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Monday, February 04, 2013

Bones of England's most maligned monarch discovered


The body of Richard III- the most maligned monarch in English history- was lost after it fell into the hands of his enemies following his betrayal and death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

Apparently it's been found- under a parking lot in the English Midlands. The skeleton buried there has  been conclusively proven through DNA testing to have be Richard's.

One interesting revelation stemming from the discovery is that there is truth to the controversial claim that Richard was deformed. The bones indicate that he suffered from curvature of the spine. Most modern historians had discounted the notion that Richard was deformed, especially given his reputation as a soldier.

The traditional account of Richard's life and appearance- based largely on the testimony of his mortal enemy, Thomas Cardinal Morton, who was step-father to the toddler who later became Sir Thomas More- claimed that Richard was a "crook-back." Morton's account formed the basis of Shakespeare's play Richard III, in which the last Plantagenet king became one of the great villains of English literature. Shakespeare's patron was the granddaughter of the man who defeated Richard at Bosworth, Henry Tudor- a man whose claim to the throne was so weak that it was vital to make the king he dethroned into a monster.

Richard is generally thought of as the wicked uncle who usurped the throne after the death of his brother, the Yorkest King Edward IV, and murdered Edward's sons Edward and Richard. Richard's guilt is controversial, however; no conclusive proof of it has ever been found, and it has been suggested over the years that various figures- mainly Tudor himself and one of Richard's chief ministers, Henry Stafford, the Second Duke of Buckingham- had equal motive and/or opportunity.Buckingham led a rebellion against Richard about the time the boys were thought to have died;he himself may have had royal aspirations. Richard's biographer, Paul Murray Kendall, suggests that Buckingham might have killed the princes without Richard's knowledge.

Most historians discount the claim of  Bishop Robert Stillington of Bath and Wells that he performed a betrothal ceremony (under canon law a legally binding marriage) between Edward IV and Lady Eleanor Butler prior to Edward's marriage to the prince's mother, Elizabeth Woodville. If Stillington's story- which formed the basis for Richard's claim to the throne- were true, the boys would have been legally illegitimate and Richard, not young Edward, would have been the legal heir to Edward IV.  Regardless of the circumstances, contemporary evidence indicates that Richard's taking of the throne was popular at the time. The nation was in the thralls of the dynastic struggle known as the Wars of the Roses, and the succession of a child king would not have bode well for the nation's peace.

Morton's account- published by More under his own name and formng much of the basis of Shakespeare's play- misidentifies the woman Stillington claimed had married Edward by conflating the names of two of Edward's mistresses, neither of whom anybody ever claimed married him. Lady Eleanor, on the other hand, became a nun prior to Edward's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, leading at least some credence to Stillington's story.

Historians agree that Richard is innocent of nearly all the other crimes with which Shakespeare charged him, and that he was in fact an able and generally popular ruler who, even if he is in fact guilty of having the Princes in the Tower killed, had a reign no bloodier than the average English king of his era, and certainly less so than that of Tudor.

Tudor took the throne as Henry VII, and promptly began hunting down and killing those whose claim to it was superior to his own, including the mentally challenged son of Edward and Richard's brother, George of Clarence. Tudor's son was, Henry VIII, whose record in the bloodshed department speaks for itself.

 Despite the largely successful effort of Shakespeare and the Tudors to blacken his name, the king whose grave was just discovered did not lack an epitaph. The day after Bosworth, the city fathers of York, at great personal risk, had the following entered in the chronicles of the city:

It was shown to us by Sir John Spooner how King Richard, late mercifully reigning over us, was through great treason most piteously slain and murdered, to the great heaviness of this city.

Expect a great deal of controvesy as to what should be done with the bones. Richard's partisans- myself included- will argue for their honorable burial as befits a king of England. Traditionalists will disagree.

ADDENDUM:  While die-hard Ricardians would doubtless rather that Richard be buried in Westminster Abbey with the other kings and queens of England, Shakespeare's influence is just too strong. The last English king to die in battle will be permanently interred in an Anglican parish church near the site where his bones were discovered after a memorial service some time next year.

Stay tuned.

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