Category Archives: history

The strange case of Richard III

History is a funny thing.

It was announced today, and shortly all over the interwebs, that the skeletal remains of King Richard III had been positively identified “beyond reasonable doubt.”

The remains were found under a car park in Leicester, England, after a search for the “missing” church of Greyfriars, where the king had been hastily buried after his defeat at Bosworth by Henry Tudor, the future Henry VII.

Scientists matched the DNA of the skeleton to two of Richard III’s maternal line relatives. Radiocarbon dating also revealed the individual died in the second half of the 15th or early 16th century, consistent with the king’s death in 1485.


What fascinates me though, is that while the mystery of the missing king is now solved, the mystery of the missing “Princes in the Tower” still remains.

Richard’s brother, Edward IV, inherited the claim to the throne during the Wars of the Roses in the mid-15th century. After defeating Henry VI, a Lancaster, in 1471, his claim was cemented, and the crown of England was destined to be passed down to his young 12-year-old son, Edward V, upon his death in 1483. The mistake he made was making his brother, Richard III, Protector.

Or was it a mistake?

There is little to no certain evidence Richard III was involved in the disappearance of Edward V and his younger brother, Richard, the Duke of York. Before Edward V could be crowned, his parents’ marriage was declared invalid, making him ineligible for the throne. Edward V and his brother were lodge in the Tower at this time, and were never seen again after Richard III was crowned. Many believed Richard III had the princes killed in order to cement his own claim to the throne, but the evidence against him is only circumstantial.

Other suspects in the disappearance of the two princes exist, most benefiting Richard III. But the question remains. Did Richard order the deaths of the princes? Did one of his cronies take them out without his knowledge to make Richard’s claim to the throne more valid? Or did Henry Tudor get rid of them after his defeat of Richard III in order to validate his claim to the throne?

It’s one of the great historical mysteries that fascinates me.

The other thing I find intriguing is the condition of the bones. History remembers him as a grotesque man, a limping hunchback with a withered arm who craved the throne for himself. But this image of Richard is taken from Shakespeare’s Richard III, a Tudor sympathizer. Of course he would paint the enemy of the Tudors in a negative light.

With the bones, scientists found evidence of scoliosis, a curvature of the spin, which would have made him shorter, but no evidence of a hunchback or withered arm. If our beliefs about his appearance are wrong, what else could be wrong? Could he be innocent of the princes’ disappearance? Was he, as some contemporaries and historians claim, actually a decent king?

History is written by the winners, and this may be one of the ultimate cases.

History really is a funny thing.

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Wiki Wednesday: Greyfriars Kirkyard

I’ve not been blogging much lately. Sometimes my head just feels so empty. (Don’t say it.) So in an attempt to make myself write more, I’m trying something new — Wiki Wednesdays.

I’m a Wikipedia addict. I love how I can see something on TV or read about something in a book and hop online to Wikipedia to read more about it. For me, using Wikipedia is like reading a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. While reading the original article, I’ll find myself opening links inside that article in new tabs, to read about something related to the original subject I had searched for… which will lead to more new tabs opened, and before I know it, I’ll have 15 tabs open on Firefox and have wasted an hour learning about things ranging from the cast of “Glee” to supposed secret government conspiracies.

So, every Wednesday (knock on wood), I figured I’d share one subject I learned about that week using Wikipedia. Remember to always take what you read on the Wiki with a grain of salt, but I do maintain it’s a good place to start to learn more information about something you may not have known before.

Subject: Greyfriars Kirkyard

Inspiration: “Afraid of the Dark” documentary on History Channel

A view of the north-eastern corner of Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh EH1, Scotland. On the left you can see the 'mortsafes' mentioned in the article, along with wall. (Photo by Tom Flynn)

My mother like to TiVo random documentaries during the summer to watch in between “Big Brother,” which she’s addicted to. (I plead the 5th.) This week we watched a two-hour special on why people are afraid of the dark. (Personally, I’m not so much afraid of the dark as I am the things lurking in the dark.)

One of the locales featured was Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh, Scotland. I love Scotland. I love creepy cemeteries. I had to learn more about it, especially when the program mentioned that it wasn’t so much a cemetery as it was a hill of bones, since the town had run out of space to bury the deceased, so most of the graves actually had several bodies in them, one buried on top of the other.

The Wikipedia entry does not mention this (drat… I love the macabre), but it does contain the story of how Greyfriars came to be. The Town Council at the time declared the existing cemetery, St. Giles, to be full, and so ordered Greyfriars, on the site of a dissolved Franciscan friary, to be converted into a cemetery.

Because it is thought correct that there should be no more burials within St Giles, and because that kirkyard is not thought to have sufficient room for burying the dead, and taking into consideration the smell and inconvenience in the heat of summer, it would be provided ( by the council ) that a burial place be made further from the middle of town, such as in Greyfriars yard/ garden and the same ( should be ) built up and made secure. — Town Council records, April 23, 1561

The best know resident of Greyfriars is perhaps Greyfriars Bobby, a little Skye Terrier so devoted to his master that he kept watch over his master’s grave for 14 years. When Bobby passed away in 1872, the townsfolk buried him just inside the gates of the cemetery, near his master’s grave, since a dog could not be buried in the consecrated ground itself. He has his own headstone and a memorial statue erected nearby.

There is also a memorial to the Covenanters, where some 1200 members of the movement were imprisoned in the late 1600s.

The cemetery contains two mortsafes, which were ironwork cages that could be leased to protect bodies from “Resurraction Men” — grave robbers who would steal the bodies of the recently deceased and sell them to Edinburg Medical College where medical students dissected them for study. (Which is damn creepy.)

I had heard of Greyfriars before, as one of the many ghost hunting shows I watch had visited. It’s supposed to be one of the most haunted cemeteries in Europe, and many people have reported injuries they don’t remember actually sustaining. Which means I must put it on my “haunted places to someday visit” list.

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Getting to know ‘The Tudors’

I spent the recent 4th of July weekend watching nothing but British television. I started out the morning watching “The Sarah Jane Adventures,” ate lunch while watching (yet again) reruns of “Doctor Who” on BBC America and finished the day off watching season 1 of “The Tudors.” (OK, so, “The Tudors” isn’t exactly British television, but it’s close enough.)

Anne Boleyn — what's a little historical inaccuracy compared to ratings?

I’ve always been fascinated with English history (more so than American history *yawn*), but never to the point of actually wanting to know more. Until Showtime premiered its new series back in 2007, dramatizing the life of King Henry VIII and his six wives. I knew the basic story of course, that King Henry, in his desperate attempt to have a son, broke with the Catholic Church in order to divorce his wife and marry another woman, whose head he chopped off three years later. But I never really knew the details or much of anything about his other four wives.

Of course, watching a Showtime program isn’t the best way to learn what really happened. When the series first began, I devoured all the Wikipedia entries for Henry and his six wives. Wikipedia isn’t the most trustworthy source of information, but I find it to be a good starting point to learn about things I didn’t know before. For instance, by the time the series had introduced Henry’s sister, Princess Margaret, I had already learned that he actually had two sisters, Princess Mary and Princess Margaret. I guess the writers thought the show already had too many Marys because Princess Mary got written out of the show completely, and Princess Margaret was given her role. In history, Princess Margaret married King James IV of Scotland and would become the grandmother of Mary, Queen of Scots. In “The Tudors,” Princess Margaret married the king of Portugal, smothered him, then married the king’s friend Charles Brandon without his permission. In reality, Princess Mary married Louis XII of France, became a widow three months later, and then married Charles Brandon in secret, eventually becoming the grandmother of Lady Jane Grey. (Both granddaughters were later, of course, beheaded.)

Yikes. Talk about artistic license.

But despite the gross historical inaccuracies of “The Tudors” (like 16th century women were really that clean-shaven), my parents and I became engrossed in the show. And it led me to want to learn not only more about the lives (and deaths) of Henry’s six wives, but also what really happened, as opposed to what Showtime’s interpretation of the events were. So I bought a book. My first non-fiction book in… well, ever. A 650+ monstrosity of a book. And I devoured it. And I bought more non-fiction books, The Children of Henry VIII and The Life of Elizabeth I. Which led to more curiosity about the royal family in the Middle Ages and the purchase of The Princes in the Tower, with more books put on my Amazon wish list.

It became a little ritual between my mother and myself that, after watching the latest episode of “The Tudors,” she would ask me, “OK, what really happened?” And, armed with my new-found knowledge, I could tell her. I think I now know more about Tudor history than I do about the history of my own country(ies).

Sadly, we had to give up Showtime before season four of “The Tudors” aired, but the DVDs will follow eventually. My parents and I will watch, and then I’ll tell them how it really went down.

As historically inaccurate as “The Tudors” may be, it opened up a door to an era of history that I didn’t I would be so fascinated by, and gave me an opportunity to learn something new.

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