The remains of England's King Richard III, who died in battle more than five centuries ago, will be re-interred on Thursday at Leicester Cathedral. The planned burial has dominated headlines in Britain, where the fate of the late monarch's bones has been a source of national fascination since they were dug up in a Leicester parking lot in 2012 and identified using DNA testing a year later.
Richard III was slain in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field, a moment immortalized by Shakespeare. In Richard III, the cornered king senses his own doom. "I have set my life upon a cast,/ And I will stand the hazard of the die," he intones, and then famously cries out: "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse." But Richard never escaped on a trusted steed and was, instead, cut down by the soldiers of his rival, Henry Tudor, whose descendants would be Shakespeare's royal patrons.
Forensic analysis on Richard III's supposed remains indicate his death was particularly brutal: his body was battered and penetrated in multiple places, from his head to his pelvis, suggesting his enemies did some gruesome things to his corpse.
His reburial in a new crypt in Leicester's cathedral, a publicity coup for the British city, perhaps offers the medieval king a kind of quiet, dignified redemption. But it doesn't put to bed the longstanding debate over his reign and legacy.
British medieval historian Dan Jones summarizes what led up to the bloody war that ended in the king's death:
Before Richard III was king he was a notably loyal lieutenant to his brother, King Edward IV, keeping order in the north on behalf of the king. But when Edward IV died, Richard usurped the crown from his brother’s 12-year old son, Edward V, justifying his actions on the spurious grounds that the boy and his brother were illegitimate. Later, Richard quite probably—although this is ultimately unproven—had Edward V and his brother murdered...
Despite a reign that featured some relatively enlightened policies, particularly in the realms of social justice and public finance, Richard’s brief reign was stained by the crime of his usurpation—a wild action that threw into disarray the fragile politics of a realm only recently recovered from civil war.
At the heart of the controversy is the supposed murder of his young nephews, two princes housed and then disappeared at the Tower of London. This supposed act of regicide haunts Richard III's legacy to this day.
As I wrote two years ago, in the decades and centuries since his death, "Richard III has skulked in the shadows of the English imagination, a debased villain guilty of the worst crimes." Shakespeare played a big part in cementing his reputation as a gnarled, unnatural usurper who even emerged from the womb "corrupt" and "misshaped." Some accounts described him as a hunchback, an affliction proved to be somewhat false following analysis of his bones.
Richard III's defenders -- and they are surprisingly well-organized -- point to the lack of evidence that confirms Richard III's hand in the deaths of the two princes. They argue that the last thing England needed at the time was a child monarch, and that Richard III in his brief two-year tenure on the throne enacted important reforms. These include developing an early form of legal aid to those who couldn't afford lawyers -- a step along the way toward codifying the presumption of innocence in court cases.
"The achievements of his short reign have been overshadowed by historical myths and Shakespeare’s monster, but these achievements were real and had lasting impact," said Phil Stone, chairman of the Richard III Society, an organization devoted to rehabilitating the monarch's legacy, in an interview with Discovery News.
Ultimately, it may be slightly pointless to fret over the moral character of a monarch who died centuries before the world recognized anything other than the vulgar power of men with weapons. He was another warlord in an age of warlords.
"In his day, political power was invariably won or maintained on the battlefield and only by ruthless determination, strong alliances and a willingness to employ the use of force, at times with astonishing brutality," said Cardinal Vincent Nichols, archbishop of Westminster, speaking to Discovery News.
Richard III will be interred with respect and ceremony, but Thursday's spectacle won't change the fact that he's more a figure from the world of "Game of Thrones" than our present moment.