Questioning Tudor history
That bones were found at all is a testament to the tenacity of Richard’s supporters. After his death, the king’s body was interred at a Leicester monastery and became buried in time and memory. But earlier this year, screenwriter and Richard III aficionado Philippa Langley cobbled together $52,000 to finance what become a single-minded ambition: finding his remains.
After comparing ancient maps and modern city plans, a team of archaeologists at Leicester University pinpointed possible locations of the old monastery and had a stroke of luck when the most likely site for Richard’s grave was found to be in a city parking lot. Spurred by the hope of tourism dollars, the city approved the dig, which in September uncovered the remains of a man — exactly where texts said the monarch was buried — who was of the right age and nourishment level and who had suffered battle trauma and spine damage.
DNA tests against a Canadian descendant of Richard’s eldest sister should be completed early next year. Yet even if the remains turn out not to be his, Richard III supporters have nevertheless already succeeded in provoking a nation to rethink his legacy.
“So much of what we know about him currently is wrong, and in the past we accepted the Tudor version of history unquestionably,” she said. “But not anymore.”
Indeed, for historians and Shakespearean scholars the find has also dug up the centuries-old debate over a much-maligned monarch.
Experts say there are few objective depictions of Richard III from his reign. Rather, his legacy was built largely on “Tudor propaganda,” including Polydore Vergil’s landmark “Anglica Historia” and the works of John Rous, who assured the medieval world that Richard III had been born with teeth and hair after two years in his mother’s womb.
What is clear is this: After decades of war between rival houses, Richard III became the last king of England to fall on the battlefield, slain while defending his crown against a marauding upstart backed by France. That upstart, Henry VII, seeded a House of Tudor that over a century would break with the Vatican, humble mighty Spain and usher in a golden age of British arts, enlightenment and power.
Analysis of the bones may also suggest the extent to which Shakespeare and early historians — upon whose accounts the writer drew — took creative license with the king’s appearance. He was described in Shakespeare’s “Richard III” as a hunchback “so lamely and unfashionable that dogs” barked at him as he went by. But the remains found in Leicester instead suggest a man with a less-dramatic curvature of the spine, likely from scoliosis.
Even Richard III backers tend to acknowledge that he is guilty of locking up the “princes in the tower” — his two nephews, 12 and 9, who were declared illegitimate so he could seize the throne after the death of his brother Edward IV. But the scant, unclear evidence of their fate — especially whether he took the step of having them killed — is now facing its deepest scrutiny in the better part of 500 years.
For his critics, the lost-and-found king cannot escape what history holds to be his most ghastly deed. “England cannot, should not, celebrate a child-killer,” said Gareth Russell, British novelist, historical blogger and certainly no friend to Richard III.