Richard III’s reburial in Leicester, England this week was a ceremony fit for a king. There was a three-day viewing attended by thousands, live television coverage, and a cathedral service presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, with a role for Cardinal Vincent Nichols too. Sherlock Holmes — I mean, Benedict Cumberbatch, a distant relative of Richard III — read a poem written for the event by Carol Ann Duffy, Britain’s poet laureate.
Queen Elizabeth II was not there, but she sent a message, calling the reinterment of King Richard III “an event of great national and international significance.”
What’s interesting is that all this pomp and circumstance was for a monarch who has been dead for half a millennium and reviled for just as long.
Many of us know of Richard III from Shakespeare, who portrays the last Plantagenet King as a villain responsible for the disappearance of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower, among other crimes. In Richard III (1592), Shakespeare connects the controversial king’s behavior to his physical appearance, describing him as “deform’d,” “unfinish’d,” and as a “bunch-back’d toad.”
Richard has always had his defenders, though.
In Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951), a historical mystery novel set in the 20th Century, Inspector Alan Grant decides that Richard III couldn’t have been a murderous criminal because, based on his 15th/16th Century portrait, he simply doesn’t look like one.
While some people (ahem, Shakespeare) choose to emphasize Richard’s alleged “deformities,” Grant focuses on what he perceives to be Richard’s “extraordinary eyes,” which were “set close under… brows slightly drawn in [a] worried, over-conscientious frown.” Grant believes he’s looking at “the face of a great judge, a great administrator,” not “the author of the most revolting crime in history,” the presumed murders of the princes.
As I’ve discussed previously, Grant’s attempt to exonerate Richard through the application of the historical method uncovers “the truth”: that “villainy, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder” and that history is written by the victors. The Tudors defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 and influenced how history remembered him.
We may never know what really happened to the Princes in the Tower, but thanks to a collaboration of scientists, historians, and other scholars we now know much more about the man history has held responsible for their deaths.
In 2012, archaeologists excavated King Richard III’s remains from a parking lot in Leicester. Since that time, researchers have confirmed the ruler’s identity through mitochondrial DNA testing.* They have also discovered that he had roundworms, possessed a spinal curvature that wasn’t extreme enough to warrant the physical description Shakespeare gave him in Richard III, and was probably blue-eyed and blond-haired (at least while a child), contrary to popular perception.
Still, many questions about Richard remain, from his alleged role in his nephews’ disappearances to why his Y chromosome does not match the DNA of others living today who claim Plantagenet and Tudor paternal ancestry. In time, future scientific and historical discoveries may give us the answers.
*Not that everyone agrees that these bones belong to Richard: See Richard III: We’re Burying the Wrong Body; and the rebuttal: We Are Definitely Burying the Right Body, Say Archaeologists.