Friday 14 September 2012

Dicks and their Bones

So archaeologists have (probably) found the body of Richard III ( At long last! This discovery is almost worthy of a holiday in my book (FYI: Richard III’s birthday is coming up – October 2 – and that is a holiday in my world). To honor this epic discovery, I thought I would provide a quick rundown of the fate of the bones of all three Royal Dicks.

Most of Richard I was buried in Fontevrault, an abbey in France. This is not surprising for two reasons 1) both his parents are buried there and 2) the man loved France and spent way more of his time there than he ever did in England. I said most of Richard is in Fontevrault because his heart was buried in Rouen Cathedral and his entrails in Ch├ólus, where he died. Yes, being buried in more than one place was a definite thing in the middle ages (at least for aristocrats). The medieval Catholic church was actually not too keen on people being dismembered and buried in any number of places, but they couldn’t stop the rich and important from doing whatever they wanted. Personally, if I ever become a somebody (not likely) I want my bits and pieces scattered as many places as possible. Unfortunately for Richard and his ‘rents, Fontevrault did not make it through the French Revolution unscathed. Their bones are probably lost.

Richard II had carefully planned ahead to ensure the best possible setting for the eternal repose of his mortal remains. When his wife Anne of Bohemia died in 1394, Richard contracted with artists and builders to construct a beautiful double tomb (the first double tomb for royalty in England) in the shrine of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey. Anne’s body was placed in the tomb and Richard waited to join her. He unfortunately went to his everlasting reward a bit earlier than he had intended; after his deposition in September 1399, he was starved to death by his cousin and successor Henry IV. After his death, Henry originally sent Richard’s body to the Dominican friary in Kings Langley. Richard remained there until 1413, when Henry V (son and successor of Henry IV) moved Richard’s body to Westminster Abbey as a sign of political healing. Ever since, Richard has rested beside his beloved Anne.

However, the couple’s rest has not always been … restful. The tomb’s decorations began to come unattached in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, revealing holes. Schoolboys at Westminster School (which meet on the abbey grounds) would stick their hands inside and fiddle with the bones. Sometimes, they even stole them. Richard’s jawbone was taken by a student in 1776; it was finally returned in 1906.* Rumor has it, the family passed the jawbone down through the generations and were using it as a paperweight before Westminster Abbey demanded it back. Anyway, when the tomb was opened in 1871, many of Richard and Anne’s bones were missing. Some, such as the jawbone, have been returned; others are gone forever. As creepy as it would be to have a bone for a paperweight, I would love to have a bone from either Richard II or Anne of Bohemia. It would be so sweet!

*Dates on the jawbone:

From Westminster Abbey website

From Westminster Abbey website

Finally, Richard III. After his death at Bosworth, he was interred at the Franciscan church in Leicester. That church was destroyed after the Reformation; eventually the area became a parking lot. And now, Richard’s body has been found, underneath said parking lot. Huzzah!

There was no guarantee the archaeologists would find Richard’s body. Some stories said the king’s body was thrown into the River Soar when the church was destroyed. It would appear that was not true.

Memorial to Richard III in Leicester Cathedral

Bonus: Richard, earl of Cornwall

This Richard was the younger brother of Henry III. Richard was also elected King of the Romans (actually king of Germany), so he’s suitably royal. He was buried at Hailes Abbey, a Cistercian monastery he founded in Gloucestershire.  The church and tombs at Hailes have all been destroyed, although the ruins are a tourist attraction run by English Heritage (I’ve been – it’s great). Richard is buried somewhere near the altar, and unless someone has pilfered it (unlikely), his skeleton should still be there. When I visited Hailes, I walked over every inch of the ruins of the church, just so I could be sure I had been on the spot of Richard’s grave.

Ruins of Hailes Abbey (not the church)


  1. The thing I find most interesting is that the bones show signs of scoliosis. This discovery is going to go a long way toward separating history from myth, but the hunchback story is one myth-y element that's going to settle back into the history column. So cool.

  2. So true. I think it's cool as well. It's really fascinating to see how a false image grew out of a grain of truth. It's also interesting to see evidence that even medieval elites suffered from some of the same diseases we have now. I wonder how they treated scoliosis back then? Did they?

  3. I would guess they didn't - and if you were not form a rich family and had the fortune (or misfortune) to survive with it, you'd be unable to perform much manual labor and maybe end up a life-long beggar. But that's just conjecture - perhaps now that this has come out, more attention will be paid to other cases. All those people who work on disability studies are going to have a field day with this.