Early in 2009, an empty stone coffin was donated to Bosworth Battlefield, scene of the death of King Richard III. Unearthed in a garden in nearby Earl Shilton, it was dated as possibly 15th-century and judged to be of a type made for a person of high rank. It now has pride of place in the courtyard of the prestigious Battlefield Visitors Centre. Not bad for a lidless, trough-like object used for years as a flowerbed in a villager’s water-garden.
A mediæval coffin? The archæologists say so. Expensive in its day? The historians are confident. Richard III’s sarcophagus? Silence… except for a spirited declaration from the Leicestershire County Council that the coffin is a “tremendous find and an excellent addition to the Battlefield Centre”. 
No doubt it is. But nobody knows the origins of this so-called ‘mystery coffin’, and quite frankly it would be nothing short of a miracle if it has any real connection with Richard himself. Yet how typical it is that the vapours of the unknown have once again risen to nebulously envelop this most controversial and notorious of English monarchs.
You can take a coffin – any coffin – but where is the king? How can it be that nobody is certain of the final resting place of Richard III, last of the Plantagenet line? Richard suffered a terrible death at Bosworth on the morning of 22 August 1485. Betrayed by at least two duplicitous powerbrokers who should have made defeat by Henry Tudor impossible, namely Lord Stanley and the Earl of Northumberland, the king was surrounded and unhorsed as he fought like a man possessed in the middle of the frenzied melée. Once at the mercy of the rabble, he was repeatedly hacked and bludgeoned into the ground, even after all signs of life were gone. Tudor, protected at the rear of proceedings, never lifted a finger to prevent this gratuitous slaughter.
Death was not enough for the victors. Richard was stripped naked and his broken body besmirched with filth. Unrecognisable as a king, and probably even as a human being, he was trussed across the back of a packhorse and led from the field of battle. A somewhat sickening finale to the last great showpiece of the mediæval era – but it didn’t end there.
Tudor, now as Henry VII, took his entourage back into Leicester, back over Bow Bridge on the same road on which Richard had led out his army the previous morning. Richard’s body was still naked, still filthy and still strapped to a horse. Humiliation, it seemed, was high on the new king’s agenda. He ordered Richard’s body to be put on public display so everyone would know he was dead.
Henry VII left for London to take up the throne. For two days, Richard’s corpse was available for public viewing in Leicester, probably in the Church of Mary de Castro in the Newarke  or the nearby Hospital of the Holy Trinity. Other spots nearer the centre of the city have been suggested down the ages, but these two buildings (apart from being of Lancastrian foundation) were virtually in the grounds of Leicester Castle, and it would be surprising if the Castle hadn’t been Henry’s first stop on arrival. But this is where uncertainty begins to punch its weight against evidence, recorded or otherwise. Just as the Battle of Bosworth itself was inexplicably poorly documented, events from here on in are open to conjecture.
Tradition has it that the monks of the Greyfriars Monastery duly took charge of the corpse and interred it, with no great ceremony, in their chapel. There is some documentation showing that, in 1495, Henry VII stumped up some cash (not a lot) for a marble and alabaster monument to adorn the grave. If this is so, it can be assumed that Richard lay at rest for at least a decade in the bosom of the monastery.
It had been a long time, if ever, since a king had received such poor treatment in death. The reason, ostensibly, for the new regime’s vindictiveness was the revulsion they felt for Richard and the dubious methods he had used to carve out his path to the throne. The darkest and longest shadow cast on that path was the disappearance of his two nephews, forever to be known as the ‘Princes In The Tower’. And yet, notwithstanding that fathomless pit of political intrigue, Richard had always carried strong and loyal support in large parts of the country, particularly the North and much of the Midlands. The removal of this strong-willed, battle-scarred hardcase was not as popular an act as history might have us believe.
Where are the Princes? Were the bones that were dug up under an old stairway in the Tower of London in the 17th century really theirs? It has never been proved either way. Where is their uncle, the suspected architect of their demise? Are his bones still buried undisturbed somewhere beneath where the Greyfriars Monastery once stood? Homeless bones, bones lost forever?
In 1536, Henry VIII, famous son of the victor of Bosworth Field, decided to smash and loot the country’s monasteries in the name of his new religion. For three years, this ‘Reformation’ raged through a confused and frightened nation. The Greyfriars Monastery in Leicester, the likely burial site of Richard III, was despoiled in 1538, its roof taken off for the benefit of the Crown’s coffers. A legend developed, weak in its hesitance, comic in its melodrama: Richard’s bones had been dug up during the pillage and scattered by the mob into the River Soar. If you can grab a large pinch of salt, it might be best to take it now.
The ‘mob’, or ordinary law-abiding folk of Leicester, had no axe to grind with Richard. He had been no enemy of their proud and historic city. If a former king’s remains had been cast into a local river as late as 1538, surely our archives would yet yield something more substantial than a rumour. A lot of things might have been torn up during Henry VIII’s day, but a lot of things were written down, too. And the idea that Henry’s own henchmen, regardless of any mob, might have ripped up the marble and alabaster monument that had been paid for by Henry’s own father surely must take some swallowing.
In the Castle Gardens in Leicester, there stands a magnificent statue of Richard III. The commission was carried out by James Butler, RA, and was erected in 1980. Repeatedly vandalised in its early days, it was transferred from its initial site to a less exposed part of the Gardens. This turned out to be an inspired move, for the interference stopped immediately and never recommenced. Strange indeed, for its position is still totally accessible and the last 30 years has seen a nation splatter itself in mindless graffiti on a ridiculous scale. From this spot, Richard directly overlooks Bow Bridge and the very roadway on which he led out the royal forces westwards from the city to locate and engage the usurping Tudor.
This striking piece of work encapsulates so much of the drama and desperation associated with its subject. It depicts Richard on the verge of defeat, his clothes torn away from his unprotected arms as he stands with dagger gripped in one hand, battle-crown raised in the other. The face, a picture of searing anguish, searches the heavens in this final moment of defiance.
There is no hint of deformity in this sculpture. There is no evidence of Shakespeare’s “bottled spider”, no “ugly and unnatural aspect” to furnish it. Those who wish to see such time-honoured peculiarities will have to look elsewhere. Here is the portrayal of a man with strong, regular features; here is the warrior king, courageous to the last in his blighted defence of the realm. It could be argued that this is how Richard himself might have hoped to be remembered by the world at large. We know, these many years since his death, that such a hope has not been fulfilled.
Shakespeare’s play, Richard III, is the riveting masterpiece which brought the poet popular acclaim. Alas for Richard, it almost certainly cast its subject into eternal damnation. Posterity had been served up the epitomic arch-villain, and it wasn’t going to let it go. The great actors of successive generations faithfully rallied to the Shakespearean cause, right through to the middle of the 20th century, when Laurence Olivier’s stupefying interpretation, first on stage and then on film, gave the world the definitive article.
Very few, of course, would begrudge Shakespeare his right to artistic licence. But the power of his genius is such that in the case of his history plays, there must be a temptation for the audience to assume there is a sound basis of fact in the content. In the particular case of Richard III and his grotesque appearance, artistic licence could well have been taken to the limit. If only there remained a skeleton, laid out in a royal tomb as should have been the case, then we would know one way or the other about the veracity of these timeless claims of deformity.
But we are where we are. The fact remains that if any of Richard’s bones are extant they are most likely beneath the ground on the site where once stood the Greyfriars Monastery in Leicester. Mediæval maps show that it was sited on land in what is now New Street, a narrow thoroughfare between St Martins and Friar Lane. It is a short street, with a few buildings on one side and a municipal open-air car park on the other. A small stretch of a mediæval stone wall can be found at the rear of the car park; it is all that remains of the monastery.
Just yards away, incongruous in the extreme among the parked vehicles, stands a huge and forbidding tree. Its twisted, unnatural appearance is enough to raise the eyebrows of those who adhere to the Shakespearean concept of abnormality and who were hoping for a bizarre revelation, for this would be its marker.
It is a tree that could be at least 200 years old, with its roots surely spread beneath much of the length and breadth of the car park. If so, it is unlikely that anything but the minimum amount of excavation or surface clearance has been used to penetrate the site in anything like recent times… if ever.
It would be somewhere here, somewhere among and adjacent to things old and new, the orderly and the out-of-place, that a mystery may one day be solved, or deepened, or just left to rest in peace.
1 'Coffin to find new home at Bosworth Battlefield', Leicestershire County Council, 27 Jan 2009.
2 'The Great Hall of Leicester Castle', culture24.org.uk.
3 Early Chancery Records, C1/206/69. Plea dated 1 July, 1496.
4 “The Trial of Richard III” (London Weekend Television, 1984).
5 'About Leicester', leicester.gov.uk.