One day back in September of 1985, a metal detectorist, Ted Seaton, walked near the ruins of Middleham Castle in Yorkshire, northern England and discovered one of the most famous archaeological finds ever - the Middleham Jewel. The solid gold pendant weighing 68 grams is beautifully engraved with the Trinity and nativity and set with a large sapphire. It is highly likely it was a reliquary containing a holy relic - an amulet meant to protect the wearer. There is a charm against "falling sickness" (epilepsy) written in Latin on the border. It was eventually bought by Yorkshire Museum for a staggering £2.5 million or $3.6 million in order to keep this fine piece of English Gothic jewelry in the country.

No one knows who the jewel belonged to. But it has been dated back to the 15th century to around the lifetime of Middleham Castle's most famous occupant - the controversial King Richard III (1452-1485). This castle was once known as the Windsor of the North and was home to many powerful lords. The picture below shows the remains of the kitchen area - the round circles on the ground were the locations of the ovens.

Middleham Castle was Richard III's favourite residence. The castle was where he spent his happiest years of his life and where his son and heir was born. He lived there in his formative years when he was being trained in the knightly skills under the tutelage of Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick. It was there he met the two boys who were to be his life long friends and where he first met his future wife, Anne Neville, the younger daughter of the Earl.

His portrait shows a good looking man but his unsmiling face and the deep furrows in his forehead gives him a serious and careworn expression. It aptly reflects his personality and the short, tragic and eventful life he led. He was born just at the start of England's series of civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses. He spent his entire life embroiled in the messy conflicts where the Houses of Lancaster and York battled for the English throne. It was a terrible time because the nobles were constantly changing sides even in mid-battle. Murder and mayhem ruled.

Richard was a Yorkist. His family actually had a better claim to the throne than the incumbent at the time. When Richard was just 7, he lost his father, an older brother and an uncle in a battle. Another older brother Edward IV eventually won the throne. When his brother died, Richard's 12 year old nephew became King Edward V but was never properly crowned.

What happened next made Richard III the chief suspect in history's longest murder trial. Did Richard kill his nephews, known as the Princes in the Tower? It is a debate which still rages on today. His actions were highly suspect. First Richard had his nephew's guardian and others executed, accused of plotting assassinations. He then took over the role of Lord Protector. Next, he announced his brother had drawn up a marriage contract with another woman before he married his queen. This was quite plausible as Edward IV was a womanizer. His nephew, the boy king, was therefore deemed illegitimate and Richard, as next in line, took the throne. He sent the princes, Edward and his 9 year old younger brother to the Tower of London which was then both a royal residence and a prison. Neither of them were ever seen again nor were there any records of funerals.

Although the circumstantial evidence incriminates him, murdering to become king does not fit his known character. He was fiercely loyal and disliked court intrigues and political infighting. Looking back, his actions could be considered those of a man who dealt with crisis only one at a time and who lacked the ability to see the big picture and act accordingly. Many historians point out there were other suspects with equally good motives and opportunity.

Richard ruled barely 2 years and they were marked by personal tragedies. Both Richard and his wife were utterly devastated when their only son, Edward of Middleham, died at 11, shortly after being created the Prince of Wales. A year later in 1485, Richard lost his beloved wife to illness, probably tuberculosis. She was only 28 at the time. There really was an eclipse of the sun on the day she died and that proved to be an omen of things to come.

As Richard had no legitimate heir, Henry Tudor (House of Lancaster), later known as Henry VII (father of Henry VIII, the king with 6 wives) soon seized the throne from Richard at the Battle of Bosworth. Richard, the last Plantegenet king, died fighting bravely to the very end. His final words were "Treason! Treason! Treason!" because he was betrayed by his allies. He was also the last reigning English king to die in battle.

The Tudor monarchs let Middleham Castle go to ruin. For a long time, Richard's reputation was also in ruin because some writers like Shakespeare, a Tudor playwright, portrayed him as a twisted, scheming, hunchback with a withered arm. In reality, he was the very opposite. Richard was a fit, skilled warrior in his prime. The only physical quirk he had was slightly uneven shoulders due to scoliosis (curvature of the spine) . If he is to be accused of anything, it would be that he was incapable of the scheming required to keep his throne.

Some modern historians and numerous Richard III societies worldwide now view him differently. He was loved by the people of the north. To this day, over 500 years later, Middleham Church still holds a requiem mass on the anniversary of his death.

Update :  His remains have been found and positively identified via DNA.  Check out the BBC's article which also shows the facial reconstruction of what this king really looked like.

Anthony Cheetham (1972). The Life and Times of Richard III. Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Middleham Online
Sharon Kay Penman's The Sunne in Splendour - highly recommended historical novel about Richard III.

You might also like to read these past biographies:
Richard Francis Burton and African Trade Beads
Beau Brummel - A Regency Dandy's Minimalist Jewelry Style
The Hollywood Actress, the newspaper baron and jewels
The Beading Gem's Journal

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