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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Leicester

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Myths and Legends
Leicester Greyfriars plaque

© Geoff Wheeler
The fate of Richard III’s body

The aftermath of the Dissolution – the truth and the legend

When Henry VIII closed the religious houses of England, the fate of those buried in the former priories and abbeys varied. Where surviving relatives took steps to rescue them, bodies, and even entire tombs, were saved and moved elsewhere. Occasionally empty tomb superstructures alone seem to have been salvaged, without their accompanying bodies, and re-erected as cenotaphs. This seems to have occurred in the case of three de Vere tombs from Earls Colne Priory.

King Henry VIII himself had the body of his sister, Mary, moved from Bury St Edmunds Abbey to St Mary’s church in the same town. The earl of Essex had the monuments and remains of his father and grandparents moved from Beeleigh Abbey to the parish church at Little Easton in Essex. The duke of Norfolk transferred the remains of his father and grandfather (the two preceding Howard dukes) from Thetford Priory to Framlingham Church. The bodies and tombs of his Mowbray forebears were, however, left behind in the ruins of Thetford Priory. Theirs was the more common fate. The superstructure of their tombs pillaged and lost, their mortal remains still lie buried in the ground where they were originally interred.

Stone effigy
Mutilated effigy, some suspect it is related to Richard III
© Geoff Wheeler
In the case of Richard III there were no close relatives on hand to rescue his remains when the Leicester Greyfriars were expelled in 1538. The superstructure of his tomb probably stood for a while in the roofless ruin of the choir. It is even possible that it survives to this day having eventually been salvaged and relocated in another church, like the de Vere tombs from Earls Colne.

As for his body, there is no reason to doubt that it remained where the friars had buried it in 1485. The evidence, in fact, strongly suggests that this was so. In due course the friary site was acquired by the Herrick family. Robert Herrick, one time mayor of Leicester constructed a house and laid out a garden on the eastern part of the site, where once the choir had stood. Here in 1612 Christopher Wren (future dean of Windsor and father of the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral) who was then tutor to Robert Herrick’s nephew, saw ‘a handsome stone pillar, three foot high’, bearing the inscription ‘Here lies the body of Richard III, some time King of England’. This pillar had been erected by Robert Herrick when he redeveloped the site, in order to mark the location of Richard’s grave.

Words: John Ashdown-Hill

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