FINDING the bones of the “king in the car park” caught the nation’s imagination and left some to ask: “Is the skeleton of his grandfather still in Southampton?”
The gnarled and evil schemer King Richard III lived in a brutal age, a time of bloody battlefields, plots against the monarch and public executions.
Described as being “slight in body and weak in strength”, the king, who was alleged to have committed numerous murders in order to claw his way to power, had perhaps inherited some of the Machiavellian traits of his grandfather, the 3rd Earl of Cambridge, who had earlier plotted against a previous king in Southampton.
King Richard, reviled by history for ordering the murder of the “Princes in the Tower” was cut down and killed at Bosworth Field as, according to Shakespeare, he pleaded: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”
Now in the most remarkable archaeological finds of modern times, the king’s bones have been unearthed in a car park in Leicester and positively identified, sparking renewed interest in the Plantagenet dynasty, and perhaps leading to a reassessment of his place in the country’s heritage.
This burst of enthusiasm for the events of the 15th century has led to re-examining the characters and circumstances surrounding what has become known as the Southampton Plot.
The year was 1415, seven decades before King Richard met his violent end in battle, and the monarch’s grandfather, the then 30-year-old, Richard of Conisburgh, 3rd Earl of Cambridge, was with King Henry V in Hampshire as he gathered his forces before heading across the Channel from Southampton to win his famous victory over the French at Agincourt.
It is claimed the plan was to kill the king in Southampton as part of a conspiracy hatched to replace Henry V with Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March.
The three ringleaders of the plot were Edmund Mortimer’s brother-in-law, Richard of Conisburgh, Henry Scrope, 3rd Baron Scrope of Masham, and Sir Thomas Grey. At this point the story of the Southampton Plot is subject to division, conjecture and historical argument.
It is often stated the objective of the plot was to assassinate King Henry in Southampton before he sailed to France and to replace him with Edmund Mortimer.
Cambridge, an obscure and unfortunate figure, is thought to have been the instigator and ringleader, while the other two were related to him by marriage.
Others suggest the Earl of Cambridge and his two accomplices were not behind any plot and it was the king himself who fabricated the charge to ensure the trio did not escape the death penalty as a well-deserved punishment for the various other offences that they undoubtedly had committed.
However, all agree the plot was “harebrained”
and so poorly planned there was never a chance it would have succeeded.
Whatever the truth, Cambridge, Scrope and Grey were arrested and thrown in the dungeons to await trial.
Grey was the first to face justice as being only a knight he was counted as a “commoner” so was not entitled to be tried before the nobles of the realm, a privilege which the other two conspirators insisted upon.
The hearings were held in or near the Red Lion public house, which still stands in the High Street.
The outcome of the trials was, of course, a foregone conclusion, with Grey being the first to be executed in the shadow of the Bargate.
Three days later, on August 5, 1415, the two peers were also brought to the same executioner’s block, where they were beheaded in front of a large crowd of locals. Their heads were then put on display for all to see as a terrible warning to any others tempted to overthrow the king.
After his death, it is said Cambridge’s body was treated disrespectfully and was going to be thrown in the town’s ditch near God’s House Tower.
At the last moment, although there are some who doubt the veracity of the claim, his remains were buried beneath St Julien’s Church, the Grade I listed building, which dates back to the 12th century, in Winkle Street, Southampton.
Cambridge’s son, Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, went on to have a total of 12 children, including a boy who would grow up to become King Richard III.
With the accusation of killing the Princes in the Tower forever hanging over his crown, Richard would rule for just two years until his defeat at Bosworth, the decisive battle of the Wars of the Roses, sometimes regarded as the end of the Middle Ages in England.
Some historians believe that following his death, Richard’s image was tarnished by propaganda fostered by his Tudor successors, who sought to legitimise their claim to the throne. This culminated in the famous portrayal of him in Shakespeare’s play as a physically deformed villain, his body stunted and deformed.
Following the discovery of the bones in the car park, expert analysis of the remains and DNA tests by experts at the University of Leicester confirmed that the skeleton found in the excavation was, beyond reasonable doubt, that of Richard III.