Nicola here! Today I’m thinking about lost kings, by which I mean those monarchs whose bodies have vanished and whose current whereabouts are unknown. This may seem an odd thing to be thinking about (but you know writers – we think about all kinds of weird stuff!) but two things have put it in my mind. First there’s the ongoing debate about where King Richard III is to be re-buried after the sensational discovery of his body last year beneath a car park in the city of Leicester. The other reason I’m musing on lost kings is that much to my surprise, whilst doing the research for my current manuscript I discovered I’m actually writing about one – Frederick of Bohemia, whose body disappeared in the 1630s. More on Frederick later.
The archaeological dig to find the burial site of King Richard III last year fascinated people in the UK and far beyond. Perhaps it was because Richard has always been one of the most controversial of English kings, bitterly dividing opinion over whether he was a good guy or not. Perhaps it was also the fact that his death in battle and subsequent fate was the stuff of rumour and legend. Whilst the discovery could not throw any light on the biggest mystery of all that surrounds Richard – that of the fate of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower – it did reveal a wealth of information about the king himself, his physical appearance and the way in which he died.
It’s no secret that Richard III has always been a hero of mine, right from the first time I read The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. It’s interesting how influential that book has been on so many people and how such a strong debate has arisen over Richard’s character and actions. The discovery of Richard’s body led to much excitement over lost kings and it’s interesting how many of them there are. (When I was checking this out I couldn’t find any lost queens but maybe there are some of them too.)
We tend to expect kings and queens to be buried in cathedrals with all due ceremony. A surprising number are not and I suppose that if a king falls in battle the chances of a proper burial diminish considerably. However, the big culprit as far as losing the bodies of monarchs is concerned was Henry VIII. Yes, as a result of the dissolution of the monasteries from the 1530s onwards a number of kings were misplaced including Henry I and James IV of Scotland. King Harold, who was defeated by William the Conqueror at Hastings in 1066, may be buried at Waltham Abbey but this is not definite. Even Charles I’s tomb was mislaid after the Civil War, although though it was known to be in St George’s Chapel at Windsor, and was only rediscovered in 1813. (That would make for an interesting background to a Regency story!)
After Richard III had been found archaeologists turned their attention to King Alfred the Great. It was rumoured that Alfred too was beneath a car park in Winchester (which says a lot about parking in English cities) but this proved to be false. An excavation in the churchyard where Alfred was supposed to have been re-buried after Hyde Abbey was destroyed only found skeletons from a later era. However, a pelvic bone excavated in a previous dig that had lain in a box in a museum for years was re-examined and dated to the correct period. Archaeologists are now returning to the site of the previous dig to see if they can find any further evidence.
Meanwhile, there’s Frederick of Bohemia. Frederick was a German Prince who married Elizabeth Stuart,
the sister of King Charles I, in 1613. Elizabeth and Frederick both feature in my new book, which has intertwined stories set in the 17th, 19th and 21st centuries. Frederick ruled briefly as King of Bohemia before being defeated at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620. He and Elizabeth and their young family were forced into exile in Holland. Twelve years later, in 1632, Frederick had an opportunity to regain his ancestral lands but was struck down by a pestilential fever and died. His body was first buried in Germany but three years later his burial place was threatened by enemy troops so poor Frederick was dug up and taken travelling again, looking for safe burial in France. There is no record of his final resting place and it’s an intriguing mystery, as Elizabeth’s letters give no clues as to his eventual fate.
Frederick’s story caught my imagination, especially as I had also read about the curse of St Wenceslas. Kings of Bohemia were traditionally crowned with this rather blingy crown of St Wenceslas but there was a curse attached – any ruler who usurped the throne was doomed to die within a year. There were plenty of people who considered Frederick a usurper and he lost his throne a year and 4 days after taking it. He did not die within the year but he never regained his patrimony, ending his life in exile and with his body still “continuing on its melancholy travels” as one historian commented. It's fair to say that if Frederick was not cursed he was certainly very unlucky.
This was writing catnip to me. Frederick and Elizabeth’s story, and Frederick’s fate, forms one of the main threads in the story I’m currently writing. The 17th century is such a rich period, and tying it in to the Regency meant that I had the best of both worlds.
As far as I know, no one has ever searched for Frederick in the way they have for Richard III or King Alfred. Perhaps this is because Frederick was considered one of history’s failures and he’s now forgotten. In the case of Richard III perhaps the discovery of his body caught the public imagination because he was already a historical figure who commanded such strong feelings. What do you think? Why are some kings searched for and other forgotten? Is it right to go looking for the final resting places of lost kings? And – dare I ask? – do you think Richard III was a good guy? Or not?