Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Colin's Little Known Facts: Richard III and Leicester

The tragic and much maligned King Richard III is indelibly associated with the ancient city of Leicester.

Leicester is one of the oldest towns in Britain, having been a Roman town on the Fosse Way and later one of the Five Boroughs of the Danelaw. Many chapters of English history are set in Leicester.

Richard III was a popular, athletic and socially reforming young King aged 32 when his rule was threatened by Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, in 1485.

Henry had no real claim to the throne in his own right – he was nowhere near the top in terms of the line of succession. But he gathered together disaffected supporters of the Lancastrian cause to try to wrest power away again from the Yorkists.

Richard was at Nottingham when he learned, without much surprise, that Henry had landed in Wales. Richard moved to Leicester, while Henry made his way to Shrewsbury.

Richard’s last night in a bed was spent at the White Boar Inn, in Leicester’s High Street (now known as High Cross Street). People will try to tell you that it was the Blue Boar. It wasn’t – it was the White Boar, which was Richard’s emblem. The name was changed after Richard’s death, as the skilful character assassination accomplished on behalf of the Tudors by William Skakespeare and Thomas More meant that nobody would wish to be associated with the late King whose memory everybody was now supposed to hate. The Blue Boar was the emblem of one of Henry’s supporters.

But why would the King stay at an inn, particularly when there was a Royal castle at hand? The usual answer is that Leicester Castle was by this time in ruins. But it wasn’t – Richard had himself stayed at the castle a few months before, and wrote a letter saying he was there.

The real answer is that although he was generally popular there were clearly those who wished him dead. If that were not the case there would have been no support at all for Henry’s rebellion. Under those circumstances assassins were to be feared, and Richard chose a less likely place to stay than the obvious castle.

The next morning Richard set out at the head of his army, across West Bridge and Bow Bridge, where an old woman prophesied his demise.

Just outside Market Bosworth the fatal battle was fought. Richard started off with, in theory, a force that was numerically far superior. However, the Stanleys, who were expected to support Richard, changed sides during the battle.

Richard was the last King of England to lead a cavalry charge, and the last to be killed in battle.

His body was brought back to Leicester, where it lay in state for three days at the now demolished Newarke Church, before being buried at the also now demolished Grey Friars.

But why was he brought back to Leicester to be buried? Why not bury him on the battlefield? Well, it was usual to bury prominent people in consecrated ground. But there are parish churches close to the battlefield. Why not bury him in one of those?

The answer lies in his popularity. If he had been buried in an obscure country church, there would undoubtedly have been a movement claiming that he was not really dead, but licking his wounds and getting together an army to win back his crown.

Unless it could be demonstrated that he was actually dead. The best way of doing this would be to bring his body back to the town where he had been seen alive only days earlier. Leicester people would have been able to confirm that they had seen his body.

There is a persistent story, which is now usually regarded as historical fact, that Richard’s body was, at the Dissolution of the Monasteries, dug up and flung unceremoniously into the River Soar. Personally, I don’t believe a word of it. The story is not mentioned until a hundred years after the event is said to have happened, and in the meantime visitors to Leicester were still being shown the place where “King Richard is buried”, rather than “was buried before we chucked him into the river.”

There is little doubt that Richard III’s remains are still on the site of the Grey Friars, quite possibly where there is now a car park.

Many people now realise that the image of Richard as a cruel, deformed despot was created in order to give some legitimacy to the rule of the Tudors.

There is a memorial to Richard in Leicester Cathedral, and a statue in Castle Gardens.

I lead a Richard III Guided Walk around the sites in Leicester associated with him, and also a Richard III Tour by coach, in the area between Leicester and Market Bosworth.