Death and Humility: Richard III and the Historical Desecration of Corpses

Ancient and Early Medieval historian Sarah Bond shares her thoughts on the recent discovery of the skeletal remains of Richard III

bonesThe story of the English King found underneath a car park has captured the world, it seems. Following his death at the hands of Henry Tudor’s troops at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, it was widely reported that Richard III’s bones were interred at Greyfriars church in Leicester. It would be half a millennium later, with the careful excavation and examination of bones exhumed by the University of Leicester in September 2012, that the king’s body would be found. The discovery of the king’s remains confirmed that he had died after “one of two significant wounds to the back of the skull — possibly caused by a sword and a halberd.” This fact is consistent with the accounts of his death; however, the skeleton also reveals a number of other injuries given to the ribs, pelvis, and head. Accounts of the battle do hint at degradation of his body, noting that he was stripped naked, then placed on the back of a horse after his death. The injury to the pelvis shows an even greater degree assault, since it likely came from a posthumous thrust through his right buttock. These injuries, scientists suggest, are “humiliation injuries.”

Admittedly, folks, I am an ancient and early medieval historian. Yet, when I heard about these injuries, I was not altogether surprised. The desecration of corpses is not a new or even remotely innovative assault, I am afraid.

One of the earliest (and most appalling) instances of corpse desecration was Achilles’ abuse of Hector’s body in Homer’s The Iliad. For years afterwards, sarcophagus sculptors and vase painters alike readily used the theme, and depicted the abuses committed by Achilles while he dragged Hector’s body from the back of his chariot. Zeus had to eventually intervene and stop the warrior’s flagrant disregard for the respect normally paid to the dead in the Greek world. achilles

Fast forward to ancient Rome, and we glimpse at a number of examples of corpse desecration. The bodies of criminals were often treated without the traditional respect paid to the dead; the pervasive sentiment being that as criminals, they didn’t deserve the same deference.  Capital offenders or exceptionally dastardly politicians in Rome could undergo a poena post mortem (“punishment after death”). This could perhaps mean being cast down the Gemonian stairs or thrown into the Tiber, as the emperor Vitellius’ corpse was. Statues and images of emperors could also serve as surrogates for this abuse, sometimes being decapitated, drowned, or marred in place of the actual corpse. Moved by a pure hatred for his rival, Marius, Sulla ordered his rival’s ashes parts exhumed and scattered in the Anio river. In a moment of quick thinking, he then asked for his own body to be cremated. Turns out, asking for a prompt cremation was one way to head enemies off at the pass. Julia

Medieval attitudes towards the body tended to be even more intense. After all, bodies were made in the image of God, and thus should not be altered. This was a central thrust behind the argument against circumcision. Following the Fourth Lateran Council’s doctrine of transubstantiation in 1215, which confirmed that the Eucharist was the actual body and blood of Christ, accusations flew that Jews had desecrated the body of Jesus by stabbing the host. Although these charges appear to have begun in the thirteenth century, they continued on well into the nineteenth. Late medieval attitudes towards dissection also reveal abhorrence for the desecration of even criminal bodies for the purposes of learning anatomy, for instance, but the violation of ‘enemy’ corpses after battle still appears. In Henry IV, Shakespeare notes that following the battle of Bryn Glas in 1402, the Welsh women desecrated the corpses of the English (I.i.43-46).

In the past and even in modern warfare (e.g., the Marine recently tried for urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters), the mutilation of the dead is an attempt to advertise victory and to sully the memory of the deceased. The anger, toil, and animosity that consume people in the midst of battle are often then redirected to the corpses of the enemy following such heated bloodshed. Whether this was indubitably the case for Richard III, we will perhaps have to wait and see, but it remains a sad theme of history that the normal social mores that surround the dead are sometimes broken during periods of war.


3 Responses to “Death and Humility: Richard III and the Historical Desecration of Corpses”

  1. 1 Christos G. Makrypoulias February 9, 2013 at 12:13 am

    A very interesting post, if somewhat unsettling… I think one of the most gruesome pieces of information that I have come across is a skeleton excavated near Valencia, Spain, dating from the town’s sack during Late Republican times, with a pilum found thrust up his rectum. Ouch! I guess it was customs such as this that inspired Kipling’s advise in The Young British Soldier:
    When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
    And the women come out to cut up what remains,
    Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
    An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

  2. 2 Terrence Lockyer (@TLockyer) February 10, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    In this context, two other notable cases are worth mentioning:

    1) In 897, Pope Stephen VI (or VII) had the remains of Pope Formosus (reigned 891-6) exhumed, and put on trial in the so-called “Cadaver Synod”, after which they were mutilated and first buried, then cast into the Tiber, before being recovered and reinterred by a later pope, reversing Stephen’s acts.

    2) In 1661, in revenge for the killing of King Charles I, a body believed to be that of Oliver Cromwell (d. 1658) was exhumed, hung up at Tyburn, decapitated, buried beneath the gallows, and the head placed on a spike at Westminster, where it is believed to have remained throughout the reign of Charles II.

  3. 3 Sarah Bond February 11, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    All very interesting cases. Thanks for the responses, amici.

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