Well, you might have heard on the news or read in the paper a few years ago that they’ve found King Richard the Third.
I don’t know about you, but I was getting awfully worried. After all, he’d been missing for over 500 years. And they hadn’t even put out an Amber alert.
It turns out he’d been in the parking lot of a grocery store in Leicester, a small city in the English midlands, all this time. Or actually under the parking lot, which was the site of a monastery when he was buried there.
DNA evidence and carbon dating apparently established the remains as almost certainly those of Richard, the cause of death likely a “large skull fracture behind the left ear that was consistent with a crushing blow from a halberd.” A halberd, according to Webster, was a battle ax or pike mounted on a shaft about six feet long. That would have done it, I’d think. The spine of the skeleton is significantly crooked, which accounts for his trademark posture.
The freshly unearthed sovereign might not have been the worst monarch in British history – that dubious honor might have to go to King John, the despicable ruler who is best remembered from the Robin Hood tales and was so abysmally inept that no other king in the 800 years since has taken his name – but Richard has to win the prize for the meanest.
At least tradition and legend have made him that. And the greatest literary voice in England, and arguably in the world, was largely responsible for it.
Leicester, where Richard has recently turned up in that parking lot, is just up the road from Stratford on Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare, who had yet to be born when King Richard died. But Shakespeare would go on to write the play that would forever saddle the hunchbacked monarch with his vile reputation and revolting legacy.
In Richard III Shakespeare paints the portrait of a dastardly fellow who murdered his two nephews, princes aged about 10 and 13, by walling them up, still alive, in a castle in order to assume the throne. He doesn’t pull any punches in his portrayal; his Richard is a real piece of work as a villain: scheming, scowling, snidely snickering. For half a millennium, famous actors (Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellen in two of the best film adaptations) have pulled on heavy shoulder pads to affect the awkwardly jutting right hump and limped along, snarling out some of the poet’s best lines.
“Now is the winter of our discontent,” the grotesque cripple moans in the opening scene, “made glorious summer by this sun of York, and all the clouds that loured (loomed dark and threatening) upon our house in the deep bosom of the ocean buried.”
He goes on like that for five long acts, spitting out vile snippets and long speeches full of venom and cold calculation. He even alludes to his own physical ugliness, lamenting that “dogs bark when I halt by them.” And at the end, on the field of battle, he shakes his gnarled hand and, in a desperate clutching at straws to survive the day, shouts out what would become his epitaph: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”
He didn’t get the horse. He got the business end of that halberd instead during the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.
Then he apparently got unceremoniously thrown into a hastily dug grave by some nervous monks in the monastery where his body was delivered after the battle. The brothers wanted no association with the vile king so they covered his naked body up and kept their silence. Being monks, they were probably very good at keeping their silence.
But rumors persisted. The general site of the old monastery was always believed to be in a particular section of Leicester, and recent excavations hit the jackpot.
Richard was buried in royal splendor in a cathedral. And a group of historians hope the recent discovery can be what they’ve called “a springboard to a new age of scholarship” that might lead to a reappraisal of his life and legacy.
Just how they hope to do that with nothing more than a heap of 500 year old bones is beyond me. But never underestimate the commitment of historical revisionists. Before they’re through they might manage to dehobgoblinize the old rascal to such an extent that he could end up a saint.
Though there might be two little murdered princes tucked neatly away who would have likely had a thing or two to say about that.