The Burial and Reburials of Richard III

The Burial and Reburials of Richard III

At the end of March 2015, the remains of Richard III, lost for centuries, will finally be reburied with honor and dignity. One wonders, how could the burial site of an anointed King of England become lost?

The answer is: With great difficulty!

First, the king must be pushed off his throne and killed. Four Plantagenets met this fate: Edward II, Richard II, Henry VI and Richard III. Edward II is unique since he was succeeded by his son, Edward III. The younger Edward wanted no unpleasant comments about his father’s death, and so ceremoniously buried him in Gloucester, far far from London.

The burials of Richard II and Henry VI, however, offer some interesting similarities and differences to the events surrounding Richard III.

The Death of Richard III

Richard III was killed in battle on 22 August 1485 at Bosworth Field, Leicestershire, by the forces of Henry Tudor, who took the throne as Henry VII. Polydore Vergil described the scene after Richard’s death:

“… Richard’s naked body was slung over a horse, its head, arms and legs dangling, and was brought to the Franciscan monastery at Leicester [known as Greyfriars], a sorry spectacle but a sight worthy of the man’s life, and there it was given burial two days later, without any funeral ceremony (from the translation by Dana F. Sutton, at”

John Rous, a scholar who was roughly contemporary with Richard, also noted that Richard was buried at Greyfriars, and gave a clue as to the location for his grave:

“…. finally he was buried among the Friars Minor of Leicester in the choir” (from the website of the University of Leicester

One hundred and fifty years after the fact, Francis Bacon, in his 1622 History of the Reign of King Henry VII, attempted to excuse the lack of ceremony, writing:

“… the body of Richard, after many indignities and reproaches … was obscurely buried. For though the King of his nobleness gave charge unto the friars of Leicester to see an honourable interment to be given to it, yet the religious people themselves, being not free from the humours of the vulgar, neglected it…”

The desecration of Richard’s body in the immediate aftermath of Bosworth was unprecedented. Neither Richard II nor Henry VI were treated in this way. Of course, neither of them was killed in the heat of battle. Instead, having been deposed and imprisoned, they were secretly and coldly assassinated.

Buried Without Ceremony

Richard III is also alone in being buried without ceremony. The body of Richard II, who died at the northern castle of Pontefract, was brought south to London with stops along the way for the populace to view the corpse’s uncovered face. This was standard procedure, meant to lessen the chances of bogus “survival sightings.”

Richard II was then given a solemn journey to St. Paul’s Cathedral on a carriage draped in black cloth and adorned with the arms of St. George and St. Edward. His requiem mass was attended by Henry IV. A second mass the following day was attended by the citizens of London.

Richard2-FuneralThe body of Richard II is brought to London. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

There was also some ceremony involved in the original burial of Henry VI, who was killed in the Tower of London on 21 May 1471. His body lay for a day in St. Paul’s with his face uncovered to prove his identity, and was then taken to London’s Blackfriars Abbey for a funeral service. Household accounts show that Edward IV authorized the expenditure of some £15 to purchase wax, spices and twenty-eight yards of Holland linen to wrap the body, with additional money given for masses to be said for Henry’s soul.

It is possible that (contrary to the assertion of Francis Bacon) Richard III also was given a quiet funeral liturgy of some sort by the friars who were given his body. The reported neglect of these basic Christian rituals must, however, have been widespread for Bacon to address them so directly, in his attempt to shift the blame from Henry VII.

One characteristic shared by all three monarchs is that their successors did not provide them with an appropriately regal tomb.

After Richard II’s funeral in London, Henry IV did not have him interred in the double tomb at Westminster Abbey that he had constructed after the death of his first wife, Anne of Bohemia. Instead, Richard II’s body was quietly carried to King’s Langley where it was interred in a Dominican friary.

Similarly, Edward IV had Henry VI’s body taken by barge to an obscure grave in the Benedictine abbey of Chertsey.

Richard III’s grave at Greyfriars remained unmarked for ten years until, in 1495, Henry VII commissioned Walter Hylton to create a now-vanished alabaster memorial for his tomb. Given the amount of money involved, Richard III’s tomb may have been the grandest and most elaborate of the three. But, was it regal? Not in comparison to his predecessors. And certainly not in comparison to his successor!

Henry VII’s grave at Westminster Abbey, in the Lady Chapel he himself had built, is commemorated by an elaborate double tomb, topped by a magnificent set of gilt effigies of Henry and his wife, Elizabeth of York.

The most striking divergence in the fate of the three kings’ graves came in the NEXT generation.

It was Henry IV’s son, Henry V, who ceremoniously reburied Richard II. Richard’s body was laid in a new elm coffin and carried in procession to Westminster, where he was finally laid in that grand double tomb with Anne of Bohemia. Henry V attended the service of reinterment and made detailed arrangements for masses to be said on the yearly anniversaries of Richard’s death, with alms distributed to the poor.

Richard2-Funeral-xThe burial of Richard II; note the effigy and the long candles with the royal seal. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

It was Edward IV’s successor, his brother Richard III, who reburied Henry VI in 1484. Richard brought Henry back to his birthplace at Windsor Castle and buried him in St. George’s Chapel, the same site chosen by Edward IV for his own tomb.

An exhumation in 1910 showed that Henry’s remains, originally buried at Chertsey without a casket, had been placed within a new small wooden ossuary or chest, that chest placed within another small chest of sheet lead, and then both placed inside a full-size wooden coffin.

Lost for Centuries

And what did Henry VII’s successor do, to set right his father’s denial of a royal burial for Richard III? Instead of giving Richard a tomb in a more regal setting, Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and abbeys, effectively tossing the care of the graves in those consecrated sites to the winds. Greyfriars was abandoned and fell into ruins.

The site was ultimately acquired by the Herrick family. A garden was laid out where the church choir once stood. A stone pillar was seen in 1612 with the inscription “Here lies the body of Richard III, some time King of England.” The pillar, too, was lost. Aidan Dodson wrote wistfully in The Royal Tombs of Great Britain in 2004, “It thus remains possible that the body may still remain in its original position, below the modern street or buildings near Friar Lane and The Greyfriars.”

And how right he was! Thanks to the inspired efforts of the Looking For Richard Project, headed by Philippa Langley, the dedicated work of archaeologists and historians from the University of Leicester, and the ongoing support and involvement of the Richard III Society, digging began at the newly identified Greyfriars site on 24 August 2012. And there HE – Richard the Third!! – was.

The question now was, Richard’s body having been found, and the determination made that he would be reburied at Leicester Cathedral, how to most appropriately accomplish the reburial?

As this is being written, the reburial has not yet happened but the plans have been made public.

Richard’s remains will be laid in a full-size lead casket placed within a wooden coffin made of English oak. The coffin will rest below the cathedral floor, in a brick-lined vault, with a stone and marble tomb over it. The tomb design has ignited controversy – not unexpected in any discussion of any aspect of Richard’s life or death!

The actual reinterment ceremonies are another area of controversy.

More Than a Family Funeral

Richard himself was very familiar with reburial ceremonies, having not only ordered and carried out the rites for Henry VI but having also played a key role in the reburial of his father, the Duke of York.

Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, and his son Edmund of Rutland, had been killed at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460 and buried at Pontefract, in the north of England where they fell. In 1476, York’s oldest son, now King Edward IV, decided to ceremonially return their bodies to the family church at Fotheringhay. The person chosen to organize this logistical nightmare of an event was Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

An elaborate cortege was arranged. The route from Pontefract to Fotheringhay was scouted out. Notables of each area notified and invited to participate. The churches where the bodies would rest overnight were identified and approached. The list of necessities included horses, food, lodging, flags and heraldic banners, candles and more candles, black mantles, black drapings, black hangings. And then, there was the funeral feast! And, of course, the endless rearranging of the all-important order of precedence among the jostling aristocracy!

This was far more than a family funeral. This was a statement of the House of York’s right to the throne of England, a throne now held by Edward IV, but denied to his father, Richard, Duke of York.

The ceremony began on Sunday 21 July 1476, when the bodies of York and Edmund were exhumed and placed in a hearse in the priory at Pontefract. A hearse was a wooden structure, painted black and displaying heraldic symbols, with an ornamental roof and pillars, around which and on which multiple candlesticks would be placed, and under which the coffin was placed.

Funeral-1514-Anne-Brittany-Coffin-Effigy-Hearse-NetherlandsA French royal hearse and effigy, with multiple candles on and around the hearse. Courtesy of the National Library of the Netherlands Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

Royal coffins were usually topped by life-size effigies. The Duke of York had such an effigy, a powerful visual statement that (in the Yorkist view) he had been the rightful king. As an unrealized king, however, his crown was not placed on his head but held over it by the figure of an angel.

The coffins were brought to Fotheringhay in a four-wheeled carriage, covered with black velvet turned back to show the effigy and pulled by seven horses trapped in black.

In his role as chief mourner, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, rode directly behind his father’s carriage. He was followed by a multitude of nobles on horseback and some four hundred men on foot carrying large torches. The procession from Pontefract to Fotheringhay took seven days, moving between eleven and twenty miles a day.

At each town the cortege entered, it was welcomed by guilds, fraternities, religious orders, local nobles and officials, in organized processions. In every church where the bodies rested, there was a new hearse waiting. Each morning, before the bodies continued on their journey, a requiem mass was said.

When the cortege reached Fotheringhay, Edward IV and other family members met the caskets at the door of the Church of St. Mary and All Saints. The caskets were taken into the church and placed inside their last, waiting hearse.

Fotheringhay-St-Marys-ExteriorThe Church of St. Mary and All Saints at Fotheringhay.

The final funeral and entombment ceremonies were held on Tuesday, 30 July 1476. Three masses were celebrated. York’s coat of arms, shield, sword and helmet were hung over the tomb and a black warhorse, trapped in black with the full royal arms, was ridden into the church and given into the hands of a deacon. Eventually, the bodies were lowered into their graves.

Fotheringhay-St-Marys-TombThe current monument for Richard, Duke of York, Cecily Neville, and their son Edmund, was commissioned in 1573.

There followed a feast with seating for 1500 people in tents built for the occasion. The huge quantities of food and beverage consumed indicate that there were at least that number of people present.

At the conclusion of the ceremonies, alms were distributed to some 5,000 people. A monument was placed on the tomb. It had been destroyed by 1573, when Elizabeth I commissioned the current monument.

The reinterment of the Duke of York in 1476 could not be duplicated in the 21st century. It does, however, provide some useful guideposts for Richard III’s reinterment.

The casket will, we know, rest in state in the Cathedral for some three days, allowing thousands to pay their respects. There will undoubtedly be countless banquets, not to mention heraldic flags and banners, ceremony and grandeur! And, with the expected surge in tourism, let us hope that the coffers of Leicester Cathedral swell so that they can continue with the modern-day version of alms, through outreach and assistance to the community.