The Last Days of Richard III – John Ashdown-Hill

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.

8 thoughts on “The Last Days of Richard III – John Ashdown-Hill

  1. Thanks for this, I've just downloaded the John Ashdown Hill book to my kindle. I must look for David Baldwin's book too. The only biographies of Richard III I have read is one by Paul Murray Kendall and the other by Charles Ross. There was a second documentary shown recently called 'Richard III the Unseen Story' which showed more on the research done than the first one, hope you get a chance to see that one too:)

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  2. You must come over and see it all for yourself Lyn! I didn't think Philippa Langley came out well in that documentary (though there are two, one that deals more with the science which I haven't seen, but is maybe the one you have?).

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  3. It was fascinating, especially his focus on those last few months of Richard's life without the benefit of hindsight. And, as you say, his research had already led to a very accurate description of the aftermath of Bosworth & Richard's burial.

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  4. The Unseen Story doco has been uploaded to YouTube & I plan to watch it soon. The Kendall biography is one of my favourites even though he was very pro-Ricardian. It's so well-written & was very influential in its time. I read it again a few years ago & still loved it. Charles Ross was more anti-Richard, I think, although it's been a long time since I read his book.

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  5. I will get there one day! By the time I get there he'll be buried in the Cathedral so I'll have a tomb to visit. I agree that PL didn't come out well in the first program but if she hadn't had the passionate obsession with Richard, he wouldn't have been found. At least her obsession was backed up by research. I look forward to seeing the second program.

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  6. I have seen both and she came out slightly better in the second one.

    In the first she came across as being slightly oddball when she wanted the box of excavated bones wrapped in the flag and put in the vehicle. The archaologist was unhappy about having anything to do with that because as she said, as things stood they had no real proof that the bones were indeed Richard's. She was, understandably so, being a person of science and dealing with facts and proof. PL was being romantic and letting her heart rule her head.

    The second programme showed much more about the science of discovering who the bones belonged to. PL did not feature as much and I was pleased about that. Not because I have anything against her, but I am always mindful that clever editing can put a different spin on anything.

    And poor Richard has certainly suffered at the hands of history's spin doctors.

    Perhaps when Richard is finally laid to rest there will be another documentary which shows Philippa Langley and others in a different light. Without their efforts and money to pay for the excavation, the king would still be in the car park.

    JB

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  7. Yes, I agree. I noticed that PL was an associate producer on the second program (maybe the first as well, I didn't notice) so I wonder if that had any effect on the way she was presented? Certainly the second program had more of the scientific tests that were done but I felt they also did a lot of rehashing. Surely everyone who watched the second program would have seen the first? Still, it was PL's obsession that made the dig happen so I don't really think it matters what people think of her. I can't wait to read all the books & articles that will result from this.

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