. Roe wore a fur jerkin.
Roe works with young people with learning disabilities and runs a small farm 10 miles north of York. She has always known about her aristocratic genealogy (she is descended from Richard’s other brother, George, the Duke of Clarence) and told me that she felt compelled to intervene after watching Langley’s documentary about the search for Richard, which was broadcast on Channel 4 on the night that the bones were identified. “Looking after your own,” is how she described her initial impulse. Roe wrote to York City Council, whose communications department put her in touch with other people claiming to be descendants of the King, who were also writing in. That exchange of email addresses is how the Plantagenet Alliance came about. (The group, which now numbers around 40, have never met in person). As the campaign developed, and the lawsuit was filed, Roe felt a deepening sense of conviction. “Like a world war brings a bit of passion—identity, fever, whatever you want to call it—this has sort of brought that back,” she said.
I was struck, talking to Roe, by the direct sense of connection that she felt with Richard. Ricardians like to celebrate a set of progressive legal reforms that the King enforced during his brief reign, and Roe discerned that spirit in the current judicial review. “The way I look at it is: Do I have the same attributes? Do I have the same traits? Do I have the same features? Do I have the same kind of drive?” Roe asked of her ancestor. “I think we are doing what he would have done.”
There are occasions when this Ricardian sense of intuition borders on the frankly magical. Langley has spoken many times of the strange, physical sensation that overcame her the first time she walked into Leicester’s social services department car park, in the summer of 2004. She was drawn to a parking space which had an “R” for “Reserved” on it, and under which Richard was later found. “I had this experience and it became the catalyst and the driver,” she told me. “I needed to know.”
The Ricardian scene is also known for its openness towards ideas of reincarnation. One member of the Richard III Society told me that he would not be surprised if the entire movement turned out to be reincarnated henchmen of the King, and that he would sue me if his name was ever connected with this belief. Charles Brunner, the American prominent in the Plantagenet Alliance, prefers to use the phrase “ancestral memory” to describe his sense of identification with England’s bloody 15th century. “If the reincarnation thing does play into it, there were a lot of people who lost their lives during those events,” he said, “and a lot of what you could call unfinished business in the entire thing.”
Explicable or not, this depth of feeling has made Roe and the Plantagenet Alliance formidable, if unconventional, campaigners. They are not natural negotiators. When I asked Roe whether she would be satisfied if the group were granted the consultation it was seeking, and Richard’s remains were still interred in Leicester, she said: “No. No. Because that is not the right answer. That is not what he wanted. So, no. No.”
Archaeologists on the dig that uncovered the skeleton
I drove down the M1 to Leicester the following morning. The city was apparently encircled by roadworks. After the medieval otherness of York, Leicester—and, in many ways, its argument to keep hold of Richard—represents a return to the real world. It was raining and I was late for my meeting with Pete Hobson, the canon commissioner at Leicester Cathedral, who is in charge of the day-to-day arrangements for Richard’s proposed reinterment. In contrast to the stocky majesty of York Minster, St Martin’s has the feel of a working, urban church.
Despite hewing to the general tone of deference to Richard (not one person I interviewed was willing to go on the record and say that he killed the Princes in the Tower), Hobson was at least prepared to acknowledge that the late King was no saint. He also insisted that his reburial—if it goes ahead there—would not dramatically alter the character of England’s second poorest cathedral. “Whatever reinterment for Richard here means, it doesn’t mean we become the tomb of Richard III,” said Hobson, who has had to fend off criticism from Ricardians about the modest design of the cathedral’s proposed memorial. “We have got to work out how not to be starstruck.”
For Hobson, and many others in the city who were involved in the search and subsequent exhumation of Richard’s bones, the challenge from York signifies nothing more than wishful thinking. The story of Richard—his rise to power, death, posthumous disgrace and corporeal disappearance—is not a happy one, but that is how life goes. We do not choose the manner of our defeats. “He could easily have won that battle and history would have been different, but he didn’t,” said Hobson. “And isn’t life full of ‘If only something else had happened my life would be better…’ We have to deal with what happens.”
That’s not to say that Leicester isn’t thrilled to have him. People speak of the unearthing of a lost English monarch and Shakespearean villain in one of Britain’s most ethnically diverse small cities as a kind of galvanising miracle. “Queues in the middle of Leicester, around the block, to look at a hole in the middle of the ground,” said Vivienne Faull, recalling her last summer as Dean, “but from that experience gaining a new sense of their identity, it was quite extraordinary.” It’s going to make money, too. The city that has had roads named after Richard and Bosworth for hundreds of years now has biscuits, sunglasses, DVDs, t-shirts, and paperweights. Hotel bookings rose 20 per cent in the month after Richard’s bones were identified and Martin Traynor, who runs Leicester’s Chamber of Commerce, says that he expects Leicestershire’s tourist and hospitality industry to grow up to 5 per cent on the back of the King’s discovery and reinterment: that’s £70m of trade.
Then there is the paperwork. Richard Buckley, the archaeologist at Leicester University who oversaw the excavation, has been digging up the city since the late 1970s. A tall, broad man, Buckley once exhumed more than 1,300 medieval skeletons to make way for a new shopping centre and has applied to remove human remains dozens of times over the years. On 31st August 2012, he wrote to the Ministry of Justice, asking permission to exhume up to six skeletons from the social services car park. The form required Buckley to specify what he would do with the remains. If they turned out to be Richard’s, he wrote, they would be reinterred at Leicester Cathedral. The licence was granted three days later.
Buckley sees the idea that he, or anyone else, should have carried out a consultation on where to bury an unfound King as a logical impossibility. When should people have been consulted? Before the excavation began? “You can’t have a national referendum saying, ‘We’re going to dig a hole in Leicester, what should we do if we find something?’” said Buckley. And once the bones were identified he, and the rest of the university, argues that they were legally bound to do what they said they would do. The Burials Act doesn’t say anything about a consultation. It is like being told off for something that has never been wrong before.
It is also profoundly upsetting, after doing the archaeological and scientific work of your life, to imagine the removal of Leicester’s spoils to somewhere else. “I would rue the day we ever dug him up,” said Buckley. Worse still to have your conduct questioned by a group of campaigning Ricardians who met each other over the internet. Lin Foxhall, Buckley’s boss, did not bother to conceal her anger. “It’s the whack job factor,” she told me. “How do you deal with people who imagine they are reincarnated members of his court? I’m sorry, I’m a scientist. That’s bonkers. That is not the kind of thing on which a legal judgement should be taken. That is not a basis for a legal judgement in a rational modern society. That is rubbish.”
The trouble is, Leicester may have to listen, whether it likes to or not. The fight over the bones of Richard III is just another incident in the larger, longer battle to make the past into what we want it to have been. Unlike Richard, however, who exhumed Henry VI because it suited him, or the Tudors, who disfigured the humanity of Richard himself, it is no longer possible to write history by fiat. Over the last decade, the drift in archaeological practice in this country has been towards greater consultation with so-called “interested communities”—whack job or not.
In 2009, following a request by the Council of British Druid Orders for the reburial of neolithic skeletons dug up in Wiltshire, English Heritage and the National Trust carried out a public consultation, and opinion poll, before deciding what to do with the remains. Sebastian Payne, the former chief scientist at English Heritage, who helped run the consultation and write the government’s guidance on the treatment of human remains in 2005, told me that there was no reason why something similar should not happen in the case of King Richard. “It’s the meeting of logic and emotion,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean the emotion is wrong. It’s just different, and you have to find a way to take it into consideration.”
The Druids lost in 2009. The Plantagenet Alliance are still in the fight. I went along to their latest hearing, in late November, at the High Court. Philippa Langley was there, giving interviews. Richard Buckley was crammed into a suit. Vanessa Roe came down from York, carrying a plastic bag and wearing a silver boar on her coat. It was a morning of dense legal argument, as Leicester City Council, along with the university, and the Ministry of Justice, were added as defendants in the judicial review. But the development may help the Plantagenet Alliance, as the city’s QC, Norman Palmer, suggested that the council might be open to staging some sort of consultation after all. For now, though, the case rolls on. It was adjourned until the New Year. As the three judges trooped out of the court, I looked up and saw a gothic balcony, lined with red velvet, perfectly positioned to address the room. It was just waiting for King Richard to appear, lithe, 5’ 8” tall, with one shoulder just higher than the other, to tell us what to do.