Richard III and the City of Gloucester

All eyes will be on Leicester this month for the reburial of Richard III, whose skeleton was found underneath a car park there in 2012. But here in Gloucester we are marking the occasion as well, because before Richard became King, he was the Duke of Gloucester – and after he came to the throne, he granted Gloucester a charter which gave the city rights and privileges it retained right up until 1974.

Richard was made duke of Gloucester in 1461 when he was eight years old. His oldest brother Edward had just taken the crown from King Henry VI, and became King Edward IV. The Houses of York and Lancaster had been fighting over the crown of England for several years. Edward and Richard were members of the House of York and Henry was of the House of Lancaster. The struggle between the two houses lasted for 30 years and was known as the Wars of the Roses.

Richard III seal 2

Wax seal of Richard, Duke of Gloucester c. 1462

Richard doesn’t seem to have had much to do with Gloucester – he was raised at Middleham Castle in Yorkshire, and later made his home there. But in 1471 he and his brother led their battle forces across Gloucestershire after the army of Margaret of Anjou, queen of Henry VI, who was trying to take the throne for Henry again. She hoped to get to Wales where she and her son would be safe to campaign against Edward, but Edward and Richard were close behind them. Margaret pretended to camp at Sodbury and prepare for battle, but during the night she and her army stole away. They headed first for Berkeley Castle and then for the Severn crossing at Gloucester.

Edward and Richard gave chase as soon as they realised what Margaret was doing. Edward sent messengers to the governor of Gloucester ordering him not to let Margaret’s army into the city. Margaret was forced to continue to the next crossing at Tewkesbury. Edward and Richard caught her up in the late afternoon, having marched all the way from Sodbury (over 30 miles) in a day. The next day, 4 May 1471, the two armies fought the Battle of Tewkesbury. Margaret’s army was defeated, and her battle commanders and her son the Prince of Wales were killed. The House of York’s claim to the throne finally seemed secure. The Battle of Tewkesbury is re-enacted every July at the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival.

When Edward IV died in 1483, Richard became King. Edward’s young sons, another Edward and Richard, were taken to the Tower of London, and later disappeared.

Two months after he was crowned, Richard granted the city of Gloucester a charter giving it the status of a county. The charter also allowed the city to have a Sheriff who could hold a County Court, and allowed the election of a mayor and aldermen and the appointment of a coroner. The city kept most of these rights up until as recently as 1974.

RICHARD III CHARTER initial

Extract of the charter granting rights to Gloucester, GBR/I/1/22 held at Gloucestershire Archives. Reproduced by kind permission of Gloucester City Council.

The charter is now held at Gloucestershire Archives on behalf of Gloucester City Museum. At the Museum you can see a sword which Richard presented to the City – it is said to have been his own personal sword.

Gloucester City Museums have been running a Richard III Festival over the last week, following on from their very successful exhibition and festival last year, when the reconstructed head of Richard III visited the Museums. Gloucestershire Archives now hosts a digital version of part of the exhibition in partnership with the City Museums – you can find it here: http://www.gloucestershire.gov.uk/archives/RichardIII

Since Richard’s skeleton was discovered, a great deal of research has been carried out, not only to identify the remains but also to find out how he lived – and how he died. The Museums’ events have included talks from many of the people involved in the search for Richard’s grave, the archaeological dig and all the work that has been going on since he was found. It’s been fascinating to learn the results of the research – especially the investigations into the wounds on the skeleton which can be interpreted to tell us how Richard died. Several of the wounds correspond to contemporary accounts of the battle of Bosworth, an intriguing example of archival evidence and archaeological fact coming together to corroborate each other.

The research is continuing – and is likely to do so for years to come – but for now the focus is on the historic events of the week of 22-26 March. The reburial and the events leading up to it will be broadcast live by Channel 4 – you can find out more about the events here: http://kingrichardinleicester.com/topics/reburial/timetable/ and about the TV coverage here: http://www.channel4.com/info/press/news/week-of-exclusive-live-programming-for-burial-of-king-richard-iii

How often is it, after all, that you can say you witnessed the burial of a medieval monarch?

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