The Richard III Funeral Controversy and 5 Unknown Royal Grave Sites

The earliest surviving portrait of Richard III

The controversy surrounding the burial of Richard III, whose remains were discovered last year in a Leicester parking lot, continues this week as fifteen surviving descendants of the King’s relatives threaten legal action if the King is not buried in York Minster cathedral. The University of Leicester responded to the members of the Plantagenet Alliance on March 26, stating in a press release, “The plan for re-interment in Leicester Cathedral was clearly stated and unambiguous at the start of the project and announced in a statement on Friday 24 August 2012. This was before the dig started.”

Leicester Cathedral has faced criticism in recent weeks for planning a plain stone stab as a memorial for Richard III instead of the elaborate tomb designed by members of the Richard III society.  The nature of the planned funeral service has also received scrutiny because Leicester Cathedral is a Church of England place of worship but the King reigned before the Protestant Reformation and would have worshipped according to Roman Catholic rites.

The Russian Imperial family in 1913

The debate concerning the funeral of Richard III may appear unique but it has much in common with the controversies that surrounded the excavation and reburial of Emperor Nicholas II of Russia, his wife Alexandra, their five children and four of their servants during the 1990s. Russia’s Imperial capital, St. Petersburg, its current capital, Moscow, and the location of the family’s 1918 murder, Yekaterinburg were all potential locations for the reburial of the remains. Russia’s last Imperial family were ultimately laid to rest in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg, which is the burial place of all but two Russian rulers since the reign of Peter the Great.

Richard III’s funeral may set precedents governing the discovery and reburial of other lost royal remains in the British Isles. There are numerous prominent royal personages who still do not have a known grave for numerous reasons including the dissolution of the English monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII, disgrace at the time of death or even rumours of survival at the time of the official funeral.

Portrait of the Princes in the Tower, Kind Edward V and Richard, Duke of York by Paul Delaroche

Here are 5 Examples of Unknown or Contested Royal Grave Sites in the British Isles:

1) The Princes in the Tower The deposed King Edward V and his brother, Richard, Duke of York disappeared in 1483, after their uncle, Richard III, seized the throne and confined them to the Tower of London. In 1674, a box containing the skeletons of two children was discovered near the White Tower. King Charles II interred the remains in an urn in Westminster Abbey. The remains were last analyzed in 1933, before the advent of DNA analysis, which made it impossible to confirm that the remains were actually those of the Princes of the Tower. The 2012 discovery of Richard III revived popular interest in modern analysis of the bones in the urn but both Westminster Abbey and Queen Elizabeth II have refused permission for further study of the alleged remains of the Princes in the Tower. Further Reading: Alison Weir, The Princes in the Tower

Statue of Alfred the Great in Winchester

2) Alfred the Great The famous Saxon King died in 899 after a long and painful illness that may have been Crohn’s Disease. Alfred, his wife Ealhswith, and son, Edward the Elder were originally buried in the Old Minster of Winchester Cathedral then moved to the New Minster. When the monks moved to Hyde Abbey in 1110, they took the royal remains with them where they remained until the Abbey was demolished on the orders of King Henry VIII in 1539. By the time a prison was constructed on the Hyde Abbey site in the eighteenth century, the bones were lost. Stone coffins inscribed with the names of Alfred, Ealhswith and Edward were discovered recently but they were empty, suggesting that the monks moved the royal remains before the dissolution of the monasteries. In 2013, archaeologists exhumed an unmarked grave in St Bartholomew’s Church, Winchester. Researchers from the University of Winchester are currently seeking permission to analyze these remains, which may be those of the long lost Alfred the Great. Further Reading: Benjamin Mekkle, The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the Great

“Boadicea Haranguing the Britons” by John Opie

3) Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni The Celtic Queen fought her last battle against the Romans in 60 or 61 AD and is believed to have committed suicide following her defeat to avoid being paraded in a Roman Triumph. The precise location of the battle and the Queen’s final resting place in unknown. King’s Cross railway station in London is located on the site of a village known as “Battle Bridge” near the site of an ancient crossing of the River Fleet. According to legend, Boudicca fought her last stand on this location and was buried in the area. There is speculation that Boudicca’s tomb may be located under platform 8,9 or 10 at King’s Cross railway station. There is not currently sufficient evidence to merit an excavation of King’s Cross station. Further Reading: Marguerite Johnson, Boudicca

4) Simon de Montfort King Henry III’s brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort was killed at the Battle of Evesham during the Second Barons War in 1265. Montfort seized control of the government after defeating Henry III at the Battle of Lewes in 1264 and taking the King and his heir prisoner. During his year in power, Montfort pioneered representative government, summoning elected representatives from the counties for a 1265 parliament at Westminster. Henry III’s son, the future Edward I, escaped in 1265 and raised a 10,000 man army that defeated Montfort’s 5,000 supporters at Evesham. Monfort’s remains were mutilated on the battlefield and displayed in various regions of England before being buried at Evesham Abbey. Henry III was dismayed by the number of pilgrims who visited Montfort’s grave and ordered the remains to be removed to an unknown location on the Abbey grounds. Evesham Abbey was almost entirely destroyed in 1540, during the dissolution of the monasteries. Further Reading: J. R. Maddicott, Simon de Montfort

Edward II receiving the English Crown

5) Edward II King Edward II was deposed by his wife, Queen Isabella and her lover, Roger Mortimer in 1327. The former King was imprisoned in Berkeley Castle while Isabella and Mortimer governed on behalf of his young son, Edward III. There were rumours that Edward II was quietly smothered in prison later in 1327. Isabella held a public funeral for her late husband in Gloucester Cathedral that same year. In his 1592 play Edward II, Christopher Marlowe popularized a more brutal legend about the King’s passing by having Mortimer’s agents come onstage with a table and a red hot poker and one of murderers declare, “So, lay the table down, and stamp on it/But not too hard lest that you bruise his body.”

Despite the funeral and the legends surrounding Edward II’s manner of death, Edward III’s biographer, Ian Mortimer has discovered evidence that the deposed King may have escaped from Berkeley Castle and lived out his natural life in retirement in Italy. In this hypothesis, Edward II exchanged clothing with a servant who closely resembled him and left Berkeley Castle for Ireland and, ultimately, Italy. The unlucky servant was murdered and buried in Gloucester Cathedral. Mortimer’s theory has been contested by other scholars of Edward II’s life and death. For further Reading on Edward II’s reign, see Seymour Phillips, Edward II

6 thoughts on “The Richard III Funeral Controversy and 5 Unknown Royal Grave Sites

  1. A better book would be “Richard III – The Maligned King” by Annette Carson. Meticulously researched, fully footnoted from contemporary sources.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation. My favourite Richard III biography is the recent one by David Baldwin. I reviewed it in a previous post on this site.

    • I am sorry – but not, I’m afraid, surprised – that in the year of the 500th anniversary of Flodden you did not include in your survey of undiscovered royal graves that of James IV . I wrote a letter to ‘The Scotsman’ on 12th April on the various possibilities of the whereabouts of the parts of the king’s remains (including under a golf course) ; please let me know if you would like a copy e-mailed .

    • Hi Jeff, that is partly correct but several years ago Faversham Abbey, which has little or no remains above the ground, was excavated and what were thought the burial vaults of Stephen, his wife Matilda and his son Eustace were discovered. They were empty. There is a tradition that the bodies were thrown into the local river at the Dissolution, rather like that of Richard III. However there is a tomb in the local church which contains a monument which others say contain their remains which were transferred there at the Dissolution. I hope this is of interest. Regards, John

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