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Berkshire Family Historian
June 2003

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'A horse! a horse! my Kingdom for a horse!’
Daphne Spurling

Dr. Neville Spriggs, grandfather of Daphne Spurling, the Society’s Project Co-ordinator, was a Leicester police surgeon for 25 years. He was visited in 1924 by a young Australian cousin, Percy Spriggs. Recently Percy’s son, Christopher, sent Daphne an account written by his father. Although it reads as if written at the time, it was part of a diary written in the mid­1970s. Percy often talked about the incident, so perhaps one of his children or grandchildren suggested he wrote it down. This is the story as told by Percy.

‘A horse! a horse! my Kingdom for a horse!. The words that Shakespeare put into the mouth of a mortally wounded King Richard came rushing to my mind as I stood at the top of an old Roman wall in the City of Leicester in England. The year was 1924 and I was just a young man from Australia touring the world, stopping over for a few days with a relative.

Dr Neville Spriggs, a keen historian and President of the Archaeological Society, was telling me something of the fascinating history of the city. He had shown me the ‘supposed’ burial place of Richard III and on my enquiry, I was told that on the death of the King, the story was, that his body was thrown into the river from the old stone bridge. I could see below me that bridge spanning the river and way beyond lay Bosworth Field. History was unfolding before my eyes and I dropped off to sleep that night with a picture in my mind, of the Lancastrian about to overwhelm the king’s forces through the sudden treachery of the two Stanleys and their followers deserting to the forces of Richmond (later Henry VII) and of Richard’s crown being picked up on the battlefield and at once placed on the head of Richmond who was saluted king by the whole army.

I thought of the dreadful dilemma of those loyal soldiers retreating with the now dead king — of the urgency of preventing the royal body being captured by the enemy. I thought too, of the two young princes murdered in the Tower by Richard.

It is now breakfast time the following morning. My cousin was called to the ‘phone and in his capacity as doctor and police surgeon, was informed that a human skeleton had been recovered from the thick black mud at the site of excavations for the foundations of a steel bridge under construction just a little down stream from the old stone one and it was suggested that the bones could be those of Richard III. All thoughts of bacon and eggs were dropped when Neville asked if I would care to go with him to inspect the bones. Would I go? Indeed I was already ahead of him, visualising the newspaper headlines and maybe hearing the news on a crystal set. In fact, the occasion was so momentous that I was thinking of the fantastic tales that I would have to tell my, as yet unborn, children — perhaps even my children’s children. Yes, I MUST have grandchildren to be worthy of such a story as this.

A short run in the old Morris and we were walking towards a group of people looking down at something on the pebbly edge of the river. A constable cleared a passage for the doctor and me and then — moment of moments — we too were looking at an almost complete skeleton neatly arranged on the ground.

I remember thinking that this occasion was more exciting than the Pyramids; the Coliseum; an audience with Pope Pius XI (for which I had become an American Catholic for a couple of hours); the terrible fire at sea on the ‘Hobsons Bay’; and crash of an old Imperial Airways plane which somehow carried me from Le Bourget to Croydon — all these episodes, if rolled into one would not equal this fantastic moment.

My cousin now examined the bones — particularly the almost complete vertebrae and with what seemed to me a cursory inspection lasting perhaps one minute, rose up and pronounced in no uncertain manner, that the bones could be those of a man of that period, but were larger than one of King Richard’s stature. He then added that this skeleton was not that of the king.
The doctor instructed the constable to take charge of the remains and then strode off to the car with the remark ‘Come Perce, and we’ll see if they’ve kept our bacon and eggs warm.
This was terrible! I was indignant that my cousin had seemingly dismissed the matter with such little concern. ‘How the devil could you say so positively and without a very thorough examination, that these bones were definitely not those of King Richard?’ Fortunately for me, I was only thinking that remark, as the doctor was rapidly striding his way towards the car, so I saved the question until we were seated and about to move off. Neville now fixed me with a wicked twinkle in his eyes.. . ‘Don’t they teach you anything of English History in your Australian schools?’ Then came the moment of truth. Richard was a hunchback, which explained my cousin’s close examination of each vertebra.

So now I tell this story to my grandchildren and they invariably say Oh Grandpa, how very disappointed you must have been’ —this perhaps is the understatement of the year.’

As you can tell, Percy enjoyed telling the story and Chris adds details from hearing the account several times. Percy travelled to England in a cargo boat with a handful of passengers. The cargo was apples, wool and an animal fat in barrels. The smell of the burning apples was not so bad but it really stank when the wool and fat burnt. Percy showed Chris a photo of the deck buckled from the heat. Then Percy met an American priest on the train to Rome who convinced Percy that it was OK to pretend to be a catholic on that occasion in order not to miss the chance of a Papal Blessing. Luckily Percy kept the rosary beads that he had presented to be blessed as he needed them for the next close shave. The index to The Times of 1924 lists a surprising number of aeroplane accidents. Two could fit the story, given a little poetic licence. A cargo plane belonging to Air Union caught fire on landing at Croydon on 22 January. The two passengers escaped and helped save their personal belongings. The fire was described as more spectacular than serious. Another possibility is on 27 July when the Chief Engineer was inspecting an Imperial Airways plane as it was about to leave for Paris. He noticed a tire (sic) was deflated, stepped forward for a better view and walked into one of the propellers. The propeller split and he died in hospital.

But what about the bones? There is no reference to this story at the Leicester Library, the Record Office or on the Richard III websites I visited. The Leicester Mercury is not indexed and without knowing the date or month it would be a long job to read all through 1924 to seek the story of the bones beneath Bow Bridge. It was possibly not reported as my grandfather had immediately dismissed the possibility of the bones being Richard’s. A 1986 summary of the evidence suggests the following scenario. Henry proved Richard’s death by having his body exposed to the populace and the body was then buried by the Grey Friars in their abbey. The popular legend, that Richard’s body was rudely removed from its coffin, carried jeeringly through the streets of the city, and finally cast into the river or roughly buried under the end of Bow Bridge, is not contemporary but first recorded 70 years after his death. So it is probably not true. There is evidence that Henry had a tomb constructed and erected over Richard’s grave about 1495, but it was lost in the dissolution. Christopher Wren’s father reported having been shown in the priory grounds, then a private house, a handsome three-foot high stone pillar on which was inscribed ‘Here lies the Body of Richard III, some Time King of England’. After that there are no references to the body or grave. It is widely believed that the coffin survived as a drinking trough for cattle and horses at various inns and in an increasing state of disrepair. Those stories finished around 1750. But this still begs the question of what happened to the body. The original site of Greyfriars has been lost under redevelopment. Various skeletons have been found in the right area, including one in 1935 during the excavation of a carpark, but nothing as yet been proved.

It seems that my grandfather was right in dismissing the bones as Richard’s, but possibly for the wrong reason. Recent research seems to discount the hunchback theory, so I wonder what became of those bones. Wouldn’t it be just too terrible if they were those of the unfortunate king? Poor Richard: he was only 33 years of age when killed at Bosworth Field in 1485. He is one of the very few English monarchs without a known grave and the last to die on a battlefield.

Neville and Percy in 1924 may not have known about one final twist to the story. A family tree possibly researched in the 193 0s takes us back to an ancestor Samuel Sprydge or Sprigge who was made ‘an esquire of the Body’ on Bosworth Field on 21 August 1485. As this was the day before the battle, which side he was on? Percy’s grand daughter recently tried to verify this story but was advised that as the references to Household Awards were not ‘calendared’, a search would be long and painstaking with no guarantee of success.

References:

1 The Times 23 January, page 9 cal. 5
2 The Times 28 July page 9 col. 1
3 King Richard’s Grave in Leicester by David Baldwin in Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaological and Historical Society, Vol LX, 1986
4. The Times 6 September 1935. As there was no follow-up story presumably the idea of the body being that of Richard III was soon dismissed.


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