Royal Skeleton Under Parking Lot
May Force England to Revise its Past
The remains of one of England’s most vilified sovereigns have been positively ID’d as belonging to Richard III, who ruled from 1483 until he was bludgeoned to death in the 1485 Battle of Bosworth. But his particularly gruesome demise wasn’t the last indignity he suffered.
His almost complete skeleton caused an international stir when it was uncovered, buried under a prosaic parking lot in Leicester, and DNA tests only confirmed what many already suspected. Now starts an even more daunting quest: to restore his battered reputation.
It won’t be easy. After all, when he lost his life and crown as the last Plantagenet king, bringing the famed Wars of the Roses to a conclusion, he and his kin were replaced by the Tudors, who dominated and literally rewrote the U.K.’s history to suit their political interests.
Besides history, Richard III had also a circumstantial but powerful foe, to conspire against his legacy: William Shakespeare, who wrote a play with his name that rivals the historical record, and who, according to many, was himself not unfamiliar with the convenience of creating new identities.
Shakespeare helped to consolidate Richard’s image as a cruel and blood-thirsty despot, with a physical deformity to match his sadistic reputation. Left unsaid is the fact that such a well constructed composite would suit well the ruling Tudors’ aim at winning hearts and minds during the bard’s time.
There’s now a big discussion in England on how to go about restoring King Richard’s true place in history, more in synch with our own times of reckoning and recovering the past as it probably was, without reawakening any remaining bad blood among the British royalty. And that’s when they’ll miss us all, non-subjects.
A WAR WITH THE PRETTIEST NAME
If there’s any interest around the world about the identification of an old English ruler, besides the discovery’s scientific accomplishment, is that we finally have some really exciting news about a member of royalty, even if it’s the 400-year-old kind. In this case, there’s also some revisiting to be made too.
Anything will be better than to hear something else about any of the current occupants of Buckingham Palace. In fact, despite a great many British’s belief to the contrary, the news about England’s royalty, and by extension any other’s, have been for over a century an insufferable boring tale of arrogance and misjudgment.
It’s not that those same elements were absent during the Middle Ages. But, let’s face it, we like our historical facts immerse in intrigue and soaked in blood, with betrayals and backstabbings aplenty, and full sideshow tales of murder and incest, all with the blessings of some church to boot.
Richard and the Wars of the Roses had all of that, in a scale suitable to, well, kings and queens. Thus between 1455 and 1485, Yorks and Tudors, both branches of the royal house of Plantagenet and bitter rivals to the throne, engaged in a constant state of vicious warfare, till the last one stood.
Despite its evocative name, after their red and white heraldic symbols, such battles had nothing of the sort of flowery poetry they eventually inspired. When Richard, the last York king, finally fell, downed by two swift blows to his brain by the armies of Henry Tudor, much of what his nation had been for centuries was also doomed.
The Tudors ruled England and Wales for the next 117 years and, in the process, wrested their subjects from yet another of their enemies: the Vatican, when Henry VIII created a church of his own fruition. They also established the domination of the British Empire, which at certain point, controlled a quarter of the world’s population.
That they did it being based in such a small piece of land can mostly be credited to their exceptional naval power. And, let’s give it them, to a certain character that imbued everything else they did, which you probably know about, all the way to the Beatles and Mary Quant, but we’re probably getting ahead of ourselves here.
THE REBIRTH OF A HUNCHBACK KING
Knowing what we know now about all wars, past and present, it’s doubtful that any particular tyrant was that much more depraved than the next. So it’s very likely that there was a lot of post-mortis propaganda being laid out by the Tudors, in order to erase any possible good will towards the vanquished king and his times.
Again, the genius of Shakespeare may have created an even larger than life personality, to fit his tale, than would be possible for anyone to be. By adding elements of reality, he gave the account of the king’s demise, the character and dimension of the end of an unfortunate era.
Smartly, he kept some of the record that analysis of Richard’s bones have just confirmed. One, is that his body injuries are consistent with reports of the time that he was killed after falling off his horse. Shakespeare added a gem to the ages, when he described that moment in Richard III, the play:
‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse,’ which as most of everything the bard has left to posterity, adds so much texture to that crucial moment, so perfectly suitable 500 years ago as it’s now, even in different contexts. And that coming from a man who may not have been what many think he was.
The other thing that not even Shakespeare could’ve added so effectively is Richard’s scoliosis, the curvature of his spine that in his time, only a few knew much about. His skeleton remains show clearly that the man so many feared and respected was no physical beauty and couldn’t have stood too tall either.
Otherwise, much of what’s known about him is, indeed, a convenient lie, probably concocted by those who defeated him in battle and in the eyes of his contemporaries. The discovery of his bones, though, followed a predictable path, since it was known that the site is where once stood the Grey Friars Monastery, where he’d been interred.
But popular myths are hard to dissipate. England may now give to him what it denied him then: a proper burial, as a Catholic king, and heaven knows how the Vatican needs that kind of P.R. That is, as long as York and Leicester settle their dispute over who should have the rights for his final resting place.
In any event, and even if such disputes pale in comparison to what poor Richard went through during his lifetime, it’s unlikely that we’ll be finding poetry written by him anytime soon. And to be perfectly blunt, we don’t really care much about it either.