In life, Richard III was one of England’s most notorious kings but in death, is he responsible for one of the biggest upsets in sporting history? We take a look at the twin stories of Richard III and Leicester City – Premier League champions and subject of one of sport’s greatest underdog stories.
Richard was born in 1452 and his life was entirely dominated by the Wars of the Roses, as his father, the Duke of York, rebelled against the Lancastrian king, Henry VI. For most of his life, Richard was a loyal soldier supporting his brother, Edward IV, but everything changed when his brother died in 1483. Richard was chosen by Edward to be Lord Protector to his 12 year-old nephew, Edward V.
Richard had been a slightly distant figure in the final years of his brothers reign, apparently disillusioned by Edward’s failure to make war with France and the decadent nature of his court. In particular, Richard was at odds with Edward’s wife, Elizabeth Woodville, and her numerous family members given prominent positions at court. When Edward IV died, Elizabeth and Richard saw each other as a threat – it is not clear whether Richard always planned to take the throne but two months later he declared his nephews illegitimate, was himself crowned as king and the nephews were never seen again, remembered as the Princes in the Tower.
As a virtual ruler in northern England, Richard had the potential to be a very effective ruler, but the divisions in England and the suspicion that he had murdered his nephews meant that his reign was never free from trouble. After defeating one rebellion from his former ally, the Duke of Buckingham, in 1485 Richard came to battle at Bosworth with Henry Tudor, the leading figure in the Lancastrian cause. Despite having a larger army, Richard was defeated when many of his troops (particularly those led by the Stanleys) failed to join the battle. Richard made a last-ditch attempt to end the battle by personally killing his rival and came incredibly close, killing Henry’s standard bearer before being pulled from his horse and brutally hacked to death, becoming the last English king to die in battle. With his death, the Plantagenet dynasty (and, arguably, the medieval era) came to an end, the Tudors were on the throne and Richard was buried in Greyfriars Church in Leicester, which was subsequently lost to history.
For the benefit of those not familiar with England outside of London, Leicester (pronounced Les-ter) is a city in the East Midlands (near Birmingham). A city with plenty of history, Leicester was the site of an iron age settlement, a Roman town with a forum and bathhouse, and one of the Five Burghs ruled by the Vikings. Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed it was founded by King Leir (about whom Shakespeare would write one of his most celebrated tragedies). Henry VIII’s early advisor, Cardinal Wolsey, died and was buried in Leicester in 1530, while Elizabeth I’s beau, Robert Dudley, was made the Earl of Leicester in 1564.
However, clearly the most significant date in Leicester’s history was 1884 when the football team Leicester Fosse (renamed Leicester City in 1919) was founded. In the 1928-29 season, they finished as runners-up in the top division (then called, imaginatively, Division One) and thereafter, that was about as good as it got! Leicester have always been one of those clubs trapped in a cycle of being promoted to the top division (these days called the Premier League), maybe surviving for a few years before being relegated again. They have had some great players (most notably England’s World Cup-winning goal-keeper, Gordon Banks, and star striker Gary Lineker), have occasionally lost in the FA Cup final, but have always been a very long way from being one of the top dogs.
The Car Park King
In 2012, Richard III found himself in headlines across the world when he rather unexpectedly turned up in council car park in Leicester. A project to locate the lost ruins of Greyfriars church proved successful and the theory that Richard had been buried there turned out to be correct. In the very first location that the archaeologists started digging, they found a skeleton which turned out to be an adult male from the medieval era who had suffered from scoliosis (curvature of the spine) and a host of rather brutal injuries.
In 2013, after extensive DNA testing, the University of Leicester confirmed that the skeleton was, beyond reasonable doubt, Richard III. However, Richard’s status as England’s most controversial monarch went up a notch when he became the subject of a court case. It was announced that Richard would be re-interred at Leicester Cathedral, but this was challenged by the Plantagenet Alliance (a group of distant, indirect descendants of Richard), who claimed that Richard would have wanted to be buried at York Minster instead. Chris Grayling, the Secretary for Justice, rejected the claim but it went to appeal before in 2014, three High Court judges rules in favour of the Ministry of Justice.
Finally, in March 2015, Richard’s remained were processed through Leicester to the cathedral, for reburial on the 26th. The service was shown live on television across the world and included a reading from the actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who was preparing to play Richard in a BBC adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, Richard III, and transpired to be a distant relation.
The First Miracle
Historically, the death of prominent individuals might sometimes be followed by reports of miracles associated with their relics or tomb, leading to calls for them to be beaitified. Usually, this would involve someone being cured of a disease, blind men having their sight restored, etc. In the case of Richard III, however, it was in sport that his miracle would be apparent.
After being relegated from the Premiership in the 2003-04 season, Leicester had spent a decade outside of the top division before returning in 2014-15. However, after a good start to the season, it looked like Leicester were heading for relegation once again. From 27 September 2014 to March 2015, Leicester played 24 Premier League games, enjoying only 2 victories and 7 draws with the remaining 18 matches all being defeats, at one stage losing 6 matches in succession. Since November, they had been bottom of the Premier League and their 4-3 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur on 21 March (despite the first goal since September by striker Jamie Vardy), left them 3 points behind their nearest rival and 7 points from safety.
However, by the time Leicester played their next match against West Ham on 4 April, Richard III had been lain to rest in Leicester Cathedral. So what happened? Leicester won! In fact, Leicester won the next four matches in a row and in the final 9 games of the season they lost only one more match, with 1 draw and 7 wins (having only won 4 times in the first 29 matches!) and they avoided relegation, finishing a very creditable 14th having looked certain to go down.
The Second Miracle
The timing of Richard’s burial and the reversal in Leicester’s fortunes did not go unnoticed, but Leicester’s incredible story was not finished yet. Before the 2015-16 season, Leicester’s manager, Nigel Pearson, was fired following an unsavoury episode involving his son and various other Leicester players. The new man at the helm was Claudio Ranieri, a genial and eccentric Italian who had not managed in the Premier League since being sacked in 2004 at Chelsea. Although having enjoyed much success, his appointment came as a surprise (not least as he had recently been fired as manager of Greece following a humiliating defeat to the Faroe Islands). Many predicted that he would be the first sacked manager of the season and that Leicester would be relegated.
Instead, Leicester’s good form continued from the previous season. They were undefeated for the first six games of the season, with their first defeat in the seventh game leaving them in 6th position. As it turned out, they would never drop any lower for the rest of the season. As their rivals struggled to maintain any consistency, Leicester won 8 of the next 10 matches, most notably a victory against previous champions Chelsea and a 1-1 draw with Manchester United that saw Jamie Vardy become the first player in the Premiership to score in 11 consecutive matches, leaving them top of the table at Christmas.
Had one of the wealthier, more established clubs been in this position they would have have been considered strong title contenders, but no one believed Leicester’s good form would continue. Indeed, Gary Lineker tweeted that if Leicester City won the title he would present Match of the Day in his underwear! And it seemed like the inevitable decline was setting in – Leicester lost their next game to Liverpool and then drew 3 of the next 4, still top of the league but only 1 point ahead of Manchester City.
YES! If Leicester win the @premierleague I’ll do the first MOTD of next season in just my undies.
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) 14 December 2015
And yet… Leicester did not fall away. They won their next three matches, including back-to-back wins against Liverpool and a remarkable 3-1 win away to Manchester City. With a great team spirit and a manager who continually refused to acknowledge they were title contenders until his iconic, near-Shakespearian rallying cry of “Dilly ding, dilly dong, come on!”, Leicester were in prime position to win the league. But would their nerve hold?
They only lost one more match for the rest of the season (only their third of the season) and against all the odds they won the title with two games to go when their final rival, Tottenham Hotspur, were failed to beat Ranieri’s old club Chelsea. The impossible had happened.
Leicester’s victory was certainly an upset, but was it really THAT big an upset and is Richard III really responsible?
In terms of the odds, it really was THAT big of an upset! At the start of the season, the bookies put Leicester’s odds of winning the Premier League at 5000/1 – less likely than Simon Cowell becoming Prime Minister (500/1); the Queen having a Christmas number 1 (1000/1); or for Elvis being discovered alive and well (2000/1).
The reason for these long odds is that football is such a wealthy sport (and the Premier League the wealthiest of them all) that unless you are one of the big clubs who have been winning most of the titles in the last few years or have been bought by billionaires throwing indiscriminate money at you, it just should not be possible to win the title. Indeed, Leicester were the first new club to have won the title since Nottingham Forest in 1977-78. If you were to arrange the 2015-16 Premier League in order of the wage bill for each club, Leicester would have come 17th out of 20 with a measly total of £48.2m compared to £215.6m for Chelsea. The comedian Mark Steel tried to put it into perspective by comparing it to a cat winning the Grand National horse race!
Trying to explain how amazing it would be if Leicester win the league I tried ‘it’s like a cat winning the Grand National’. Any better ones?
— Mark Steel (@mrmarksteel) April 10, 2016
But was it really Richard III that won it for Leicester – is this a miracle to make him worthy of sainthood? Well, there really is a direct correlation between his re-burial and Leicester’s reversal in fortune. In the 29 matches of the 2014-15 season before he appeared, Leicester had won just 4 times – a rate of 14%. But once Richard had paid his parking ticket and was buried at Leicester Cathedral, Leicester City won 30 of their next 42 games – a mightily impressive win record of 71%. Add to this some coincidences that cannot be dismissed by those of superstitious mind: Leicester play their home games at the KING Power Stadium; one of the club’s assistant coaches is Craig SHAKESPEARE; one of the players who has seen them through promotion from League One, the Championship and Premier League glory is Andy KING.
And what of the other city who laid claim to Richard and would have had buried in their city? Sadly, for York City, the contrast could not be greater. Whereas Leicester finished top of the football league, York finished at the very bottom – 24th in League Two and relegated into non-league status. York City managed only 7 wins in 46 games – a win rate of 15%, almost identical to the pre-Richard III Leicester City. Alas, poor York, but that I hate thee deadly, I should lament thy miserable state…