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.