A mystery fit for a king


Shakespeare would have loved this epilogue.

The bones of his most reviled villain, Richard III, unearthed in the decidedly unkingly venue of a public parking lot. The monarch’s feet were missing — probably chopped off during the construction of a brick outhouse during Victorian times.

“The evil that men do lives after them” and all that — but you don’t get more poetically just than being left to molder, coffinless, in a crudely dug grave scarcely big enough to hold the body.

This is Joni Mitchell (“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”) meets the Bard. And all updated for the 21st century: Richard was trending, for a time, on Twitter. British television just aired a documentary, “Richard III: The King in the Car Park.”

The Richard story is compelling in part because archaeologists’ ability to apply the tools of modern science to ancient history is so cool — if blended with a bit of tweedy showmanship.

“The next slide that I’m going to show you is a world first,” announced Richard Buckley, lead archaeologist at the University of Leicester, as cameras clicked on the photograph of Richard’s bones.

The 500-year-old skeleton’s spine is contorted with scoliosis and his right shoulder is higher than his left, echoing the Shakespearean image of Richard as hunchback.

‘Humiliation wounds’

It displays traces of halberd blows to the head and postmortem “humiliation wounds,” including a knife thrust upward through the buttocks. This gruesome evidence lends credence to the story of Richard, unhorsed and killed at Bosworth Field in 1485, having his body defiled by supporters of the victorious Henry Tudor.

The scientific evidence that linked the skeleton to Richard was multi-disciplinary. Analysis of the teeth showed a remarkably high-protein diet, rich in fish, indicative of a nobleman. Radio carbon-dating of a fragment of rib bone placed the date of death between 1455 and 1540.

Most interesting, if less than entirely definitive: mitochondrial DNA matched the skeletal remains to those of two 17th-generation descendants of Anne of York, Richard’s sister.

Yet if science has its triumphs, history faces inevitable constraints and enduring mysteries. It is written by the victors, and Shakespeare was the ultimate Tudor spin doctor. A century after Richard’s death, he portrayed him as a “lump of foul deformity.”

Shakespeare’s Richard has young nephews murdered. He has his brother drowned in a vat of Malmsey wine. He seduces his wife after having killed her first husband and father-in-law, then eventually poisons her as well, scheming to marry a princess and cement his claim to the throne.

But is Richard the conniving villain of Shakespeare’s depiction, a sociopath who asserts that “conscience is but a word that cowards use”? Or is he, as mystery writer Josephine Tey argued in “Daughter of Time,” unfairly maligned?

A band of Richard advocates known as the Richard III Society helped underwrite the discovery of the body, hoping for a reassessment of Richard’s guilt and new focus on achievements during his two-year-reign, such as instituting bail and lifting restrictions on printing presses.

A criminal?

“Richard III was no saint but neither was he a criminal. All but one of the so-called crimes laid at his door can be refuted by the facts,” society chairman Phil Stone wrote on CNN.com.

Methinks the Ricardians protest too much. Biographer Michael Hicks of the University of Winchester told me that Richard “probably did kill the princes,” although not his wife. Likewise, Hicks said, there is circumstantial evidence that Richard killed King Henry VI, Henry’s son Edward of Lancaster; and his own brother, George, Duke of Clarence. But, Hicks said, Richard was likely acting in all three cases at the instructions of his older brother, King Edward IV.

Richard “certainly said he had very good intentions when he became king but of course he wasn’t able to fulfill them because circumstances caused him to spend his time on trying to remain king,” Hicks said. “We’ve all heard of politicians in that position, haven’t we?”

Meanwhile, the squabbling continues, with a debate over whether Richard is to be buried in York, his ancestral home, or remain in Leicester, which has announced plans to inter him at the cathedral.

Yet Leicester was home to the rival House of Lancaster. “The one place he would probably not have wanted to be buried is Leicester,” Hicks observed.

The most unkindest cut of all? Somewhere Shakespeare is smiling.

Washington Post Writers Group

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