Q: How many kings can you find under British car parks? (In case you speak American: Car parks aren’t places where cars go to play on the swings and feed the ducks. They’re parking lots and they’re boring, boring, boring. Unless they’re full, in which case they stop being boring and become annoying.)
A: Right this minute, the answer is either one or none, at least that we know of. Richard III rested in somewhat uneasy peace under one for a long, undignified time, but he’s been moved now. We’ll get to that in a minute. Henry I may be under another one, but that hasn’t been confirmed, which explains the wiggle room in my answer. Others may be slumbering away somewhere under your wheels, but no one knows. Yet.
Q: What happened? Couldn’t they remember where they parked?
A: No, no, no. Cars hadn’t been invented back when Richard and Henry were still kings, and that means parking lots hadn’t been invented either. Or car parks. That’s why they were called the dark ages.
(A quick note for the historical nit-pickers among us: I do understand that the official and capitalized Dark Ages ended long before either Richard or Henry came along, but just think of the lives they lived. The fastest thing around was a horse. The country had polluted its waterways so seriously that drinking water was considered dangerous—and it was. They didn’t have TV, or even radio, for god’s sake. Or street lights. Their castles didn’t have plumbing or anything we’d call heating. There were advantages, and I admit that. They didn’t have to worry about global warming, but on the other hand being overthrown by restive nobles was a serious (if less global) threat, And on the third hand, they didn’t have to contend with restive-noble deniers. And let’s not get into the fourth and fifth hand, on which we’d have to count the threats we face in our oh-so-enlightened age. Let’s just agree that these were the unofficial dark ages.
(And one more aside: I was in either grade school or junior high when I first heard about the Dark Ages. Our history book (our alleged history book—every school history book I had was stunningly and mind-numbingly awful) must’ve made a passing reference to the Dark Ages and they sounded interesting, so I asked my teacher what happened during them. “Nothing,” she said.
(I’m still giggling over that. And shaking my head. End, at last, parentheses and back to our alleged topic.)
Q: This could make parking your car exciting, couldn’t it? You look for a space and wonder if you’ll find parts of a king.
A: It hasn’t worked that way for me, but maybe the Cornish kings were more selective than the English ones about where they left their bones. Or maybe it’s just that, with the exception of Arthur–who may not have existed, which is awkward, bone-wise, and who other parts of Britain claim anyway–they didn’t become as famous
Q: Are we going to keep this Q and A thing going? It’s getting a bit ragged.
A: No. We’re going to find a nearby car park and bury it there in the usual quiet and dignified way. Then we’re going to talk about who Richard and Henry were and how they came to be found. And we’re going to do it just as seriously as if we had good sense.
Richard III was killed in battle in 1485 and was found under a parking lot in Leicester (pronounced Lester) in 2012. His story, briefly, is this: A bunch of kings and attendant upsets came before him. His older brother was king before him but died, as people will if you give them enough time, after which his brother’s young son then became king and Richard became his protector, only there was some question about whether the new king’s parents had been properly married, so the new king was duly unkinged and Richard—who of course had nothing to do with the rumors—became king. Then everybody went to war with everybody else. In this period, “everybody” meant the nobility, but they dragged the commoners into it pretty quickly.
Richard was killed in battle. His body was slung over a horse and carried in the most undignified possible way (“with his privy parts exposed“) to Leicester, where he was found under a parking lot centuries later.
And the young former king? He disappeared, along with his even younger brother, before Richard’s death. If you hear about the princes in the tower, that’s them.
If you want a more reliable history, you’ll find it here.
Richard has long been portrayed as having a withered arm and a limp, but the bones tell us he had scoliosis—a curvature of the spine. No withered arm; nothing that would have made him limp. At the battle of Bosworth, he was offered a horse to flee the field. He was reported to have turned it down, saying he’d either die a king or win.
How’d he end up in a car park? He was “given a hasty burial”—no casket; no shroud; not even a full-size grave—in a church that was torn down when Henry VIII disbanded the monasteries, convents, priories, and so forth. (It was a nifty way to seize their income, which Henry VIII felt he could put to better use.) Eventually, since the church wasn’t around, its location was forgotten.
Having been found, Richard was reburied in Leicester Cathedral. Tourist numbers have soared and a permanent exhibition space is planned. York wanted him back (see “tourist numbers have soared,” then add local pride and regional rivalries), and Richard’s living relatives formed the Plantagenet Alliance, demanding to be consulted on the subject so they could haul him back to York, which they considered more appropriate.
One of the relatives is described as a direct descendant of Richard’s sister. That’s clear enough, but I’m still trying to figure out how anyone can be an indirect descendant. My understanding of birth is that you’re either someone’s kid or you’re not, so this descent business doesn’t jog sideways. It’s either direct or nonexistent. Admittedly, I never gave birth to anyone, but I’ve heard rumors about it, and I was–or so I’ve been told–given birth to. So I feel almost qualified to comment on the strangeness of indirect descent.
If you understand how it works, do let me know.
But let’s move on to Henry I. He came before Richard but comes second here because we don’t yet know if he’s been found. He was the youngest “and most able” son of William the Conqueror, according to the BBC.
But let’s take a step back, because I write for a somewhat international audience and not everyone will know the ins, outs, ups, and downs of English history. William—Henry’s dad—conquered England in 1066. He was (and still is) also known as William the Bastard, not because he was a nasty man, although I expect he was, but because he was the bastard son of the Duke of Normandy, and being a bastard mattered back then. (See above for the princes in the tower. They still haven’t been found, by the way. If you’re parking your car, do look around.) In spite of not being legitimate–I should put that in quotes, shouldn’t I?–William became Duke of Normandy. Which was in France, where it’s stayed to this day, and not in England at all. It has car parks of its own, and I have no idea who’s buried under them. Possibly no one. The French may be more careful with their kings.
For reasons too complicated to go into (and irrelevant unless you take all this divine right stuff seriously) William considered himself the rightful heir to the English throne, and when the old king of England, Edward the Confessor, died, William seized the throne from King Harold, who also considered himself the rightful heir and who got there first.
Are you still with me? Good, because I’m not sure I am.
Conquering a country is one thing, though, and keeping it is another. (That’s true of seizing a crown and keeping it as well, as Harold could have told us if he hadn’t been dead by the time the full extent of his problems became clear.) Keeping England was a ruthless business, involving slaughter, famine, the overthrowing of one aristocracy and set of relationships between lords and commoners and the installation of a new one, not to mention a lot of castle-building to keep the conquerors in power. Plus the installation of another language, French, which the aristocracy spoke for generations and which eventually seeped into the English of the conquered people, creating something vaguely related to what we speak today, and let’s all be grateful for that because if we didn’t have it we couldn’t bury kings under either parking lots or car parks because we’d be calling them something entirely different.
You knew I’d get back to those car parks/parking lots eventually, didn’t you?
Henry I was buried in front of the high altar of the church at Reading (pronounced Redding: it’s English, so don’t ask) Abbey. And there he stayed until Henry VIII et cetera’d the abbeys and monasteries, see above. As part of that, in 1539 the church at Reading Abbey was mostly destroyed. Stories circulated about Henry I’s grave having been desecrated, but no one really knows if it was. Henry I dropped out of sight. As dead people will.
Personally, I can’t get worked up about graves. I don’t want to upset anyone who feels strongly about them, but what with the people inside them being dead and all, I’m more likely to get worked up about housing the living–an effort that effort hasn’t been going well lately.
Still, it’s a good story, so let’s finish it.
The Hidden Abbey Project used ground penetrating radar to map out where the church used to be and found what they’re calling three potential graves. But it’s not yet clear where the high altar was, and without that they can’t say for sure that they’ve found Henry’s grave, only that they might have. They’ll begin digging sometimes this fall—or autumn, as they say here.
The car park in question belongs to the Ministry of Justice, and two of the potential grave sites are under it. A third one is half under a wall that divides the parking lot from a nursery school’s playground. I have no idea what they’re going to tell the kiddies about the digging equipment sneaking under the fence.
Q: Why are these kings showing up in car parks instead of under, say, the kind of lovely parks where people go to walk and enjoy the fresh air?
A: I don’t know. It may tell us something about the percentage of Britain now covered by each.