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The debate over King Richard III’s legacy continues

By Washington Post staff,

A team of archaeologists confirmed Monday that ancient remains found under a parking lot belong to long-lost King Richard III, successfully ending a search that sparked a modern-day debate about the legacy of the reputed tyrant. Eliza Mackintosh reports:

Details of the findings were released hours after DNA tests came in late Sunday. The 500-year-old remains were discovered five months ago, using ancient maps and records to uncover the ruins of the old friary where Richard III was laid to rest.

“It is the academic conclusion of the University of Leicester that beyond reasonable doubt, the individual exhumed at Greyfriars in September 2012 is indeed Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England,” Richard Buckley, lead archaeologist of the University of Leicester, said at the announcement Monday in the city 90 miles northwest of London.

The verification came after scientific tests were used to match DNA samples taken from Canadian-born Michael Ibsen, a direct descendent of Anne of York, Richard’s elder sister.

Well before the remains were verified, many were already speculating what the discovery meant for the king’s legacy, Anthony Faiola said:

Tyrant or hero? Rightful monarch or child-killer? Despotic hunchback or brave scoliosis sufferer? Now is the winter of our debate over one of England’s most notorious villains: Richard III.

Underneath a drab parking lot 90 miles northwest of London, archaeologists have unearthed what may become one of this nation’s finds of the century — half-a-millennium-old bones thought to be the remains of the long-lost monarch. But if the discovery has touched off a feverish round of DNA tests against his closest living descendants, it has also lurched to the surface a series of burning questions in a country where even arcane points of history are disputed with the gusto of modern-day politics.

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?

Now that the remains are verified, the tiny, curved spine of the skeleton is of particular interest. Max Fisher reports:

The curve in his spine, long discussed by historians but now visible to anyone with a Web browser, is a fascinating story in itself. Our centuries-old portrayal of King Richard III, the hunchback king, the mental image you probably have of him, turns out to be him.

Neither scoliosis nor a sideways-curved spine causes a hunchback. As a post at Current Archaeology pointed out when the skeleton was first uncovered in September, the curved back we associate with hunchbacks actually comes from kyphosis, which Richard III did not have. So where did that idea come from?

Blame William Shakespeare. His famous play about Richard III’s brief but bloody tenure,  portrayed the king as a hunchback, probably as a dramatic device to emphasize his physical deformities as a reflection of his inner crookedness, a common literary device of the era. Before Shakespeare, contemporary historians had described – accurately, it now seems – Richard’s appearance as consistent with severe scoliosis. Vergil said he had “one shoulder higher than the right”; Thomas More described him as “little of stature, ill-featured of limbs, crook-backed.” Those certainly sound like the bearer of the bones just discovered in Leicester.


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