The Wars of the Roses were a period of English history that  lasted between 1455 and 1487, and  have been mostly reduced  to a series of secondary school history lessons – unfortunate  because it was a period of bloody dynastic wars that would, several hundred years later, inspire  the hugely successful  series A Song of Ice and Fire, and its offspring, Game  of  Thrones. The characters of the medieval reality are as  interesting and diverse as their fictional counterparts – the 21-year-old King Edward IV, his wife Elizabeth Woodville (the  original Kate Middleton) and Richard III.

Since the discovery of his skeleton in 2012, Richard III has reappeared in the public  imagination. A traditionally vilified figure, probably due to the Shakespearian character, he is  once more surrounded by controversy – from the theory that he killed his nephews to the more  recent developments over his final burial place.

A Brief History of Richard III

Richard III was the youngest son of Richard, Duke of York, and spent most of his childhood under the tutelage of the Earl of Warwick. In 1460, when Richard was eight, his father and brother Edmund were killed at Sandal Castle. His mother sent her youngest children away, and they did not return until the coronation of Richard’s eldest brother Edward IV of York in 1461.

Edward was the first Yorkist King, defeating the Lancastrian armies and restoring several years of tentative peace to England. Richard was sent back to Warwick’s home for knightly training and, at some point during his adolescence, developed idiopathic scoliosis, a medical condition which causes the spine to curve from side to side. (Proof of the actual nature of his affliction was discovered with the identification of his bones in 2013 – he wasn’t the hunchback that Shakespeare popularised, and it would have been possible for him to hide the curve with his clothing.)

In 1470, Warwick, and Richard’s brother George of Clarence, sided with the deposed Queen Margaret of Anjou in order to put the ‘mad king’ Henry VI back on the throne. This was a Lancastrian victory, and Edward and Richard fled to the Duchy of Burgundy for safety. Warwick’s daughter Anne Neville was married to Henry VI’s son – another Edward – which secured the English throne for Warwick’s grandchildren, a few years down the road.

However, Edward of York returned to England in 1471 to win a decisive victory against the Lancastrians that restored him to the throne. Richard married the now widowed Anne Neville in 1472, Warwick was dead and Henry VI died shortly after, George of Clarence was pardoned and it looked as if the Wars of the Roses had been won, definitively, by York.

Richard’s loyalty to Edward looked even greater in the face of George’s betrayal, and he was made Lord of the North. When Edward died in 1483, Richard had shown himself to be an able fighter and leader, so it was to be expected that he was named Lord Protector until Edward’s oldest son – also Edward – was old enough to rule alone. What was not expected was his next move, ensuring that Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s wife, could not exercise more power. She had not been popular among the people, even when Edward was alive, and her large family were perceived as grasping social-climbers. Richard arrested her brother Anthony, and had him executed without trial on the grounds that he had been involved in a plan to assassinate Richard.

It was announced that the marriage between Edward IV and Elizabeth was invalid due to his earlier union with another woman, and Edward’s children were therefore illegitimate and could not inherit the throne.

The young Princes, Edward and Richard, were taken to the Tower of London and never came out, causing the popular theory that they had been murdered by their uncle. The young Edward’s coronation was cancelled, and Richard and Anne became King and Queen.

In 1483, a rebellion began among the discontented gentry. They planned to depose Richard and put the last surviving Lancastrian heir, Henry Tudor, on the throne. Henry won support in France, and returned to England, meeting Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field in August, 1485. Although Richard’s forces outnumbered Tudor’s, he was betrayed by the Baron Stanley and his brother. Identification of his skeleton in 2013 showed that Richard had been grievously injured in the battle – taking eight wounds to the head, one that hacked away the back of his skull, making him the last English monarch to be killed in battle and putting Henry Tudor – Henry VII – on the throne.

Return of the King

In 2012, archaeologists began an excavation of a car park in Leicester, recovering bones which, in 2013, were publicly identified as those of Richard III. The dig had been authorised after Philippa Langley, secretary of the Scottish branch of the Richard III Society, visited the car park to see if it had been part of the Greyfriars church where Richard was buried. In an interview, she described having an ‘experience as though [she] was walking on Richard’s grave’. The bones that were found proved that Richard had scoliosis rather than a hunchback and, like Usain Bolt, still managed to have an active and busy life.

Finding the bones provided another problem – where they were to be reburied. A petition that he should be buried in York closed with 31, 341 signatures; a similar one from Leicester closed with over three thousand more.

A nine month judicial review case into both the legality of Leicester’s exhumation, and the controversy surrounding the location of internment ruled that Richard would be buried in Leicester Cathedral next year.

On the 18th June, 2014, the historian Chris Skidmore unearthed a letter by the King himself, suggesting that Richard planned to be buried in York. The letter, penned five months before Richard’s death, emphasised the importance of the college of 100 priests that Richard had established and presumably intended to use as a mausoleum after he died, and stressed that he was ‘not willing our said priests to be unpaid of their wages, seeing by their prayers we trust to be made more acceptable to God.’

The letter does not provide much in the way of concrete evidence that Richard wanted to be buried in York, but shows that he felt strongly about the circumstances of his internment. It is, perhaps, more useful as insight into the King’s beliefs and intentions. Richard III and his era is one we know very little about – much of what we associate with him comes from fiction. It is as doubtful that he uttered the famous ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!’ as it is that the varied controversy surrounding him will ever truly be resolved.