Richard III and the Lost World of Greyfriars

Next month, the skeleton of Richard III will be placed in a coffin and re-interred at Leicester Cathedral, 530 years after the last Plantagenet king was slain during the Battle of Bosworth. The 2012 discovery of the remains of an adult male with a “cleaved skull” in a Leicester carpark, built atop a demolished medieval church of the Franciscan order, stirred impassioned debate. Was this indeed the body of Richard III, his corpse exposed for all to see by orders of the victor, an obscure, exiled Lancastrian earl named Henry Tudor?

The scientific research confirmed it: This was Richard. And the analysis of his broken remains provided answers to questions pondered for centuries—the king did possess a “crooked back,” due to scoliosis—and to those not ever posed, such as, How rich a diet could a medieval king eat? It seems that Richard consumed peacock, heron and swan, washed down with a bottle of wine a day.

Darker debates will continue to swirl over Richard III’s role in the disappearance of the princes, his young nephews. That mystery will most likely never be solved. But no matter the state of Richard’s stomach or conscience, the actions of those who in 1485 bravely took custody of a battered and naked royal corpse have gone largely unremarked.

Richard III

Why has Richard rested in the church of a Franciscan friary? Clearly the last Plantagenet ruler did not designate Greyfriars of Leicester for this honor. His dead queen, Anne, was buried at Westminster; his older brother, Edward IV, was entombed at Windsor. But then, Richard did not expect to die on the field of battle. With greater numbers and far more experience in combat, he was confident of victory. After the crown tumbled off his head — literally — in the immediate shock and chaos of Bosworth, no Yorkist ally or family member claimed the body.

It was a group of Franciscan friars that came forward. The court historian of Henry VII, Polydor Vergil, wrote Richard was “buried two days after without any pomp or solemn funeral in the abbey of monks Franciscan at Leicester.” Ten years later, Henry VII assigned 50 pounds to the creation of a tomb. An inscription asked for prayers for Richard’s soul “to atone my crimes and ease my pains below.”

In the late 1530s, the victor’s son, Henry VIII, brought about the destruction of the Catholic monasteries as he pushed through the laws creating himself supreme head of the Church of England. The friary in Leicester, like many other structures housing friars, monks or nuns, was stripped of its value and knocked down. The monument for Richard III was lost. At some point, the ground swallowed up the church where the friars prayed, sang and chanted.

An archaeologist at the friary site

Over the centuries there were rumors that Richard’s body was moved, either soon after death or during the Dissolution, but the leading theory was that he never left Greyfriars. And in 2012, excavation workers funded by the Richard III Society, using historical maps, pinpointed where the friary was once located. Digging began and to the amazement of the world, a body fitting Richard’s description was located in the choir of the church, where someone of importance would have been buried.

In exposing the centuries’ old church — as well as the chapter house and other rooms of the cloister — the archaeologists revealed a lost world. To some, the Greyfriars themselves are no more than shadowy figures, extinct specters like the Knights Templar. But what a vital force the Franciscans were for the three centuries preceding the Dissolution, in not only the daily lives of the people but also the intimate lives of kings and queens. By the 16th century a branch of Franciscans had become so intertwined with the royal family that when Henry VIII crushed the monasteries, his behavior when dealing with these particular friars veered between inexplicable mercy and shocking savagery.

St. Francis of Assisi

It all began in Italy, as so many things do, when a wealthy cloth merchant’s son gone soldiering saw a series of visions that led to a life of poverty and repentance. Francis of Assisi gained the approval of Pope Innocent III to form a new order. The brotherhood spread incredibly fast; in 1224, nine friars landed at Dover, eager to open shop.

The Franciscans were called “Greyfriars” because of the color of their habits: gray, loose garments of coarse material reaching their ankles, girded with cords. Along with the Dominicans, the Franciscans were an important mendicant order in England. These were not monks, shut away to pray in seclusion. Their purpose was to go out and about. According to the 1887 book written by Walter Stanhope, Monastic London:

“They were, as it may be termed, the spiritual democrats; they were to mingle with the people, yet without being of the people. They were to possess nothing they could call their own, either as a body or individually. Their creative vocation was to look after the stray sheep of the fold of Christ; to pray with those who wept, to preach glad tidings, to exhort to repentance, to rebuke sin and Satan; to advise the doubtful and comfort the weak without distinction of place or person.”

Greyfriars’ churches sprang up across England, Scotland and Ireland: in Canterbury, London, Oxford, Northampton, Norwich, York, Salisbury and, of course, Leicester. At the time of the Dissolution, there were 1,700 Franciscan friars in England.

A “Greyfriar” of England

The benefits’ bestowed by the Franciscans are beyond question. They espoused the importance of fresh water and built conduits, shared by citizens in many cities. In 1256, they intervened along with the Dominicans to protect a group of Jews who were accused of crucifying a Christian child. (As a result, a chronicler said, Londoners gave the Franciscans less alms.)

What is interesting is how often the Franciscans interjected themselves into politics. Simon de Montfort, the founder of Parliament and thorn in the side of Henry III, was advised by Franciscans. In a later reign, the friars based in Leicester got into even more serious trouble. They openly supported the deposed Richard II instead of the new king, Henry IV. When word got out, a group of nine were brought to London, tried, and executed.

But these episodes were nothing compared to what happened after the creation of the Observant Friars of Greenwich. A movement had sprung up in Europe calling for greater asceticism in the Franciscan Order. King Edward IV, despite his devotion to wine, women and the latest fashions, approved, and in 1480 the pope sanctioned the foundation of a friary specifically for the Observants in Greenwich.

King Henry VII

There is no record of what Richard III thought of the Franciscans, Observant or otherwise, but considering that they braved a ferocious political climate to give him Christian burial, the relationship could only have been good. His successor, Henry VII, rather surprisingly, held the friars of Greenwich in high esteem as well. He arranged for the installment of stained glass in their church, and left them 200 pounds in his will as he “knew that they had been many times in peril of ruin for lack of food.”

But perhaps the greatest sign of Henry VII’s regard for the Observant Franciscans is that he chose to have his second son, the future Henry VIII, baptized in their chapel at Greenwich.

For a time, all was well in the new reign. Henry VIII arranged for the Observants to say two Masses daily for his father’s soul. In 1513, he wrote to Pope Leo X saying he could not commend enough the Franciscans’ strict adherence to poverty and sincerity, charity and devotion. His wife, the Spanish Catherine of Aragon, went even further. She was often accompanied by her Franciscan confessors and, in middle age, wore a habit under her robes.

All the players were in place, then, for one of the greatest clashes of the King’s Divorce. When Henry VIII sought to have his marriage to Catherine annulled so that he could father a son with the young Anne Boleyn, the Observant friars sided with Catherine and opposed him, showing tremendous—if not suicidal—amounts of courage.

After Catherine of Aragon had been banished from court, Franciscan Friar William Peto, in his Easter Sunday sermon in 1532, preached to a full church, with both Henry and Anne Boleyn in attendance, that if the king pursued his divorce, he would incur the same fate as Ahab and the dogs would lick his blood. After the sermon, Peto told the king to his face that divorce put his throne in jeopardy and that there were mutterings Henry had slept with both Anne’s sister and mother. There is no known record of greater defiance in the presence of the king.

Yet Henry VIII did not strike back. Astonishingly, Friar Peto was not arrested; he was allowed to go into exile. The following year, Henry VIII had his daughter with Anne Boleyn, the future Elizabeth I, baptized in the same Greenwich friary church as he had been.

But executions of more defiant followed, and a rebellion broke out in the North. Mercy was harder to come by. Another Observant Franciscan, Friar John Forest, a former confessor to Catherine of Aragon, bore the full brunt of Henry VIII’s rage. He refused to swear to the authority of the king as supreme head of the Church of England. After several years of imprisonment, Forest, 67 years old, was taken to Smithfield on May 22, 1538, and burned to death. About 200 Franciscans are believed to have been imprisoned for refusing to swear loyalty to king over pope; perhaps 50 died in captivity.

Remains of Franciscan friary in Dunwich

Such violence over choice of faith leaves one shaken. But there is a quieter sorrow, too, that of the loss of the friaries themselves. Most of the friars’ homes and churches were destroyed utterly; in a few cases, as in Norwich, stone skeletons teeter, hinting at past glory.

Richard III will return to glory next month in his second burial. But the beauty of the Greyfriars church where he was laid to rest, and the courage of its inhabitants, can never be re-created.