Found: A New Legacy for King Richard III
As those of you in Professor Strabone’s Freshman Seminar “The Uses of History in Literature” last semester will remember, what were believed to be the bones of King Richard III of England (last of the Plantagenet kings, who was killed by the army of Henry Tudor, later King Henry VII) were found in September. Now it’s certain: The bones found are the king’s. According to Richard Taylor, the University of Leicester registrar who coordinated the team of archaeologists, historians, genealogists and geneticists in the Richard III excavation project, DNA samples verified what the experts had thought in September: “We knew then [in September], beyond reasonable doubt, that this was Richard III,” Mr. Taylor said. “We’re certain now, as certain as you can be of anything in life.” Strong words.
Of course, this development has caused members of the Richard III Society great excitement. One member, Philippa Langely, said, “I think he wanted to be found, he was ready to be found, and we found him, and now we can begin to tell the true story of who he was.” While I’m completely in favor of revealing the man as he was in life, not just as he was depicted in Shakespeare’s (necessarily subjective) King Richard III, I would not go so far as to say that Richard III “wanted to be found” and therefore was. In his current, five-century-old skeletal state, he’s in no position to influence the happenings of the world. Not unless he’s got an eldunarí out of Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle hidden away in the Vault of Souls – which would be so awesome! But unfortunately, I fear that’s not the case.
The most interesting part of this finding is not, however, the Richard III Society’s reactions, but rather which story will turn out to be true. Was the king simply the victim of a campaign of denigration by the Tudor family who succeeded him, or was he truly the evil, scheming hunchback of the Shakespeare play? Was he a decent king, harsh only as a man of his time, or was his twenty-six-month reign truly one of England’s grimmest periods? Did he really help the poor, extend protections to suspected criminals, and ease bans on the printing and selling of books? Was he seen as a champion of the common people, the British analog to Andrew Jackson a few centuries too early? I can’t wait to find out.
Here’s one question we can answer now: Was the king really as physically deformed as Shakespeare made him out to be? Yes. Richard III’s skeleton has a spinal curvature that points to him having had scoliosis and the now-notorious hunchback. So perhaps Shakespeare was right. Maybe Richard III was a villain, through and through. However, re-reading my essay on Richard III and thinking back to Edward Hallett Carr’s essay What is History?, a different explanation comes to mind. It is much more likely that Richard III was a decent king, but, like Shakespeare himself, was a man of his time. That would account for much of what we today consider to have been harsh ruling. Decency didn’t suit Shakespeare’s Tudor-descended patron Queen Elizabeth, so Shakespeare spring-boarded off Richard’s hunchback, playing it for all it was worth. The result is a Richard III who has kept us guessing for centuries. Hopefully all that will be solved now. As Carr writes in his essay, we are in a different “position in time” than Shakespeare and the Tudor family, so we will likely possess a different view of Richard III than they did – especially after the renewal of scholarly research that will (hopefully) be prompted by the king’s finding, exhuming and subsequent reburial as royalty, expected to occur next year.
Although maybe Gail Collins was right. Maybe the most important result of this event is the proof, once and for all, that there’s always time to turn your life around. Optimists will be pleased, but I want my inner history buff to be pleased as well. •