Few English monarchs have been the subject of so much debate, calumny and outright myth-making as Richard Plantagenet. Generations have invented the Richard III that their times and attitudes required and he has made and broken the reputations of historians and archaeologists alike. None, remarkably, has got at the truth about his death and burial. However, having given the matter several minutes of thought, I can now put all the previous inaccuracies and speculation to rest.
The basic biographical facts about Richard are well known. He was born in 1452, succeeded to the throne of England in 1483 in preference to the illegitimate Edward V, and died at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Except that he didn’t: the final act at Bosworth has been misrepresented for centuries. Following the treasonable negligence of the Stanleys, the Yorkist position at Bosworth was desperate. For Richard’s supporters it was unthinkable that the legitimate king of England, the last Plantagenet, should be slain or captured, and they contrived an escape plan. Amongst the surviving Yorkists was a kinsman of Richard’s, related to him via their shared grandmother, the profligate Joan Beaufort. This man was loyal, and of a similar size and build to the slight, athletic Richard. All that was required was for the kinsman to mount Richard’s distinctive white horse and for his supporters to rally around him with the royal standard. The simple crown that Richard wore onto Bosworth field was tossed into a bush as another convenient distraction. The decoy group, led by Richard’s stand-in, then launched the bold cavalry charge that was to take them deep into the Tudor ranks before Rhys ap Thomas and his men struck him down and brutally mutilated the man they thought was King Richard. The corpse was stripped, the back deformity seen for the first time, and the legend of ‘Crookback Dick’ was born.
Richard, meanwhile, had quietly escaped, just an anonymous figure heading for safety. He travelled to Yorkshire where there were plenty enough family and supporters to hide him. He may have planned a counter-coup against Henry Tudor but a country tired of warfare quickly united behind Henry, by now married to Richard’s niece in a canny act of dynastic reconciliation. Richard now fades quietly into the mist, a deposed king living out his days in secrecy far from Henry’s increasingly corrupt and greedy court. He may have outlived Henry: Richard would have been only 57 years old when Henry VII died. Richard may have remarried and fathered children, one or more of whom may have been involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace, when the North rose in protest against Henry VIII in 1536-7. We simply don’t know. Nor do we know of Richard’s place of burial, except that he probably lies in a rural Yorkshire churchyard under an assumed name.
What about the skeleton excavated in Leicester in 2012? Simple: that was Richard’s kinsman, still doing his job as an admirable decoy centuries later. That explains the spinal curvature, mentioned only after Richard’s death and never during his life. It also explains why the maternal line DNA from the Leicester skeleton is consistent with Richard’s maternal line while the paternal line DNA did not match, and potentially explains the odd isotope values obtained from the Leicester skeleton’s rib. A kinsman of Richard’s living in western Britain, consistent with the δ18O values, might well have headed for the Midlands on hearing that Henry Tudor had landed in Pembrokeshire and was raising an army. Surely the Tudor forces would have recognised Richard? Not necessarily, as documentary records tell us that it was Welsh soldiers who killed ‘Richard’ or rather, they killed the man on Richard’s distinctive white horse under the royal colours. And if anyone in the aftermath of battle had any doubts that the hacked-about corpse was that of the deposed king, he is unlikely to have voiced them. In the matter of identifying dead kings, it is wise to tread carefully.