22 Mar 2015

Richard III reburial: why is the king so important?

Vilified by Shakespeare as the man who killed two princes, Channel 4 News takes a look at what else we know about the maligned king Richard III who is set to be reburied on Thursday.

A series of services and a procession heavy with symbolism are under way in Leicester as the last Plantagenet king’s mortal remains are borne away to the city’s cathedral.

Crowds of people are expected to witness the once-in-a-lifetime event, including many modern-day supporters of Richard – some of whom have travelled from abroad – who have been captivated by the re-discovery of the king and his human story.

In pictures: Richard III revealed - king in the car park 

His reputation has been staunchly supported by the Richard III Society, founded in 1924, to defend his name, after the king was accused of being responsible for the deaths of young King Edward V and his brother Richard.

Dr Phil Stone, chairman of the Richard III Society, said this week’s events, concluding Thursday with a service to rebury the king in the cathedral, marked “the beginning of the end of this part”.

Richard wasn’t as black as he was once thought to be. Dr Phil Stone

“Our work will continue, in perhaps convincing the doubters Richard wasn’t as black as he was once thought to be,” he said.

“His reburial at the end of the week will have all the dignity and solemnity that his original burial never had.”

So what’s so important about him?


Richard became the last English king to die in battle. He brought to an end both the Plantagenet dynasty and the War of the Roses. Henry Tudor was subsequently crowned King Henry VII and thus begun a new era in history.

The king suffered several wounds, including eight to his head, which experts believe shows the king may have lost his helmet on the battlefield allowing the fatal wounds to be inflicted.

The Princes in the Tower

According to the University of Leicester, Richard was named Lord Protector of 12-year-old Edward V, after his father died in 1483. Young Edward and his brother were moved into the Tower of London – which was then a royal palace and not a prison – but in June their parents’ marriage was declared invalid, making the princes illegitimate.

Their uncle became their heir apparent, and lost no time in being crowned King Richard III. The boys were not seen again. Thus began the legend of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ and a long-standing popular belief that Richard had his nephews murdered in order to remove any competing claim to the throne.

‘Innocent until proven guilty’

Philippa Langley, of the Richard III Society, who was the driving force behind making the archaeological dig happen (she raised £34,000 for the project through sheer will power), points out that the king brought in revolutionary legal principles during his two short years on the throne.

He is said to have introduced the system of bail, and opened up the printing industry. He also initiated, and applied, the legal principles of the Presumption of Innocence and Blind Justice, and insisted that all laws should be translated from Latin or French into English so that his subjects could understand them.

He was also the first king to speak his coronation oath in English.


Richard’s body was brought back to Leicester, publicly displayed and then given for burial to a group of Franciscan friars. A tomb monument was constructed over the grave in 1495, paid for by the new King.

With the dissolution of the monasteries (by Henry VIII) that friary disappeared and along with it any clear record of Richard’s grave. Stories and rumours about where Richard’s mortal remains lie – or what happened to them – have circulated over the ensuing centuries, but most of these have subsequently been shown to be tall tales.

With a controversial claim to the throne, accusations of blood on his hands, a violent death and a bad press (largely derived from English literature such as Shakespeare) – Richard III continued to fascinate historians and the public.

Richard III: the Return of the King airs on Channel 4 on Sunday March 22 at 5.10pm