Richard III’s Bones: Should One of History’s Losers Be Redeemed?

Archaeologists claim to have found a slain king's body — but for centuries, Richard III has skulked in the shadows of the English imagination, a debased villain guilty of the worst crimes

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University of Leicester / HANDOUT / REUTERS

The skeleton of Richard III, which was discovered at the Greyfriars excavation site in Leicester, central England, on Feb. 4, 2013

These are royal bones. Researchers from the U.K.’s University of Leicester confirmed today that the remains of a skeleton discovered in September beneath a parking lot in the British Midlands were that of Richard III, a monarch who ruled for a brief, bloody two years before being slain in battle in 1485. Historical sources corroborated the location of his burial site; DNA tests with one of his last direct descendants — a London furniture maker — further backed up a dossier of forensic and archaeological evidence. “It is the academic conclusion of the University of Leicester that beyond reasonable doubt, the individual exhumed … is indeed Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England,” said Richard Buckley, the university’s lead archaeologist.

But now that we have — or at least, believe we have — established the identity of the remains, what of the historical figure that once gave them life? Richard III perished at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 when his army was decisively defeated by the forces of Henry Tudor, a rival claimant to the throne who would go on to become King Henry VII. More than a century later, William Shakespeare would immortalize the cornered Richard’s final moments in Richard III as he fights grimly on foot after losing his steed — “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.” Sensing his doom a few lines before, Richard intones: “I have set my life upon a cast,/ And I will stand the hazard of the die.”

(PHOTOS: King Richard III’s Skeleton, Dug up from British Parking Lot, Identified)

History’s dice, though, did not fall kindly for him. For centuries, Richard III has skulked in the shadows of the English imagination, a debased villain guilty of the worst crimes. A whole complex of writers and poets sponsored by the ascendant Tudors, not least Shakespeare, acted as de facto propagandists, cementing a legend that has stuck of a gnarled, misbegotten, evil schemer. In the great bard’s words, Richard III emerges even from the womb “corrupt” and “misshaped.” In her Booker Prize–winning masterpiece Wolf Hall, novelist Hilary Mantel has one of her 16th century characters speak “of King Richard, born under Scorpio, the sign of secret dealings, tribulations and vice.” Here was a hunchback consumed by a warped ambition, capable, among other things, of famously having his brother and young nephews executed and then trying to marry a niece.

In more recent times, some in the U.K. have sought to rehabilitate this disgraced potentate, including the rather active Richard III Society. But in our democratic era, there’s a limit to which a royal — not least one who by any account has a degree of blood on his hands — ought to be celebrated. What remains are the facts buried in the ground. The bones of Richard III’s exhumed body seem to prove at least that, judging by the curvature of his spine, he had scoliosis and what was likely a bent back. But there is no evidence of some other deformities, like what Shakespeare dubs “an arm … like a wither’d shrub.” Instead, the findings of bone analysis include numerous wounds — an arrow shot to the back, a violent blow to the skull, even an injury to the pelvis that could have been the result of a vengeful soldier sodomizing the ousted king’s corpse with a sword. He died and was interred in what must have been brutal circumstances.

But Richard III belonged to a brutal age. The three-decade-long War of the Roses, waged between two rival branches of Richard’s House of Plantagenet, had convulsed England in years of chaos and misery. The Battle of Towton in 1461 — won by Richard III’s older brother (and royal predecessor) Edward IV — is considered the bloodiest ever fought on British soil; more than five centuries later, the shattered skulls of the dead are still being brought up from the ground. Throughout while kings and barons charged across the field, countless unnamed small folk, afforded little choice and no glory, died in as gruesome a fashion as Richard III. Gazing at his now identified bones, as naked as all those who fell in his wars, one can’t help but see a thin, brittle vision of justice.

40 comments
cat
cat

They say History is written by the victors and there can be no doubt of that.  The facts are that Richard had nothing to gain by killing his nephews, Henry VII on the other hand, had much to gain as he married their sister.  If she was not illigitimate then neither would her borthers be, leaving him with a rather weak claim to the throne.  My money tends to be on Henry arranging the murder and do not foget tht his mother Margaret was at Court at the time, and very capable of arranging the murders.

barbiedieter
barbiedieter

Richard was by far the least evil of all the kings William Rufus was worse, King John was catastrophic, King Edward the first was just has bad. William Rufus allowed his soldiers to rape and pillage at will, King John killed his nephew, took out the eyes of somebody he thought was a traitor, killed a man who he thought was being unfaithful with his wife and hung his corpse over her bed(chuckle, chuckle) even though she was only 12 at the time. He also kidnapped the children of some welsh noble families and had them executed.

LarryMorgan
LarryMorgan

What i would like to know is there any evidence that Richard the third was anymore evil than previous english kings who came before him.  Some would cite the murder of his nephews in the tower has one example, if he was responsible then it was definitely a cold blooded act but not unusual by the standards of the time.  Henry the fourth after overthrowing his first cousin Richard the second exiled him to Pontefract castle and cold bloodedly starved him to death, Henry the Sixth was similarly sent to the tower and after a period of time assassinated. How would you also compare Richards evil with that of his ancestor Edward longshanks who perfected the grissly art of hanging, drawing and quartering his most hated enemies, eg, William Wallace and 2 of Robert Bruces brothers. On another occasion he hung 700 Jews from the roof beams of the tower of London because they had the audacity to ask him for their money back, money which they loaned him for his Welsh campaign and also castle building, he followed this up by instituting the worst anti-Jewish pogroms in english history, ending in the expulsion of the Jews from England. Richard was a choirboy who paled in comparison, he was even fondly remembered in the north of England, where the people of Yorkshire spoke highly of him.

richsisterpoorsister
richsisterpoorsister

While it's true that a lot of small folk died in these power struggles of the mighty, it's difficult to say whether it was all for nought. Eventually, Britain settled down as a pretty safe place, compared to the struggles on the Continent. From a lot of the dissatisfaction at home came the impetus to find new lands like America - many of the displaced nobility found other causes and other realms. Some might deplore it, but as I sit in my warm house on a New England winter's day, I can deal with the fact that my ancestors "lost" so many battles but eventually won the War of the Roses, in the sense that all of us have Shakespeare's words to enjoy and America as our refuge.

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guru.niinja
guru.niinja

was likely a bent back. But there is no evidence of some other deformities, like what Shakespeare dubs “an arm … like a wither’d shrub.” Instead, the findings of bone analysis include numerous wounds — an arrow shot to the back, a violent b


FrankFC
FrankFC

Christopher Marlowe, aka William Shakespeare, was probably the worlds greatest advertising executive. He set the standard for modern advertising with its two central beliefs that its not what you say, its how you say it, and any advertising is good advertising. 

wilscombe
wilscombe

No man who dies leading his troops into battle should ever be called a "loser".

PaulNicholson
PaulNicholson

The worst - and most ambiguous - part of Richard's reign was the Princes' murder in The Tower. Did he order it or was it done by another (Henry Tudor?) to discredit him? Richard was abandoned on the battlefield by "allies" who wanted rid of him or who were paid by Tudor. One thing is accepted: he died fighting like a real man to the end. Fascinating stuff.

lindsaygray
lindsaygray

Some are saying Shakespeare is just repeating biased Tudor tales of Richard. But there must have been loyalists to the House of York in Shakespeare's day. Where was their defence of Richard? Shakespeare was undoubtedly repeating (and, of course, embellishing for drama) the dominant accounts of his time. I for one am more inclined to accept Shakespeare's account — as it was written only a hundred years after the Battle of Bosworth — than all the modern revisionist re-writes of history.

PapaFoote
PapaFoote

THE LAST PARAGRAPH from "this Article" - FYI, to "You" from The Old Mountain Goat about "Historical Events"!

"...But Richard III belonged to a brutal age. The three-decade-long War of the Roses, waged between two rival branches of Richard’s House of Plantagenet, had convulsed England in years of chaos and misery. The Battle of Towton in 1461 — won by Richard III’s older brother (and royal predecessor) Edward IV — is considered the bloodiest ever fought on British soil; more than five centuries later, the shattered skulls of the dead are still being brought up from the ground. Throughout while kings and barons charged across the field, countless unnamed small folk, afforded little choice and no glory, died in as gruesome a fashion as Richard III. Gazing at his now identified bones, as naked as all those who fell in his wars, one can’t help but see a thin, brittle vision of justice..."


Read more: http://world.time.com/2013/02/04/richard-iiis-bones-should-one-of-historys-losers-be-redeemed/#ixzz2K2I4FFlk

AlanKilburn
AlanKilburn

Yes, it's a very silly article: I'm surprised. In fact, the economy of England at that time was rather strong: the common people probably had a standard of living higher than any time in the next three centuries, until the wealth of the industrial revolution filtered down a bit. The Wars of the Roses were dynastic wars that in the fighting did not involve huge numbers of the population.

American snobbery. It's like those American commentators who talk of 'The Queen of England' and 'The Prime Minister of England', forgivable in a citizen, but not in a commentator who is meant to know better.

MailyCyrus
MailyCyrus

omg, what an incredible find. good shakespeare, great battle, a time when kings were actually warriors, great point in history. i hope they use computer imagery to recreate his face. notable is the fact that nothing was buried with him. a pauper's burial, the final insult. a good reason for a nice trip to England. 

King Richard III of England Bones, Skeleton Discovered Photos, Video Here - http://tinyurl.com/Richard-III-Bones

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BettyGibbs8

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JerryBall
JerryBall

Those victorious Tutorists were certainly not kindly people. Defeated then stripped with hands tied behind him, all the blows to the head, disfigurement of his face, and the unkindest cut of all the sodomization of him with a dagger or sword. No wonder Henry VIII had the fortitude and inclination to murder all his wives for fresh frissons. Seems it was simply part of the Tutor DNA of cruelty and barbarism. Even Sweet Elizabeth had a VERY bad temper. Good riddance to a bad lot, those mavens of cruelty, those Tutors.

LesCon
LesCon

Ah, a bit of snark from a Time writer--how very predictable.  Richard III was no more blood thirsty than any other medieval monarch of his time and probably much less so.  And I just love the 'democracy' angle thrown into this article along with the cry of 'justice' for the little people.  Here's a news flash for you--those little people were as brutal and bestial as their monarchs.

 Save your phony progressive tears for the next Obama rally.

marina56
marina56

The author of this article either doesn't know much about this period of English history or is very biased by Tudor propaganda. In Richard III's brief reign, he instituted the bail system, so that accused individuals no longer were imprisoned pending trial and their property forfeited even prior to trial. He also instituted a system of legal recourse for the poor/common people - sort of an early public defender system. In the years prior to ascending the throne, and starting at a very young age, he was a loyal and extremely competent ally to his brother the king. His governance of the north of the country during those years was marked by its competence and the many reforms in favor of commoners and the poor, by whom he was much loved.

The Shakespeare version isn't history - it's propaganda encouraged by Shakespeare's Tudor masters. (It was Elizabeth I's grandfather, with no real claim on the throne, who killed Richard.) Portraits of the dead king were altered to give him what was then considered to be a sinister appearance - what does that tell you about the regime that felt the need to do that? Richard had scoliosis of the spine; Shakespeare gave him a hunchback, a withered arm and other deformities.

branchltd
branchltd

I wouldn't believe what Shakespeare wrote.  He was reading a history written by the Tudors.  Many modern historians believe it was substantially false.

Fed_Up1
Fed_Up1

@cat EXACTLY! Thank you for encapsulating it so neatly.

marina56
marina56

And IF the boys were murdered - no one knows for sure when they died, or of what they died. The mortality rate from various communicable diseases was extremely high, especially for children.

richsisterpoorsister
richsisterpoorsister

@PaulNicholson It's pretty easy to see how Richard set up the deaths, from his waylaying of the elder brother's entourage to his imprisonment of the younger brother after his mother, Elizabeth Woodville, took him into refuge at Westminster Abbey (a place from which he could be snatched into the tower). Everything in his life pointed to Richard's taking such a path as the murder of his nephews. Isn't it also the case that two sets of appropriate skeletons were found in a tower from which the boys never were seen to emerge alive?  If the provenance of the skeletons can be established, and their DNA tested, more of the picture might emerge. Not that Henry Tudor wasn't capable of such an act, it's just that he lacked the opportunity in the right timeframe. He was in Brittany when it happened as well. Unless you are saying it was done under Richard's nose, which takes a stretch.

Maggielecat
Maggielecat

@PaulNicholson   My belief is that the princes were taken out by the Lancastrian faction, as they were 2 of the 3 obstacles in the way of Henry Tudor's rise to power.  It was very convenient for them that they could blame it on the York heir, though ;-)

Maggielecat
Maggielecat

@lindsaygray  what York supporters were left likely did not have the gall to speak up for any of the York brothers.  I'm sure they valued their heads more than that.  Henry VII was frighteningly insecure about the crown (that he stole).

marina56
marina56

The house of York ceased to exist with the death of Richard, and Henry executed the last male Plantagenet not long after he took the crown.

As for the historical accuracy of Shakespeare - he portrayed Richard III as taking part in events that occurred when Richard was a toddler and before he was born.

MichaelWilliamStone
MichaelWilliamStone

@AlanKilburn Except that it was a much smaller population then - a bit over two million iirc.  So the 20,000 or so who died at the Battle of Towton  would (as a share of the total population) correspond to some 400,000 deaths in a 20th Century battle. I think a British civil war in which that many died in just one battle would be considered pretty horrendous.

AlanKilburn
AlanKilburn

@MailyCyrus Not if they keep the bones in Leicester. I'm not sure you'd find that very romantic.

bryanfred1
bryanfred1

You didn't know that democratic self-government was created in the 15th century by Henry VII?  That's okay, no one else did either.

The guy ended up buried under a parking lot like Jimmy Hoffa - I'd say history has been fair.

GivingRodents
GivingRodents

@marina56 I agree.  In today's society the guy would have been a hero for overcoming his disabilities and achieving so much. 

LarryMorgan
LarryMorgan

Very true, and infant mortality was somewhere near 50% at birth.  What happend to the princes in the tower will probably be one of the great "what ifs" of history" nobody will ever be certain what happened to them, Henry Tudor had has much to gain from their deaths has Richard had, he also had the means and opportunity seeing as his mothers husband was Warden of the Tower of London at the time.  In case any serious history buffs read these comments, my figure of 700 jews hung is wrong 700 were arrested and nearly 300 of those were hung.



Read more: http://world.time.com/2013/02/04/richard-iiis-bones-should-one-of-historys-losers-be-redeemed/#ixzz2KEMJwpO0

PaulNicholson
PaulNicholson

When did I say anything was done? I simply begged a question. And by the way, I know all about the 2 sets of child remains discovered 200 years later. Obviously Richard is the prime suspect, but no one knows for certain, even you.

Sean_C2
Sean_C2

The Lancastrians were somehow able to murder the princes within the Yorkists' most secure prison while Richard III still sat on the throne?  Why didn't they use their amazing powers to kill Richard too?

Any explanation for somebody other than Richard is far, far more complicated than accepting that Richard did it.  He had the motive, the means, and the opportunity, and it fits with the historical record far better.  Otherwise you have to assume the princes survived for years under Richard's reign without leaving any documentary evidence, and that Richard, when accused of murdering his nephews, chose not to demonstrate that they were still alive, even though the charge was doing tremendous damage to his reputation.

bryanfred1
bryanfred1

There was once discipline in our schools.

marina56
marina56

No one else knew because it's simply not true.

marina56
marina56

I'm not the one with preconceived notions.

I think we will never know how, when or why the princes died. Maybe Richard ordered that they be killed. Maybe someone in Richard's faction killed them, thinking that they presented a danger of de-stabilization. Maybe a supporter of Henry killed them, either on his orders or on their own initiative - after all, they would present an even greater danger of destabilization to Henry than they did to Richard.

Or maybe they were sent or smuggled out to a relative, where they lived in obscurity, because living in obscurity was their only chance of living.

Or perhaps they died of one of the many contagions that were always rife in those days, and particularly in cities. Do you realize what the mortality rate was for children in those days, the slim odds of reaching adulthood? After all, Richard's own son died, at age 10, in the early part of 1484.

It strikes me that those of you who still cling to the idea of Richard's guilt in the deaths of his nephews, based on Shakespeare's play and the many discredited accounts, are the ones with preconceived notions. After all, you're the ones believing in his guilt based upon what Tudor supporters said, supporters who also claimed that Richard lived two years in his mother's womb and came out deformed, with a full set of teeth and hair to his shoulders. (Richard's scoliosis is something that starts occurring in adolescence.)

soundpam
soundpam

@marina56 Ummm, sorry but you're stretching & convoluting just to make it all fit w/your preconceived notions. I agree with Sean. Claiming anyone but Richard killed the Princes demands putting aside logic.

marina56
marina56

At the time, the Tower of London was a royal residence, not a prison. It was one of a number of royal residences. In fact, it has served as a prison only periodically (the height was at the time of Elizabeth I, and then again during WWI and WWII). It was never a "Yorkist prison", much less "the Yorkists' most secure prison." Of course, saying "Richard sent his nephews to the Tower of London" is much more appealling to those who subscribe to historically inaccurate fiction than it would be to say of the current Queen "Elizabeth sent her nephews to Buckingham palace", but the two statements are comparable.

Bringing the princes out into public view after the declaration of illegitimacy would have been just as likely, if not more so, to foster unrest than letting some vague rumors of murder float around.