Of kings and car parks

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?

Semi-relevant photo: A cat, it is said, may look at a king, and Fast Eddie’s looking. To the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t found any yet. It’s all voles and mice around here, but if he finds one I’m sure he’ll drag him into the house and dismember him. Once he’s done looking. If and only if he’s small enough.

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.

62 thoughts on “Of kings and car parks

  1. Just brilliant writing, Ellen. I said brilliant to sound British! 😉
    Seriously well written. Loved it.
    I may start looking for kings under Amsterdam parking lots. The prices are so abusive here that the only explanation might be the housing costs of kings!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. We’ll pass quickly over the comment about the Dark Ages persisting through the Middle Ages. The kings in car parks phenomenon is surely the fault of Henry VIII. It’s slighlty ironic that Henry I, Richard III and Henry VIII were all kings whose right to the crown was questionable. Henry VIII, of course, is not buried under a car park.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. You would have though, seeing as apparently the Romans invented concrete (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_concrete), that the UK would have been way ahead in percentage of land covered by it even by the dark ages. Perhaps they had to wait until someone invented the bicycle before really getting started on roads, and they didn’t need car parks even then of course. Obvious now I’ve started thinking about it.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Leicester is pronounced “Les-tah” by the locals. You can even buy a tee shirt with this written on the front.
    One of my patients was working in an office which overlooked the car park site and watched the dig; I suppose it was more interesting than doing his job.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. In addition to my previous post: after his defeat at the battle of Bosworth, the body of KRIII was buried in the chapel of Grey Friars. The car park where his remains were found is close to Greyfriars street, which is currently being dug up. I don’t think that they have found any more skeletons.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I love the pronunciation notes :-)
    It has never occured to me that Reading is difficult. Of course I know it is spelled the same as reading (of books) but I always assumed that the capital letter told you what to do…
    I presume that is because I was born here and someone must have told me as a child…

    It is still tricky even for natives mind you…
    In Kent there is a place called Trottiscliffe which is pronounced Trosley…I had to be told that one by a Kent native…

    Liked by 2 people

  7. So far, we’ve only found what appeared to be chicken bones buried in our yard. It could have been George Washington’s chicken. He’s the closest thing we have to a king. You’d think kingly stuff would be easier to keep track of. I guess if it was a take over, no one would care where the old one is. By the way, have you seen Barack Obama? I heard he’s on the move. He might be interested in buying up a few car parks. New line of work being necessary, and all…

    Thanks for making history fun!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. If you dig down almost anywhere in Britain you’ll find something of historical significance, especially in cities, towns and villages. For example, the haul of archeological finds resulting from the construction of Crossrail in London is just enormous – it includes a plague pit outside Liverpool Street station, whose whereabouts had previously been uncertain. So I guess there could still be quite a few nobles who are buried under car parks – and maybe even a few plague victims.

    Apart from the Richard II thing, I think the most amazing find of recent years in the UK is the Staffordshire hoard of Saxon gold jewellery, valued at £3.2 million. This was discovered by a metal detectorist in a field near Lichfield in Staffordshire in 2009. According to Wikipedia: “the hoard was most likely deposited in the 7th century, and contains artifacts probably manufactured during the 6th and 7th centuries”.
    This puts it right in the middle of the aforementioned Dark Ages, during which your teacher maintains nothing happened – nothing, that is, except the crafting of some of the most beautiful, intricate gold jewellery the world has ever seen.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yup. Sounds like nothing to me.

      I just came from helping back fill an archaeological site at Tintagel Castle. It’s not just anywhere, but they found the remains of Mediterranean pottery, showing that trading in there in post-Roman–gasp, Dark Ages–Britain.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I looked it up and I’m glad. I’d been thinking that “direct descent” meant male line all the way, so when e.g. Grandfather had only daughters, those daughters and their heirs were only indirect descendants of The Famous Historical Figure. If that was ever accurate, it’s not now.

    Direct descent is the line that runs from parent to child to grandchild and so on. The opposite is not “indirect” but “collateral” descent, meaning that in the absence of children or grandchildren the title/estate/etc. has been assigned to a cousin, niece, nephew–someone who’s not descended from the ancestor in question but shares ancestors with that person.

    So, you’ve both taught me something directly and pushed me to learn something new, today. Congratulations!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow. I taught you something I didn’t know, which you then taught me. Thanks. I always wrote off the no-kids idea on the theory that no one’s descended from people who weren’t their parents, but I forgot about the aristocracy, who don’t function like the rest of us and can come into the world with no parents at all.


    • This descent thing gets very complicated. It’s often been the cause of umpteen disputes and wars about who the next English king should be. In 1688 Parliament went through a lot of machinations about who was royally related to whom in order to replace the hated (and Catholic) King James II with a loyal Protestant king. In the end they had to settle for a Dutch dude, William III, Prince of Orange. Then in 1714 they had to do the same thing all over again, and this time they chose a German dude from Hanover, who became George I and gave his name to a whole period of British history and architecture. If all this hadn’t really happened you could be forgiven for think it was some sort of genealogical joke.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Thanks for this news of another car park king. I’d followed the whole saga regarding Richard because I was still living in Scotland then. Strangely enough, American news broadcasters have failed to cover the possibility of finding Henry in a pot hole.

    I too remember asking a teacher about the Dark Ages, aged about 8 I think. I was told that it was when the Roman Empire fell and all their knowledge was lost and everyone in Europe was really thick for a long time. Something tells me my teacher wasn’t a fan of that period of history.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was a better answer than I got, though. (I expected it to end with everyone with in a thick fog, which would explain the darkness.)

      If we’re going to find Henry, we’re going to have to locate a really, really big pothole.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Excuse me for mentioning it Ellen but you mention in a comment about taking part in back filling archaeological sites. It seems to me that without this sort of enthusiastic back filling we might have found our lost buried ex-kings a lot quicker. You really ought to get in at the other end of the digs, it’s no good only getting involved once there’s a multi-storey on Tintagel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Okay, I just came back from a second day of back filling–and back killing. I can testify that there won’t be a multistory car park on by Tintagel Castle because it’s too damn hard to carry the cars up there. Be practical, Bear. It was hard enough to get the wheelbarrows up. I wasn’t the one who carried them but just the thought of someone having to do it wears me out.

      And–while I’m being both snotty and practical–you really can’t bury anyone, even a king, without back filling. It gets smelly, it’s unhygienic, and the neighbors complain.


  12. There’s a great business concept in the middle of all this that I can’t quite put together. Like organizing tours around the destroyed religious sites and telling people there’s a chance they might find traces of a dead king. I assume they kept better track of their queens.

    Liked by 1 person

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