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Reflection: What Is The Allure Of Richard III?

The earliest surviving portrait of Richard III

It was one of those rare occasions where the careful, dry, scholarly, world of academic inquiry and the more raucous world of instant global celebrity came together.

In September 2012, archaeologists at the University of Leicester in England announced to the international press and a fascinated public the sensational discovery of the mortal remains of Richard III – England’s last Plantagenet king. Richard’s body had lain undisturbed for over 500 years beneath – of all places – a run-down city center parking lot in this English midlands city. The identify was verified, a year ago today.

With the help of forensic science, DNA evidence, genealogy and historical documents, the archaeologists carefully reconstructed the King’s final days. Killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the cumulative battle in the 15th-century dynastic struggle known as the Wars of the Roses, Richard’s body had been brought to Leicester and hastily buried within the confines of the now vanished Grey Friars church. The skeleton revealed not only how the King had died, but also the shocking treatment which the body had received after death, as the victors of Bosworth, supporters of Henry Tudor who would soon be crowned as Henry VII, celebrated their triumph.

But why was the world so interested in the life and death of a medieval English king who had died at the age of 33, and reigned for just three years? What was it about Richard that fascinated academics and the general public alike and will be the subject of an upcoming conference at Saint Louis University? (Go to the end of the article for colloquium information.)

Was it the sheer banality of Richard’s final resting place? For a thousand years, English (later British) kings and queens have been buried in state, with pomp and ceremony, their deeds commemorated in carved stone. But not this king. He was different.

Was it the historical significance? Richard’s death marked the end of an epoch. It was not just a king of England who died, violently, on the battlefield in 1485. The glorious, glittering, courtly world of medieval romance, chivalry and feudalism died too. With the ascendency of the House of Tudor, England entered the modern world, a world that would be governed by the Tudors: Henry VIII (he of the six wives) and Elizabeth, who would give her name not just to a historical period, but to a whole way of thinking and feeling: the Elizabethan world.

Richard was the last king of England to die in battle. But that was not what fascinated the world’s press as they listened to the archaeologists describe their discovery. The public and the academics alike wanted to know: Was this the body of a monster? Or did these bones represent all that was left of a king who, after his death, had been the subject of a fabulously successful operation in slander and the re-writing of history?

History by a playwright

As a child, growing up in the city where Richard was buried, I had been taught that this king was the most evil monarch ever to occupy the throne of England. His soul, I had learned at school, was as deformed as his body – he was reputed to be a hunchback. For had not Richard clawed his way to the throne by murdering his own brother, his wife, his nephews (the “Princes in the Tower”) and, indeed, anyone who got in his way? Was not his death at Bosworth and (so we used to learn) the casting of his body into the river that runs through the center of Leicester, a fitting end to this tyrant?

A glass portrait at Cardiff Castle shows King Richard III and his queen, Anne Neville, who died five months before her husband.
Credit Wikipedia
A glass portrait at Cardiff Castle shows King Richard III and his queen, Anne Neville, who died five months before her husband.

Well, the archaeologists have taught us something of the truth. He did indeed suffer from scoliosis of the spine, which would have given him the appearance of a hunchback. But his body, though it was mistreated after death, was accorded a Christian burial.

But what of his character? Was he the Hannibal Lector of the British royal family?

Archaeology can reveal intricate details of the daily lives of individuals and, indeed, entire populations. But, unfortunately, there is (as yet) no science that will help us to psychoanalyze the dead. We cannot make Richard speak to us 500 years later.

Besides somebody else has already spoken for him. And against this voice, all other voices, even the voice of a king of England, fall into silence.

Just over 100 years after Richard’s death, William Shakespeare wrote his play Richard III. The title page of the first printed edition, which appeared in 1597, tells us all that we need to know of how Shakespeare saw the king: “The tragedy of King Richard III … with the whole course of his deceitful life, and most deserved death.” Richard III proved to be one of Shakespeare’s first popular successes – six printed editions of the play appeared within a very few years of its first performance.

Credit Wikipedia

Writing --perhaps with an eye and an ear to Queen Elizabeth, who was the granddaughter of Richard’s nemesis, Henry Tudor -- Shakespeare certainly told a story that would have pleased the Tudor dynasty. But he also does something more than simply create a Machiavellian villain. He takes us into the mind of a psychopath.

In a brilliant manipulation of the potential of drama, Shakespeare’s Richard addresses us directly, welcoming us into his perverse world with wit, sophistication and (even) charm. Richard – the historical Richard – would never recover from Shakespeare’s devastating exploration of a world bounded only by the extremes of cruelty and ambition.

Literature and science do not often work together. The imagination is not often held to be an ally of the hard evidence provided by the latest example of DNA profiling. Yet, in the extraordinary story of the discovery of Richard’s body, and in the no less extraordinary story William Shakespeare has bequeathed us, we can see two ways of understanding the world coming together, however briefly. And where is the truth? Who knows?

Jonathan Sawday holds the Walter J. Ong, S.J. chair in the humanities at Saint Louis University.

A colloquium on Richard III

Who: The archaeological team that discovered the burial place of Richard III, Saint Louis University scientists, historians and literary scholars

When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Feb. 8

Where: Il Monastero, 3050 Olive St.

Cost: Free

Information:  richard3.slu.edu