Remains of Plantagenet king make final journey, through Leicestershire countryside to Bosworth battlefield where he fell in 1485
More than 500 years after his death in battle, the mortal remains of Richard III were borne to what will be his final resting place on Sunday.
The lead-lined, golden-oak coffin of the last Plantagenet king left the University of Leicester, whose archaeologists found him buried under a council car park in 2012, beginning a last, symbolic journey through the Leicestershire countryside to Bosworth battlefield where, in 1485, the king fell to Henry Tudor.
The monarch was due to return to the city – to its medieval boundary of Bow Bridge – before processing to Leicester cathedral for 6pm atop a horse-drawn gun carriage. He will lie at the cathedral, guarded night and day, until his reburial on Thursday.
Crowds formed, captivated by the extraordinary story of the last English king to die in battle and the rediscovery of his remains.
At noon the cortege left the university, where the monarch’s remains have been studied and guarded since being excavated in August 2012. As the archaeologists and academics bade him farewell, white roses were laid on the coffin. The university’s flag had been replaced for the day with Richard’s standard.
The coffin, which was seen in public for the first time during the procession, was made by the king’s 16th great-nephew, a Canadian cabinet-maker called Michael Ibsen, who descended from Richard’s older sister, Anne of York, and whose DNA helped identify the remains. Inside the inner casket, the bones were laid out and packed into position with English wool and linen, and covered with an unbleached linen cloth, hand-embroidered with his white rose and white boar symbols. The remains had been carefully laid there in a private ceremony at the university a week ago.
The procession was organised so that Richard Buckley, the project’s lead archeologist and legal guardian of the remains until he hands over responsibility at the door of the cathedral, could keep the coffin in his sight at all times.
The cortege paused first in bright sunshine for a private service at Fenn Lane, a farm identified from the scattering of artillery shot, bits of broken horse harness and weaponry, as the place where Richard probably lost his horse, his helmet and his life in the last hour of the Battle of Bosworth. Soil from the spot was blessed and joined soil from Fotheringhay, where he was born, and Middleham, in Yorkshire, where he spent much of his childhood, to be placed in a special casket also made by Ibsen. The mingled earth will be scattered into the tomb during the reinterment ceremony.
Church bells rang out from Crown Hill, where legend has it that Henry Tudor was crowned overlooking the battlefield with the circlet that had fallen from Richard’s head as he died.
The coffin stopped briefly at churches in Sutton Cheney, where Richard is believed to have heard his last mass before battle, and at Dadlington, where hundreds of the dead from both sides lie buried in the village churchyard. The village’s population of 300 was swollen to an estimated 5,000, who lined the street 10 deep. There was a carnival atmosphere with the coffin being greeted by Morris dancers, choirs, bell ringers and members of re-enactment societies in period dress.
Some who turned out in Sutton Cheney believed Richard’s reinterment should have been in Yorkshire. Shaun Dixon, a taxi driver from Leeds, was among them, holding two white roses and a sign: “If the king can’t come to Yorkshire, Yorkshire will come to the king.”
At the Bosworth heritage centre, the site where Richard’s army is believed to have camped on the eve of battle, an open-air service was conducted by the Bishop of Leicester, Tim Stevens.
At the Bosworth battlefield centre, before a minute’s silence and a 21-gun salute which set some of the children in the crowd crying, Phil Stone, chair of the Richard III Society, addressed head on the doubts about their hero.
“The achievements of Richard’s short were over shadowed by historical myth and Shakespeare’s monster,” he said – and listed those achievements as courage in battle, loyalty, care for his people and laws in his brief reign including an early form of legal aid.
After passing through Market Bosworth, Newbold Verdon and Desford, the coffin was to make its way back to Leicester. The last time his body was carried across the narrow, stone Bow Bridge, it was stripped and slung over the back of a horse “like a hogge or a calfe, the head and armes hangyng on the one side of the horse and the legs on the other side”, in the words of Thomas More, who pronounced it “a miserable spectacle”.
The coffin was to be transferred by horse-drawn hearse to the cathedral for a service of compline at 6pm, with a sermon preached by the the Roman Catholic archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols. Crowds had started to gather outside Leicester cathedral hours before the coffin was due, many onlookers carrying white roses.
Nothing was found with the king’s bones, not even the ring he must have worn. This time, after extensive discussion with the cathedral authorities, a set of rosary beads will be buried with him. They have been presented by John Ashdown Hill, the historian whose research inspired writer Philippa Langley to launch the hunt for his remains.