This rainy morning I walked to Leicester Cathedral. Far less grand than York’s, it was tastefully built in 1086 in a beautiful brown stone I hadn’t yet seen in England. I was here to see Richard.
Decade by decade, the Wars of the Roses gradually eliminated almost every legitimate contender for the throne of England. With the death of the Yorkist King Edward IV in 1483, his oldest son of course succeeded him (as Edward V). But the new king was only twelve years old (with an even younger brother), and so a Regent was needed. The dead king’s brother Richard was the logical choice.
After years as a military and political figure (and the King’s beloved advisor), Richard had amassed his own power base. These people stood to gain immensely were Richard to become king. There was no comparable Lancastrian figure—the Lancastrian king Henry VI only had one son, killed at Towton. All that stood in the way of Richard’s succession were his two nephews, the dead king’s sons.
It was a turbulent time, and so Richard—Regent and Uncle, brother of the king so recently dead—had the boys escorted to the Tower of London for their temporary safety.
And that’s the last that anyone ever saw of them. Did Richard have them killed? People have been arguing about it ever since. But with the boys gone, Richard took the crown as his own, becoming Richard III, Shakespeare’s hunchback villain and history’s obsession.
Across from the Cathedral is the new Richard the Third Center. Its genealogies and displays of medieval clothes and weapons were by now familiar. It did have a wonderful display on the historiography of Richard—how he has been described and portrayed through the centuries. Contrasting film clips featuring Lawrence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, and Kevin Spacey were fascinating.
Richard ruled only two years, killed in the climactic battle of the Wars of the Roses (which we’ll visit tomorrow). For political reasons, he was buried with only minimal honors, and eventually his burial site was considered lost to the ages. And then in 2012 a group of persistent archeologists discovered it under a parking lot 300 yards from the church—a million to one chance, validated 100% by DNA testing.After a terrible legal fight between the cities of York and Leicester (at least they didn’t use archers or cannon), Richard was reburied in Leicester cathedral with enormously solemn ceremony in 2015 (the Cathedral’s video of this is quite moving).
This Richard has been reimagined—by some—as a devoted prince, rising to (and dying for) the civic duty of protecting his fragile country. The cathedral built a beautiful gothic chamber to house his remains. On the floor above the buried casket is a low plinth of silent black Irish stone (he was Governor there), inscribed Richard III. Topping that is an elegant piece of ancient local marble carved coffin-shape and inscribed with a cross.
This is where I touched a king. King Richard. For a long, intimate moment I had him all to myself. I would have given almost anything to know…when you took the crown, Richard Plantagenet, Duke of Gloucester, what were you thinking? What did you want? How did you feel?
Moving account of Richard. So impressed that you touched him. We are awed.