The King in the Car Park

24 March 2015

I’ve never understood the appeal of the Tudors. Henry Tudor dated his reign from the day before Richard III’s death at Bosworth Field so he could charge with treason men who’d fought for their lawful king. The marital woes of his son, Henry VIII, are the stuff of lurid legend, for he had a bad habit of dissolving marriages by way of the axe on Tower Green. Edward VI died young, but he was already showing signs of religious zealotry and while his eldest sister is deserving of pity, she still earned herself the unfortunate sobriquet of Bloody Mary. I do like Elizabeth, and find her much more sympathetic than her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, who never met a bad decision she did not want to embrace. Elizabeth’s life and reign truly outdid fiction, although Margaret George captures her neurotic brilliance perfectly in her novel about Elizabeth’s twilight years, Elizabeth I. That is still one in five, not the best of odds.

But we know that with kings, controversy counts for all. Henry II is one of England’s greatest kings, yet he will be forever linked with the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. His legendary son Richard the Lionheart remains a polarizing figure eight centuries after his death and his other son, John, is almost as well known, thanks to those Robin Hood stories of “evil Prince John.” I think there is no doubt, though, that the most controversial king by far is Richard III.

Richard reigned for just two years and was only thirty-two at the time of his death, but he left an indelible impression upon the public imagination, courtesy of a certain playwright from Stratford-upon-Avon. In many ways, Richard is unique. He is the last of the Plantagenet dynasty, which had ruled England for over three hundred years. He is the last king to die in battle. He is one of the few with his own worldwide fan club. And he is definitely the only one to spend five hundred years entombed in a car park.

How did this come to pass? Richard was slain at Bosworth, betrayed by one of the Stanleys as he gambled his life and his crown on a mad, glorious charge across the field to find Henry Tudor. He almost made it, too, was within yards of reaching his rival before being overwhelmed by sheer numbers. He did not die crying “My horse! My kingdom for a horse!” His final words were more to the point: “Treason!” As for Tudor, hovering behind his bodyguards as Richard fought his way toward him, I like to think those memories gave him nightmares for the rest of his life. After the battle, Richard’s body was treated with scant respect, stripped naked, thrown over a horse, and taken back to Leicester where it was exposed to the public for several days so that none could doubt his death. After that, history gets a bit murky, but many historians believed that he was eventually buried in the church of the Grey Friars in Leicester. The church was destroyed in the Dissolution and it was assumed that his remains had been lost.

But then in 2012 a remarkable archaeological project was launched, with the aim of finding the bones of the last Plantagenet king. I admit that I never believed they’d find their royal needle in this Leicester haystack. But then they uncovered human remains in what would have been the choir of the Grey Friars Church. DNA testing would later confirm that they had indeed located Richard’s lost grave.

I am a proud Yorkist; after all, I did write a thousand page novel about Richard and his brother Edward, The Sunne in Splendour. But this discovery has captivated all who love history, royalty, or just fancy a good mystery. So what have we learned about Richard? A great deal, actually. We now know that he was five feet, eight inches tall. During his lifetime, it was reported that one shoulder was higher than the other, and after his death, his enemies transformed him into a hunchback with a withered arm, for it was a medieval belief that physical deformity was the outer manifestation of inner evil.

No one who knew Richard’s history ever believed this; he was a soldier since his teens, leading men into battle at the age of eighteen. His skeleton revealed that he’d suffered from scoliosis, a curvature of the spine that would have accounted for the disparity between his shoulders. I have scoliosis myself, so I felt great sympathy for Richard, living in an age without chiropractors. On a more grisly note, we even know the number of blows inflicted in his last moments of life—eleven, nine to the head.

What else have we learned? We know that his eye color was blue, that his hair was blond in his youth, and later darkened. We know what foods he liked; he was partial to fish and heron and wine. We now know what he looked like, too, for forensic specialists were able to do a reconstruction of his face from his skull. There are no contemporary portraits and the best-known one in the National Portrait Gallery was tampered with to make him appear sinister, an image befitting the memorable villain created by Shakespeare. What struck me about the reconstruction is how young Richard looks. It is almost like watching a film about England before World War I; the characters always seem so vulnerable, living their lives with such heart-rending innocence, with no inking of the horrors awaiting them. Eden before the Fall. Or Eden while Edward IV still reigned and Richard was the loyal younger brother, Lord of the North, never imagining what fate held in store for him and his doomed dynasty.

It is so ironic that this king, thrown into a hastily dug grave with his hands still bound, maligned by his enemies and then by history, has now received a regal and honorable burial at Leicester Cathedral, while a Richard III Center has risen up on the spot where he lay, forgotten, for so many centuries. On the day of his funeral, the ceremonies were televised by Channel Four and the City of York paused to remember their favourite medieval son as he was entombed with great ceremony in Leicester. Richard has become a rock star. So I leave the last word in this improbable tale to the American writer, Mark Twain: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction has to stick to the possibilities. Truth doesn’t.” 

Sharon Penman is the author of Sunne in Splendour. Click here to read the first chapter.

Richard III © National Portrait Gallery, London