The excitement about the discovery of the remains of Richard III in Leicester has sent me back to my books about this most enigmatic of men. I’ve recently reread Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, a book that often inspires Ricardian worship in those who read it at an impressionable age. I then read David Baldwin’s biography of Richard which is about to be reissued as a paperback with an additional chapter on the discovery. Then, I was fortunate enough to be able to see the documentary, The King in the Car Park, as someone had loaded it onto YouTube. John Ashdown-Hill, a historian, genealogist & member of the Richard III Society, featured in the program & I remembered that I had his book, The Last Days of Richard III, on the tbr shelves.
It was John Ashdown-Hill’s research into the mitochondrial DNA of Richard’s family that led to the discovery of a direct descendant of Richard’s sister, Anne of York. It was this man, Michael Ibsen, who provided a DNA sample to be compared with the DNA retrieved from the remains found on the site of the Greyfriars church. There’s a fascinating chapter in this book that explains the significance of mitochondrial DNA (DNA that is in the female line) & outlines the genealogical research that was undertaken to track down the female descendents of the Yorkist family to the present day.
The Last Days of Richard III is also different from other biographies of Richard III because Ashdown-Hill looks primarily at the last 100 days of Richard’s life, from the death of his wife, Anne Neville, to the Battle of Bosworth & the aftermath. Most accounts of Richard’s reign are written with hindsight & imagine that Richard was full of foreboding as the invasion of Henry Tudor drew nearer. Shakespeare’s play, which dwells on the King’s growing paranoia & suspicion, has a lot to do with this. The final scenes before Bosworth with Richard tossing restlessly in sleep, tormented by the ghosts of his victims telling him to Despair & Die are intensely dramatic but they have little basis in fact. But, of course, Richard had no knowledge of the outcome of Tudor’s bid for the throne. He was King of England & had every reason to believe that he had a long reign ahead of him. Henry Tudor had attempted an invasion before & had failed. Richard was looking forward to Tudor’s next attempt so that he could defeat him & end the Wars of the Roses once & for all.
Far from dreading the future, Richard was making plans for the continuation of his family line. The death of his son, Edward, & his wife, distressed him but he was all too aware of the perils of an uncertain succession to the throne & he was making plans for a second marriage in these months before Bosworth. Richard was proposing a marriage with a Portuguese or Spanish princess as both royal houses were descended from the marriage of John of Gaunt (son of Edward III) with Constance of Castile. Richard was therefore hoping to unite this Lancastrian family line with his own Yorkist line to reconcile the competing factions. He was also proposing a Portuguese marriage for his niece, Elizabeth of York, who with her mother, Elizabeth Woodville & her sisters, had emerged from sanctuary. Richard had promised publicly to look after the girls, who were now seen as the illegitimate daughters of Edward IV, & arrange suitable marriages for them.
Richard had every reason to be confident of the outcome when Tudor’s invasion finally came. He was the King, he had twice the number of troops at his disposal, he was a renowned soldier. Who was this unknown adventurer with a flimsy claim to the throne based on illegitimacy & wishful thinking? Unfortunately we know the outcome. Treachery by the Stanleys & bad luck led to Richard’s defeat & death at Bosworth. Ashdown-Hill’s description of the aftermath of the battle is intensely interesting in the light of the discoveries made recently. His research was a key part of the submission by Philippa Langley to the University of Leicester & he has been proved right. His description of Richard’s death, the treatment of his body after the battle & his burial in the Greyfriars church has been confirmed by the archaeological evidence. He dismisses the rumours that Richard was buried without proper religious ceremony, that his remains were thrown into the river at the Dissolution, that he was buried in a stone coffin that subsequently became a horse trough at a pub in Leicester. Ashdown-Hill even predicts (in 2010) what the recent investigation discovered,
Part of Robert Herrick’s former garden now comprises a Leicester car park, and probably Richard’s bones still lie in this vicinity, just where they were buried in August 1485, perhaps concealed beneath the modern tarmac.
Well, he was right! Thanks to the careful research & persistence of Ashdown-Hill & Philippa Langley, Richard’s remains have been discovered & I look forward to the many books & articles that will result from the ongoing investigation.