What was the true nature of a king famously depicted by William Shakespeare as a twisted soul who locked his young nephews — and rivals to the throne — in the Tower of London, never to be heard from again? Did Shakespeare offer a fair accounting of historical record, or was the Bard the Karl Rove of his day, a spin doctor for the House of Tudor that assumed power after the monarch fell with fateful cries of “Treason!” at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485?
Whether the bones prove to be Richard’s or not, the discovery in September has already set academic journals, Web sites, university lecture circuits and the mainstream media abuzz across Britain, sparking intense and occasionally impolite exchanges. On the floor of the House of Commons, members of Parliament are eloquently clashing, with representatives from York — for whom Richard was the last hope against rival Lancastrians in the War of the Roses — demanding the restoration of his tarnished image. One organization of die-hard Richard III supporters (there are at least two) is running a national ad campaign to clear the king’s name.
There are even calls for a state funeral, giving the medieval king a send-off steeped in the pomp and circumstance of contemporary Britain.
“I suppose we won’t dash off to the Folger Library in Washington and destroy the First Folio, but we must rewrite the history distorted by that, ahem, writer from Stratford,” Hugh Bayley, a member of Parliament from York, said with tongue only partly planted in cheek. “The fact that a Mr. Shakespeare decided to write some play about a hunchback shouldn’t blacken the name of a fine, upstanding defender of country.”
Where to lay the bones?
Yet if the remains are indeed those of the long-lost sovereign — something archaeologists call extremely likely — it also raises a conundrum: Where to bury one of England’s most demonized characters?
Under Church of England protocol, the bones, should they prove to be Richard’s, appear destined to end up in the cathedral at Leicester, the city where the remains were found. But many insist they should instead go to the Anglican cathedral in York, the city where history suggests that he wanted to rest. Still others question whether burial should be in an Anglican cathedral at all, as he died a Roman Catholic, reigning by the grace of God and the pope.