Few figures in history have been as vilified as Richard III. The man who ruled England for just two years more than 500 years ago was portrayed by Shakespeare as a humpbacked, homicidal tyrant who murdered his own kin to seize the throne. That picture has endured through history, giving some of the richest performances in theater and film of pure villainy.
But the confirmation last week that it was indeed his body that was found buried under a car park in Leicester, England, offers England a chance to reconsider the legacy of Richard III and should press people to think harder about history and the “certainties” of the past.
Born in 1452, Richard III was king of England from 1483 until his death in the Battle of Bosworth Field in August 1485. He was the last king of the House of York and his defeat in war — the last English king to die on the battlefield — marked the end of the Plantagenet dynasty that had ruled England since 1154, and began the reign of the Tudors.
History remembers Richard III for locking his nephews, Princes Edward and Richard, in the Tower of London, and usurping the crown from them. After his death, accusations mounted that he had in fact murdered the two princes, a charge that was repeated by William Shakespeare in his play, Richard III.
That piece of theater has become the defining portrait of the king. From its opening words, which identify the period as “the winter of our discontent,” the image that emerges is of a bloodthirsty tyrant, willing to do anything to seize power.
He is a “rudely stamp’d … deform’d, unfinish’d” man, whose broken body — a humpback and withered arm — manifest the deformities of his soul. He was so hideous that dogs barked at him when he passed.
Richard died in battle, charging his opponent Henry Tudor. Truth and fiction converge in the story of his death: Coming within sword’s length of Tudor, he was surrounded, unhorsed and killed by a blow from a halberd — a large ax — to the back of his head. His body was then stripped and then abused by others as it was returned to Leicester for quick and anonymous burial, with neither shroud nor coffin.
The grave site was erased after Henry VIII broke with Catholicism and razed the compounds of the Catholic monastery containing it.
Last year, archaeologists found the ruins of a medieval priory that contained records of Richard’s burial. That pointed them to another location — a small parking lot — where they exhumed a human skeleton.
Subsequent analysis of the bones convinced them that the remains are those of Richard III.
The evidence was compelling. The skeleton bore traces of trauma to the head and body consistent with those of contemporary descriptions of his death. There were wounds to the skull that would have killed him and subsequent “humiliation” injuries.
Forensic anthropologists confirm that the skeleton’s age — late 20s to early 30s — and general form (slight, almost feminine) were consistent with contemporary descriptions of the king. The skeleton also showed signs of idiopathic adolescent scoliosis, a condition that would have raised one shoulder notably higher than another; it is not the same as being a hunchback, but it certainly provided fodder for the subsequent exaggerations.
There was no evidence of the withered arm that Shakespeare identified.
Finally, the conclusions were confirmed by DNA analysis, which compared samples from the bones with two known living descendants of his sister, Anne. Both were near perfect matches.
Radiocarbon dating also confirmed the appropriate age of the bones and a high protein diet, again consistent with someone of his status.
As Mr. Richard Buckley, lead archaeologist on the excavation, concluded, “Beyond reasonable doubt, the individual exhumed … is indeed Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England.”
The question now is whether the discovery of his body will prompt a reassessment of Richard’s legacy. The evidence suggests that some of the physical deformities have been exaggerated. What about his record?
In “The Daughter of Time,” novelist Josephine Tey applied today’s sleuthing skills to history and concluded that Richard III was unlikely to have killed his nephews as alleged. Indeed, it is important to remember that the portrait of Richard that we have is based on the Tudor account of history — as compelling an example of victor’s justice as can be imagined.
His supporters counter that Richard III was an enlightened ruler who embraced important social, political and legal reforms. He introduced the presumption of innocence for defendants and the granting of bail. He created a court that offered the poor opportunities to have their grievances heard when they could not afford legal representatives.
He was instrumental in the spread of literacy by banning restrictions on the printing and sale of books. Objective histories generally agree that he helped many of England’s poorest citizens — which could be one of the reasons his allies were not so loyal to him and deserted him on the fateful day in August 1485.
The discovery of Richard’s remains offers England a chance to revisit his legacy and to reconsider the gaps between the man and the myth.
It is a reminder of the need to look skeptically at histories and not be intimidated by oversized myths. They invariably serve those in power and often keep people from a complete understanding of who they are, what they have done and why.