The king of the car park


Earliest surviving portrait, circa 1520

The first question that everyone seems to ask is:  Why was he buried in a parking lot?

Few people, apparently, have heard of the dissolution of the monasteries and the destruction of churches under Henry VIII and his heirs, one of the great legacies of the Tudors.  Remember Shakespeare‘s “Bare ruinèd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang”?  Some of the churches were merely stripped of anything valuable, others, such as the Franciscan monastery of Leicester, were leveled to the ground.  According to Wikipedia, “The church foundations, floor levels, and demolition layer were found under some 30 centimetres (12 in) of garden soil, itself capped by a further 45 centimetres (18 in) of mill waste used to create a base for the car parking area of recent years.”

When the experts announced today that they had definitively identified the bones of Richard III (the curvature of the spine was so pronounced that breathing would have been difficult and the pain agonizing), what astonished me most was the savagery of the attack that killed the king in the Battle of Bosworth Field, 1485, which put the first Tudor, Henry VII, on the throne.  According to the Guardian:

The hands lay by his side, but as found suggested that he was buried with arms still bound, just as he was lugged from the battlefield. The skull lay with the largely undamaged face up – itself a significant and sinister point, according to the experts, hiding the savage blow to the base from a halberd, a fearsome medieval pike-like weapon, which sliced through bone and into the brain and would have killed him in seconds. …

There was another sword slash to the skull, which would also have penetrated to the brain and proved fatal in moments, but the others came after death, and were described – in an image still resonant from many battlegrounds today – as “humiliation injuries”. They could not have happened to a man protected by armour, and are consistent with the accounts of his body being stripped on the battlefield, and brought back to Leicester naked, slung over the pommel of a horse. That, almost certainly, was when the thrusting injury through the right buttock and into the pelvis happened.

Professor Lin Foxhall, head of the university’s archaeology department, and Bob Savage, an expert on medieval weapons from the Royal Armouries, pointed out that Richard’s face was relatively undamaged.

The winner, so to speak. (Musee Calvet, Avignon)

“They’d killed the king and they needed to keep him recognisable,” Savage said. “To me, the injuries are fully consistent with the accounts of his dying in a melee, and [being] unhorsed – I believe he was dead within minutes of coming off his horse. But they took care not to bash the face about too much.”

“It’s the Gaddafi effect,” Foxhall said. “We saw just this in the horrible mobile-phone footage of Gaddafi being found, and you can hear the voices shouting ‘not the face, don’t touch the face’. It’s one of those dreadful lessons from history which we never learn.”

In Winter King: The Dawn of the Tudor England, Thomas Penn describes the battle this way:

“This day,” soldiers heard Richard’s shout, “I will die as a king or win.” He was swept away, battered to death so viciously his helmet was driven into his skull.  … After the battle, the dead king’s wrecked body had been slung over a horse, its long hair tied under its chin, then set on display at Leicester’s Franciscan friary, naked except for a piece of cheap black cloth preserving its modesty, before a perfunctory burial – “like a dog in a ditch,” some said.

And Greyfriars in Leicester is where he remained for these last five centuries or so.  According to the New York Times:  “Friars fearful of the men who slew him in battle buried the man in haste, naked and anonymous, without a winding sheet, rings or personal adornments of any kind, in a space so cramped his cloven skull was jammed upright and askew against the head of his shallow grave.”

Now this is the reason I’m telling the story.  I don’t know much about the War of the Roses, I don’t know who killed the Princes in the Tower, but I do know something about the Tudors, and Henry VII was a calculating, greedy extortionist in a grasping, avaricious family with slight claims to the throne.

So cut away to Easter Sunday, 8 April, 1509:

Unable to eat and struggling for breath, Henry’s mind was fixated on the hereafter.  … emaciated and in intense pain, he staggered into his privy closet, where he dropped to his knees and crawled to receive the sacrament. … Pervading the carefully worded penitential formulas, [Bishop] Fisher later noted, was a sense that the king acknowledged and truly repented the depradations of his regime.  As Henry lay amid mounds of pillows, cushions and bolsters, throat rattling, gasmping for breath, he mumbled again and again to the clerics, doctors and secret servants around him – indeed, “freely,” to anyone within the close confines of the privy chamber – that “if it pleased God to send him life they should find him a changed man.”

When I read this passage last year, I remember other accounts of people who wished they’d done it differently, wished they could get another crack at it.  Irena Sendler, after saving 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto, was troubled at the end of her life, and slept restlessly, wondering … was there something more she could have done?  If Steven Spielberg is to be believed, Oskar Schindler wished the same, at war’s end – he regretted the sacrifices he could have made and didn’t.  Shakespeare’s Desdemona dies asking simply for one … more … moment…

Richard III’s end was violent and merciless, Henry VII’s was anguished. Sooner or later we’ll all hit the end of the road.  And there are worse places to find oneself than a car park.

Forgive the schmaltzy music, but here’s the last scene from Schindler’s List.

Postscript on 2/6:  We got some nice pick-up from 3quarksdaily on this – thanks Morgan Meis!

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3 Responses to “The king of the car park”

  1. Pierre de Taille Says:

    For those interested, there is a very good documentary / fiction about Richard III (The play), initiated by Al Pacino, who loves Shakespeare: “Looking for Richard”, with himself, Alec Baldwin and Winona Ryder. Worth watching (on DVD) after this discovery.

  2. Lynda Sutton Says:

    Glad to see that Richard III is of so much interest across the Atlantic! I first “discovered” Richard as a 13 year old (am now nearly 66) and have read just about everything that’s ever been published. Although he interests me greatly and I admire him in many ways, nevertheless I’m convinced he had the two princes killed … regrettable, but a political necessity. September 3rd 1483 is the purported date …. Richard’s servant Sir James Tyrell was in possession of the keys to the Tower for that night only.

    The best biography on the planet ever written about Richard is definitely the book published by the Yale University (author Charles Ross).

    What did you all make of the reconstruction of the face?


  3. car servicing Says:

    Thanks, Pierre de Taille. I saw the news item about digging up the car park but did not know about the documentary.