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.