The bones of King Richard III are now awaiting disposal. When permission was sought for the highly speculative dig to uncover them from the Leicester city car park – where they had lain undisturbed for 528 years – the Ministry of Justice gave the nod and indicated that, if authenticated, they should be reinterred in the city’s cathedral.
First of all, I have to ask: who has rights over a monarch’s remains? I doubt very much if the Ministry of Justice, or indeed any of the secular authorities, have such rights. Were they to exist anywhere – excepting a ‘finders, keepers’ argument – I would have thought they rested with the monarch of the day, under perhaps advice from the ecclesiastical authorities. So, prime minister, please butt out!
Richard III, we now know, was a genuinely good king. Apart from being anointed, and therefore a totally bona fide one with a genuine claim to the throne – unlike his successor – he carried out a whole range of enlightened measures during his two short years as monarch. And forensic examination of the skeleton has told us a great deal – much of it extraordinary. He was neither a freak, as Shakespeare wrote, nor was he ugly (or ‘evil-looking’) as the Bard also insisted. He certainly died violently, but in view of his very slight – almost female-like – frame and physical disabilities, his final sortie into a melee of armoured knights to cut down his usurper rival would have won him a posthumous Victoria Cross in today’s world. So, a hero too!
Let us look at his personality and character – again, hugely disparaged by Shakespeare. Shrinks have examined his whole conduct throughout the thirty two year of his life and they paint a most sympathetic profile. They point to a sad and difficult childhood which, nevertheless, led to an empathetic man with loyal instincts who most certainly knew the difference between right and wrong – and who was extremely pious. Goodbye, we have to say, to the idea that such a man could have murdered his two young nephews, the ‘princes in the tower’.
Nowadays Richard’s disability – his scoliosis and sideways-bent spine – would have evoked great sympathy. Then, however, poor Richard would have been regarded as a pitiable object of scorn rejected by God. But his disability would only have been known to his family – and doubtless the aristocracy (people like to titter) – but not, I suspect, to the general public. Medieval attire of the time, with its raised and puffed-up shoulders, would easily have camouflaged the lower-than-other shoulder. The deeds attributed to this “accursed of God” Richard have him to be a schizophrenic psychopath, yet modern medics insist he was nothing of the sort. Clearly we are going to have to re-write our history books.
We may continue to enjoy Shakespeare’s play for its powerful drama but dismiss its history content. We should do exactly the same with Scotland’s much maligned king, Macbeth. But at least the Bard proved himself even-handed in rubbishing the kings of both kingdoms. (History, we have to acknowledge, was not Shakespeare’s forte.)
As for Richard’s treatment after his heroic death in action, on that occasion the victor, Henry Tudor, let himself down very badly. No chivalric generosity from him to his fallen foe brought down by treachery, but vilification and humiliation. When was ever a king of England stripped naked and slung over an ass for all to see on a fifteen-mile journey from the battlefield to the nearest town, in this case Leicester? Along the way, ignorant locals were encouraged to insult the former king and one went so far as to plunge his dagger so deep into the king’s buttock that it went right through and damaged the pelvis. And when was a king of England was dumped unceremoniously into a hastily dug hole without so much as a shroud to cover his nakedness, much less a coffin? I am sure that the friars who attended had never seen a burial quite like it in their friary – or anywhere else for that matter – and would have wished it otherwise. But they would have been scared stiff of the mailed ruffians who dumped the body on them and of showing the proper respect which was due. They obviously were told to get rid of it quickly and were not minded to disobey or show any form of reverence. Just a few whispered words of the sacraments would have been permitted. Only such a scenario could account for the utter disrespect of it all.
We have much to apologise for to that fallen monarch whose character we then went on to impugn for a full five hundred years with a litany of the most dreadful lies. But now we have a God-given opportunity to make amends, and the eyes of the world are on us.
The dig’s success has excited a worldwide level of interest, with some saying it is among the greatest archaeological finds in the last hundred years. No English king since Richard the Lionheart is better known abroad, and unlike the alleged wickedness of the third Richard, the first (Lionheart) really did do terrible things – like massacre hundreds of Muslim children. There’s an element of black comedy here: one is seen as a hero (he’s even got a statue outside Parliament) and the other as a villain. Yet the truth is that the Lionheart cared little for his English kingdom and preferring his French realm. He didn’t even speak English, and out of his eleven-year reign he spent only months in England. On the other hand, Plantagenet Richard was a first-class administrator who set to with gusto in making England a much more agreeable place for the common man to live.
It seems to me that our Queen is the one best placed to set the seal on this final verdict of history. She is, after all, his successor, and a devout Christian, like him. It will not do for a lesser royal than her to attend the re-interment. To do so would be to suggest that she does not accept the forensic and psychiatric evidence which has exonerated Richard. That would be ungracious, to say the least – even unwise. I feel she is duty-bound to close this final chapter with the dignity it deserves. 538 years is a long time for her ancestor to stand falsely accused.
When the murdered Tsar’s remains were found, the Russian state decided to do right by him by ceremoniously re-interring the bones in the St. Petersburg home of Russian Tsars and the then president, Boris Yeltsin, attended. England can do no less for the last of the Plantagenets, its longest reigning dynasty. This great saga of English kingship can only be brought to a fitting conclusion, in my view, by burial in Westminster Abbey – the most ancient and hallowed resting place of England’s kings and where most of Richard’s ancestors lie. A final, powerful argument for the Abbey is the fact that his beloved wife and Queen – Anne Neville – whose loss he is said to have caused him to cry at her funeral (strange behaviour for a psychopath!) is buried there.
Our Queen is said to have not much liked the Duchess of Windsor, and her mother positively loathed her. But neither denied her right to have her body brought back from exile and laid to rest beside that of her husband, the former Edward VIII. Richard has that right, too.
Finally, the Richard III Society are to be congratulated for their steadfastness over the generations in believing that England never had such a wicked king and that Richard was a good man with the right instincts. Most of all, the young woman who spearheaded the efforts to find Richard, Philippa Langley, is the true heroin of it all.
I have been pondering the proper course that should be adopted should the ‘king under the car park’ (Richard III) be validated by DNA tests. Assuming that the tests are positive, which seems likely, the find is of great significance.
Richard is one of the few English kings known around the world thanks to the story told about him by the world’s greatest playwright. Shakespeare undoubtedly has earned his place as a playwright of genius, but the same cannot be said of his powers as an historian. When the facts are examined his depiction of Richard lll can be argued to be nothing less than a character assassination. In two short years as king Richard performed an astonishing array of good works, some of which, such as the Bail system and the standardisation of weights and measures remain with us today. We know also that he was extremely pious, and endowed many monasteries and colleges of learning as well as ending the practise of buying public office. For him, merit alone counted. None of Richard’s achievements are acknowledged by Shakespeare; instead we have the depiction of a murdering ogre of grotesque physical appearance.
Were Shakespeare to be right then Richard’s dethronement would have been fully justified, even perhaps by someone with as thin a claim to the throne as Henry Tudor, the victor of the battle of Bosworth. But was Shakespeare right? We know what the record says about Richard’s achievements. Soon we may know what forensics say about the bones. Was it a hunchback with a withered arm, as Shakespeare said? It is known that Richard, after a heroic dash to cut down Henry Tudor, was himself cut down after being surrounded and that the butchery that took place against his person was truly dreadful. He was even stripped naked – no way to treat a king – and slung over a horse before being paraded for all to see to the nearby city of Leicester. Interestingly, the body under the car park did die violently. There is an arrow in the back and the skull has been impacted twice with an axe or a sword. Further examination may reveal more injuries.
As fascinating as these battlefield injuries undoubtedly are, what will be the clincher will be the integrity or otherwise of the spine and arm. You see, Shakespeare was adamant that Richard was grossly deformed; a hunchback, no less with a withered arm. Early examination suggests no such thing – just a slight curvature of the spine (certainly not a hunchback) and a perfectly normal arm. We cannot know whether he was of evil look mien as again suggested by the Bard, but portraits of the time show a perfectly normal countenance. Laughably, our Will said that even dogs barked when they saw him.
The person chosen to provide DNA evidence is a man who lives in Canada. He is of Plantagenet ancestry – the bloodline of the 300-year-old dynasty of English kings of which Richard was the last. Always assuming that the tests prove positive, then Shakespeare will stand exposed as a liar. He told porkies also about Macbeth. Let us be kind – in view of his colossal eminence – and call him an arch propagandist for the Tudors. It was, after all, under their patronage that he wrote and they insisted on nothing good ever being said concerning Richard, except that he died bravely. And in that matter there were too many witnesses to pretend otherwise.
But the fact will remain that because of him we and the world for five hundred years have vilified a progressive and enlightened English king. It surely must be right to do our best to make recompense. Justice dictates that the remains be treated with the respect and receive full honours as an English monarch – the last as it happens of truly English stock and the last to die in battle. After Richard came monarchs from Wales, Scotland and Germany. He should be laid to rest where many of his ancestors lie, in Westminster Abbey. This particular monarch’s end marks not only the end of the dynastic, thirty years bloodbath of the Wars of the Roses, but even more significantly the end of the Middle Ages and the start of modern times. So for all these reasons and many more Richard was an important king.
In ordinary circumstances fallen warriors of distinction were buried in the cathedral nearest the scene of battle, in this case Leicester. Then my thoughts turned to York – the Minster there – where his most devoted followers were located. He was a prince of the House of York and its famous white rose he many times carried into battle fearlessly against the red rose of Lancaster. Finally I plumbed for Westminster. Why? Because these are not ordinary circumstances. We have a major player in the great saga of English kingship and one, who I am convinced, has been grievously wronged. His interment, with due ceremony, in the home of English kings where he was crowned would be a way of saying sorry. It should be attended by the present monarch. It cannot make up for the generations who have lived and died believing Richard to be England’s most villainous king, but it would, at a stroke, set the record straight and be the right thing to do. Incidentally, I would hazard a guess that just about all the world’s media would be there to record the event. Westminster Abbey would be more on the tourist trail than ever. Most of all we would be able to take quiet satisfaction from the knowledge that after half a millennium truth has finally triumphed.