Sunday, February 10, 2013

My kingdom for a...King Richard III?

Has King Richard III of England finally been discovered?

Recently, the University of Leicester made the biggest discovery in British archaeology in decades.  Under a parking lot in Leicester where a Greyfriars friary once stood in the 15th century, a team of archaeologists discovered exactly what they were looking for (for once).  What had become of Richard III after his death during the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 had been a mystery up to that point.  There was a tradition that he had been buried in the friary, but, further tradition claimed that he had later been exhumed and his remains thrown in a nearby river. 
Acertaining that this is, indeed, Richard, was another matter.  Using mitochondrial DNA, carried through the mother's line, it was possible to match DNA extracted from the skeleton to descendants of Richard III's sister, Anne of York.  As neither relative has any children of their own, within another generation, it might have been impossible to reach a definitive conclusion about the identity of the skeleton. 
You can read about the discovery, and the science behind it,  here.
Whether you're a history scholar or you despise history with a passion, you probably have heard about Richard III.  Richard III: a deformed, evil, power-hungry monarch who mercilessly murdered his nephews, who killed his wife to marry his niece, and who was justly cut down in battle by victorious Henry VII.  So, where does this come from?
Probably the most influential person to explore Richard III's personality, or the personality attributed to him, was Shakespeare.  The opening monologue introduces the evil, calculating Richard III, and no one personified that better than Laurence Olivier.  Here is Olivier delivering an edited version of Richard III's soliloquy:
Was King Richard III really this guy?
There are certainly reasons to be somewhat suspicious of this interpretation of Richard.  In fact, King Richard III is the only king in English history to have a rehabilitation society dedicated to improving his reputation.  Many authors have examined the sources and come to very different conclusions about Richard.  For example, Richard III was uncompromisingly loyal to his older brother, King Edward IV, before and throughout his reign as king of England.  The Parliament that sat during his very short reign introduced a number of very progressive reforms, and he improved conditions markedly for often-neglected northern England. 
Where did Shakespeare get his Richard III?  The primary source that informed this play was a history composed by Thomas More.  His The History of Richard III was probably composed in the mid-1510s during the reign of King Henry VIII.  There is no question that this is a story composed by and for the victorious Tudors.  Richard III was evil and deserved to be deposed.  Henry VII, Henry VIII's father, was a liberator who won a god-sanctioned victory at the Battle of Bosworth.  Many important cultural norms appear in the narrative--Richard III's physical deformities were an outwardly visible manifestation of his evil nature.  He coveted the crown so much, he killed innocent children who loved and trusted him.  All of this was meant to legitimize the Tudor reign at a time when Henry VIII was still threatened by others who had stronger claims to the English throne.  Richard III is considered to be the "last Plantagenet king," but he wasn't the last living member of this long-reigning family.  There were many Plantagenets still living in England under the uneasy eye of the Tudor kings and queens to follow.  Henry VII spent most of his reign legitimizing his position, and Henry VIII inherited some of his insecurities.  The assurance that Richard III deserved to lose the English crown on behalf of the entire Plantagenet clan was perhaps one of the few comforting thoughts either monarch had to rest upon.  And, it comes as no surprise that faithful royal servant, Thomas More, who rose to prominence during the Tudor dynasty (and, later, fell) was the one who provided it.
Was Richard III really deformed?  The skeleton seems to confirm a case of scoliosis, demonstrated in the prominent curvature of the mid-spine.  But, a whithered arm is completely absent.  In fact, it seems that regardless of his back problems, he may have been a fairly competent fighter.
Did Richard III really kill his wife?  Probably not.  There are many indications that they had a fairly happy marriage.  She died in 1485 only months before Richard, but it is thought by scholars today that she suffered from tuberculosis.  There is no evidence that Richard poisoned her to be able to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York, who later became Henry VII's wife.  The logic behind this had to do with the fact that she was the daughter of King Edward IV and elder sister to the two "murdered" princes.  A marriage to her could legitimize a claim to the throne.  Apparently, Henry VII certainly thought so, but there isn't much evidence Richard thought this way.
Did Richard III kill his nephews, Edward and Richard, sons of King Edward IV?  This is the big question, and one for which there are equally good arguments on either side.  I'd recommend reading more  yourself on this one if you would like to explore the possibilities.
Whatever the verdict on Richard III's life and personality, the discovery of a long-lost king of England is an absolutely remarkable find. 

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