(a.k.a. “Grey Friars Monastery, Leicester”)
by Christine Hurlbut-Carelse
January 11, 1998
When Ricardians think of the events of Bosworth Field and the outcome of Richard’s final, ultimately futile battle charge, the story usually ends with the hasty crowning of the usurper, Henry Tudor. We recite the tale of the mistreatment of Richard’s body, how it was slung naked over a horse, carried into Leicester, and buried “without ceremony” at Grey Friars monastery, later destroyed during Henry VIII’s Dissolution in the 1530’s. We read of the sorrow felt by the City of York, tersely recorded in their civic journals, but we know little of the details of Richard’s burial and the decisions which led to his interment.
I believe that we tend to view the last events of Richard’s life quite unquestioningly: there were points at which important decisions were made, and there are many questions which can and should be raised around Richard’s final days on earth. This paper will try to explore the background of some of these choices, and with some speculation, attempt to piece together reasons for the treatment of the late king. I wanted to know the answer to such basic issues as: was it usual for a king to be in the front line of active combat? Who made the decisions about Richard’s burial, both in terms of the way it was conducted, and the site which was chosen? What was “usual” in England for the burial of a monarch? How does Grey Friars fit into this sad story?
“All England for her death had cause of weeping”. When this eerily resonant quotation emerged during research for this paper, these sad and reverent words, written by John Fisher to honour Lady Margaret Beaufort held a very modern connection.(1) In this light, it was interesting to watch the funeral rites for Diana, Princess of Wales and note the ways in which established church ritual was “bent”, both to accommodate her unique position in the Royal Family, as well as the overwhelming global expression of grief which followed her early death. Tradition was also altered for Richard III, and as I will illustrate, his burial was significantly unlike those of the English monarchs who preceded him.
I also noted an aside made by one commentator on the day Diana was buried, that there is a plan in place for the funeral of each member of the Royal Family, which will be put into action at the moment of their death. While some level of prearrangement might be expected for the Queen Mother, the Queen, Prince Philip and Prince Charles, it is disquieting to think of the existence of files on healthy teenage princes William and Harry. Would a plan for a funeral procession for King Richard III have been made in advance, or might it “tempt fate”? More importantly, if it had existed, would it have been followed in the event of a humiliating loss in battle? Does mistreating the body of a vanquished soldier strengthen the “mighty” image of the conqueror? Who would dare complain or try to retrieve Richard’s body to do the “right thing” to honour his death, and his position as King, in the face of possible punishment or censure?
A royal medieval funeral tended to follow a fairly set pattern, as we will see with the rites for Edward IV, and thus a great deal of pre-planning might be unnecessary, as the structure of the burial ritual already existed in church custom. Thus, even for the sudden demise of a monarch, the whole mechanism of a state service could be put in motion on fairly short notice. (See also my paper on Late Medieval Death, Burial and Memorial Customs, RIII, October 1996, for a description of the “usual” mourning practices in England.)
Of course, there could well have been other outcomes from the Bosworth battle: Richard might have won while Henry Tudor died, Richard could have been wounded and incapacitated, or died at some later point of his wounds, or captured and held hostage, or “judicially murdered” by Henry’s men. As it was, Henry got off easily!
He was spared the task of having to decide Richard’s fate; all he had to do was have the king’s corpse shown to the people, then buried. Richard was after all a relatively young man, some years younger than Diana, and just as she did not expect to die suddenly in a Paris tunnel, he probably did not expect to die suddenly at Bosworth. After all, he had the “home-field” advantage, and the (arguable) support of many noble families against an invading army.
Members may recall a paper Marguerite Johnson did some years ago on Richard’s state of mind at the time of the battle. (Richard III, A Study in Grief and Bereavement, RIII, June 1977.) She suggested the application of modern “stress theories” to measure the great and shattering losses he had sustained in the previous few months (the deaths of his brother, only legitimate son, and beloved wife) coupled with the newly acquired burden of kingship, which could have combined to create an intolerable burden that might well have resulted in a suicidal frame of mind by August, 1485. In crude terms, Richard had “nothing more to lose” personally, except his role as head of the kingdom–a position he had never actively sought, but had sworn to carry out to the best of his ability. Perhaps his battle-charge was motivated by despair at this host of deaths, or to appease the ghosts which Shakespeare suggests haunted his last night on earth.
What is known is that if a medieval English monarch was present at the site of a battle, it was extremely unusual for this man to be in the front of his troops; Henry Tudor waited in the rear of his lines until the outcome was assured. While the king’s presence might have rallied morale and encouraged nervous soldiers, the loss or capture of the head of state would be an incredible blow to the nation; the monarch (although well trained in the techniques of warfare) was too valuable to risk. “After Bosworth, Kings sometimes went to the wars, but they did not lead their men into the fray.” (2) Richard chose to ride directly into battle; a decision which cost his life.
What do contemporary accounts say about the treatment of Richard’s body after the battle? In his Great Chronicle (circa 1500) Robert Fabian recounted the “sharp battle”, after which:
“Richard late King as gloriously as he by the morning departed from that town [Leicester], so as irreverently was he that afternoon brought into that town, for his body despoiled to the skin, and nought being left about him, so much as would cover his privy member, he was trussed behind the pursuivant called Norroy as an hog or another vile beast, and so all besprung with mire and filth was brought to a church in Leicester for all men to wonder upon, and there lastly irreverently buried.”
In Richard III England’s Black Legend, Desmond Seward reports the revulsion of the Crowland chronicler at
“…the bestial way in which Richard’s corpse was treated–after it had been stripped insults were heaped on it ‘not exactly in accordance with the laws of humanity’. More speaks of it being ‘hacked and hewed of his enemies’ hands, harried on horseback dead, his hair in despite torn and tugged like a cur dog.” (3)
The point has been made that there are some differences in stories of the battle; “Bosworth was one of the worst-documented medieval battles, lacking even a single surviving eyewitness account.” (4) Even so, all chroniclers report this grisly parade. One might expect a fallen King to be decently covered, even if his body was carried from the field on a makeshift bier or cart. It is also obvious that Richard’s own men had no control over this procession; the question is then whether Henry himself ordered the display, or whether the idea came from his advisors. Ultimately it does not matter whether the order was Henry’s or not–flushed with unexpected “success”, he could have used his newly-minted power to insist that Richard was treated with some dignity–but he chose not to.
Henry and his troops rode into Leicester ahead of Richard’s body; remember that he was triumphantly entering the town which had housed Richard and his advisors just before the battle. Grudgingly I must admit that this was a superb psychological move to show the citizens “who is boss” now! To then have the corpse of the dead King arrive in disgrace could hardly fail to reinforce this message. Members will recall the legend about Richard’s departure from Leicester; as his spur struck the wall of Soar Bridge, an old woman who had the gift of foresight predicted that his head would hit the same spot on his return to the town. Whether it did or not, it makes a memorable tale!
What else could Henry have done to dishonour the late monarch? It would have been groundless, politically dangerous (and quite unnecessary) for Henry to do more to dismember Richard’s body. There is an odd echo here; Richard’s own father had been killed in battle on 30 December 1460 and his body was savaged; “The heads of the slain Yorkist leaders were carried into the city of York and impaled on Micklegate Bar, the brows of the Duke being rimmed with bitter derision with a crown of paper and straw.” (5) Henry had other things to do–and do quickly–to consolidate his victory.
So Richard “lay in state” for two days, probably at the church of St. Mary de Castro, which was the Castle church (adjacent to it) and then was carried about two hundred yards east along Friar Lane to the Grey Friars (Franciscan) house, where he was buried. It is clear from this sparse account that most peasants had a better funeral than the anointed King of England. The phrase “without ceremony” has been used to describe the lack of obsequies for Richard. At the risk of incurring the wrath of literalists, I cannot believe that either the clergy at St. Mary de Castro or friars at the monastery would allow Richard to be buried without a decent, albeit private office being said. Would the audacious Henry Tudor have sent his royal predecessor from this world without a few prayers?
I believe the “ceremony” in question might refer to a huge, public observance such as that which followed Edward IV’s death in April 1483 at the relatively early age of 41. His funeral is extremely carefully documented. This account is greatly truncated, but I hope gives the flavour of the great public mourning, and the contrast with Richard’s funeral.
“After the King’s death, his body was ‘laid upon a board all naked, saving he was covered from the navel to the knees‘. He lay at Westminster Palace for twelve hours, while a file of priests, nobles and city dignitaries passed by him “in respect and sorrow.” Then “…his remains, wrapped in waxed cloth, were next day…taken to the Chapel of St. Stephen, where he lay in state, dressed in a full suit of gold armour, for eight days…..masses were sung throughout this period and offerings made. Guards were posted every night to prevent desecration.”
The funeral itself [and I believe this was fairly “typical” of a regal burial] took place with no fewer than ten bishops and two abbots, beginning at Westminster Abbey, attended by lords, knights and nobles who carried banners and the symbols of kingship. From the Abbey, the royal hearse moved slowly towards Windsor, halting at Charing Cross, Syon House, and Eton where the body was censed. A requiem was sung by the Archbishop of York, after which the body was placed “…in a great marble tomb he had had prepared some time before…..Into this the chief men of his household flung staves “in token of being men without a master”…they at once shouted “Le roy est vif! Le roy est vif!” ” (6) Edward was buried as he had lived, with colour and brilliance.
As Kendall reports, “Some years later, Henry VII disbursed £10 1s for a tomb of sorts for Richard’s grave. (7) In keeping with Henry’s well-known parsimony, I wonder if he would have made this frugal gesture if he had known that the monastery and tomb would be destroyed within a couple of decades? Did he have a twinge of guilt at the lack of a suitable memorial for the monarch he had vanquished? Although Richard’s blood was not directly on his hands, were there times in the dark hours of the night when Henry regretted the sad procession into Leicester, and vowed to “cleanse his conscience” by providing a tomb? His may have been a decision made in haste, with the adrenalin of battle still coursing in his veins, and it is true that he could have ordered otherwise for Richard (perhaps a hasty interment on the battlefield) though it was important to show the corpse to the people.
What of other English monarchs? This table, while listing only the date, place of death and place of burial for each king since the Conquest, serves to re-emphasize the contrast between most royal funerals with Richard’s. I have not included the time of year of each death; preserving an unembalmed body may have been more difficult during the hot summer months and may have resulted in faster burial in some cases. Remember also that some earlier kings had closer ties with France, and the double abbey at Fontrevrault was virtually a Plantagenet shrine.
William I (Conqueror) d. 1087 in France, bur. Abbey of St. Stephen, Caen
William II (Rufus) d. 1100 in New Forest, bur. Winchester Cathedral
Henry I d. 1135 in France, bur. at Reading Abbey
Stephen d. 1153 Blois, France, bur. Faversham Abbey near Canterbury. (The Abbey was demolished in 1538.) (8)
Henry II d. 1189 Chinon, France, bur. Fontrevrault, France
Richard I d. 1199 Chalus, Limousin, France, bur. Fontrevrault, France
John d. 1216 Newark Castle, bur. Worcester Cathedral
Henry III d. 1272 at Westminster, bur. Westminster Abbey (in the empty tomb of Edward the Confessor, when Edward’s body was transferred to a new Abbey grave)
Edward I d. 1307 in Cumbria, bur. Westminster Abbey
Edward II d. 1327 at Berkeley Castle, bur. Gloucester Cathedral
Edward III d. 1377 at Sheen, bur. Westminster Abbey
Richard II d. 1399/1400 at Pontefract, bur. Westminster Abbey
Henry IV d. 1413 in London, bur. Canterbury Cathedral
Henry V d. 1422 at Bois de Vincennes, bur. Westminster Abbey
Henry VI d. 1461 in the Tower of London, bur. Chertsey Abbey (reburied by Richard III at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor)
Edward IV d. 1483 at Westminster, bur. St. George’s Chapel, Windsor
Edward V (uncrowned) d.? bur.?
Richard III d. 1485, Bosworth Field, bur. Grey Friars, Leicester
A glance at this listing will reinforce the shameful treatment Richard III suffered.
Even monarchs who died in disfavour or in prison were accorded a resting place in a major abbey, cathedral or royal chapel. This raises another point about the choice of Leicester. Several kings died in France, or in remote parts of England, yet their bones or bodies were sent great distances for burial. Could Richard not have been carried to London, Windsor or even Fotheringhay to lie among his ancestors? Why Leicester? Looking at a map of Monastic Britain, it’s possible to plot “intervening opportunities” offered by other sites closer to Leicester. (9)
Being aware of the continuing controversy over the exact location of the field, if one draws a circle centred just to the west of Market Bosworth and its environs, covering about 20 miles in each direction (which takes in the approximate “crow’s flight” distance to Leicester) an astonishing number of monastic houses are included. Some dead from the battle would have been buried where they fell; others might have been carried to one or more of these houses. Richard’s body could have been sent west to Lichfield or Coventry both of which (like Leicester) had several monastic houses, to the Benedictine nuns at Polesworth, the Cistercian monks at Merevale or Combe, the Augustinians at Ulverscroft or Grace Dieu or the houses of secular canons at Sapcote or Hinckley. In fact, “… in 1511 the Chapel of St. James in Dadlington petitioned for a chantry foundation, since the bodies of …men who died in the conflict were buried there.” (10) A chantry would allow for perpetual prayers for the souls of the dead; and presumably not just those whose bones rested there.
Importantly, having made the journey as far as Leicester, why not continue about 30 miles directly east to Fotheringhay? Why not turn north towards York, Sheriff Hutton or Middleham? We can formulate an answer by attempting to read Henry’s mind (with reference again to Diana’s burial location); a parish church might become, by its’ more “accessible” nature, a site of pilgrimage to pray at the grave of a martyred king. Bury Richard (or Diana) in a location which is “controlled”, or “closed to the public”, and perhaps he will be soon forgotten; (or the throngs of mourners wishing to visit her grave won’t unfairly overrun a village church).
Assuming it was important to have Richard’s body on view in Leicester, “Why Grey Friars?” might well be “Why NOT Grey Friars?” A slender thread might be Richard’s support of religious houses, which tended to favour the Franciscan order. As Kendall is careful to point out, Richard’s religious donations appear fairly “standard”, but one telling note is his ownership of a Wyclifite New Testament. This, he says, “…suggests a religious experience more powerful and more private than conventional piety.” (11)
If we can boldly make an assumption on Richard’s behalf, perhaps he might have appreciated his burial site in the calm, regulated Franciscan chapel after the chaos of court life in London. The Grey Friars house at Leicester was probably in existence by 1230, and by 1300 one Walter de Foderingeye [!] was prior. (12) In 1402, having supported the cause of Richard II, ten friars of the house and a master of divinity were arrested and brought to London for trial. Although two friars initially escaped, all were executed.
“In 1402, at a general chapter of the Franciscans held at Leicester, it was forbidden to any of the Order to speak against the King.” (13)
Here, possibly, is one firm clue to the choice of Richard’s resting place. I do not know if this edict applied to ANY king, or was meant to endure past the reign of Henry IV, or indeed if the new Henry VII knew about it. But perhaps the choice of Grey Friars was a very deliberate one indeed! Here was a group of men whose own members had been chastised by the monarchy; they knew the price of political involvement. (I am doing more research to find out if this order was still in place 80 years after it had been issued.)
In 1538 when Grey Friars was surrendered by the warden and six others, it had a tiny net revenue of only £1 2s. (14) At this time, legend tells us that Richard’s body was disinterred and thrown into the River Soar. However, an article in the April 1997 issue of Ricardian Times, the newsletter of the New Zealand branch, suggests another intriguing possibility. Apparently in 1612 Robert Herrick, Mayor of Leicester, had in his home “…a handsome stone pillar, a metre high, on which was inscribed: ‘Here lies the body of Richard III some time King of England.” As Herrick’s house was built on the remains of Grey Friars, perhaps this report has some merit. Charles Ross offers that after the Dissolution, Richard’s stone coffin was emptied and “…became a horse-trough outside the White Horse Inn. By 1758, even that had disappeared; the broken pieces had come to form part of the inn’s cellar-steps.”(15) We will probably never learn the truth.
Ricardians know that they cannot go to a particular abbey or chapel between the hours of x and y and see the king’s actual tomb. We can speculate on why his body was not moved to a more respectful spot at the Dissolution, or why (as Ross suggests, no “second-generation usurping [Tudor]” did public penance or provided a proper burial site. In any case, “With the problematic exception of [uncrowned] Edward V, Richard is the only English king since 1066 whose remains are not now enshrined in a suitably splendid and accredited royal tomb.”(16)
Postscript, February 2013:
The discovery of the bones of “The King in the Car Park” in August 2012, and their subsequent positive identification as those of Richard III, has happily rendered the conclusion of this paper inaccurate. It is now confirmed that not only was Richard buried at Grey Friars, but the interment was in a place of honour with regards to the High Altar. His remains were confirmed through use of mitochondrial DNA samples, which gave a link to Canadian furniture-maker Michael Ibsen, an authenticated 17th generation descendant of Richard’s sister Anne of York.
Richard’s new place of rest will be in Leicester Cathedral, which in his day would have been simply known as St. Martin’s parish church. The location is appropriate as it is a short distance from the Grey Friars site, and the monastery site is within the parish boundaries.
Fittingly, Michael Ibsen will fashion the wooden coffin to hold the bones of his many-times great uncle.
REFERENCES & BIBLIOGRAPHY
(1) Quoted in Colin Platt, The Abbeys and Priories of Medieval England. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1984, p. 221.
(2) Paul Murray Kendall, Richard III. London, Sphere Books, 1973, p. 493.
(3) Desmond Seward, Richard III, England’s Black Legend. New York: Watts, 1984, p. 195.
(4) M. Gurowitz, in the Richard III Society (American Branch) website. “What do we really know about Bosworth Field?” www.webcom.com/r3/bosworth/battle
(5) Kendall, p. 40.
(6) Eric N. Symons, The Reign of Edward IV. London: F. Mueller Ltd., 1996, pp. 296-8.
(7) Kendall, p. 493, reporting Privy Purse expenses.
(8) It would be interesting to know what happened to Stephen’s body, as the Abbey was demolished and the stones sent to Calais.
(9) Ordnance Survey, Monastic Britain, South Sheet.
(10) Gurowitz, web site.
(11) Kendall, p. 320.
(12) J.R.H. Moorman, Medieval Franciscan Houses. New York, Franciscan Institute, 1983, p. 257.
(13) R.A. McKinley (ed.) Victoria County History, Leicestershire, vol. 2. Oxford, University Press, 1958, pp. 33-4.
(14) ibid., citing S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/7311, m.67.
(15) Ross, p. 226.
(It’s interesting to note that the more docile Dominican Friars of Leicester received an inexpensive (ie. non- onetary) gift from Henry VII in 1489–some oaks to help rebuild their dormitory! VCH, Leics., vol. 2. p. 34.)
We had a brief visit to Leicester in August 1997, but were unable to do more than locate and photograph the exterior of St. Mary de Castro church. As all modern accounts suggest, the site of Grey Friars is unfortunately, totally obscured. MCH-C.