To those of us who love English history, the events in Leicester the past few weeks have been pretty exciting.
A team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester, in digging up the parking lot of a government building, appear to have discovered the skeleton of King Richard III.
At a battle that is traditionally placed at Bosworth Field, the royal forces of King Richard III met the invading forces of Henry Tudor. Despite Richard’s superior skill and experience as a battle leader, and for reasons historians have picked over like vultures for 500 years, Henry Tudor won that battle. Richard’s body was thrown over the back of a horse and carted from the field, displayed half-naked in Leicester Cathedral as proof of his demise, and then given to the monks of Greyfriars for burial.
And then Henry Tudor’s son, Henry VIII, broke with the Catholic church and dissolved the monasteries.
Greyfriars monastery literally disappeared. I mean, right off the map. No one remembered where it was.
These archaeologists from the University of Leicester seem to have found it.
And there, right in the part of the church where King Richard would have been buried, is the skeleton of an adult male.
The bones will be subjected to DNA analysis in an attempt to discover whether they are, in fact, his. Considering that pretty much every last Plantagenet was executed during the reign of the Tudors, I’m not sure how they plan on doing this. But good luck to them.
The website of the University notes that “the back of the skull appears to have suffered a significant injury consistent with a blow from a bladed implement” and he has an arrowhead buried in his neck. Just like a man who died in battle. Further, it notes that his spine shows signs of scoliosis but not “kyphosis” which is “commonly and inappropriately called ‘hunchback'”.
Richard III a hunchback? Does anyone think that?
Oh right, there’s that play…
What difference does this make? It’s 500 years later, for Pete’s sake.
The fact is, even if they are Richard’s, the bones can’t tell us the things we really want to know. They won’t tell us who killed the princes in the tower (if anyone did); they won’t tell us whether Richard really was justified in taking the throne based on his nephews’ illegitimacy (or whether he even believed he was); they won’t explain what he did or why.
The skeleton does, however, call into question some of the other things people wrote about him, because if they lied about his physical condition, what else might they have lied about? The problem I see is, we have no way of judging that from 500 years in the future: we can’t tell if there is truth buried amidst the story of the monster.
I think there are a few things we can draw from this, as we watch it play out.
It tells us that Henry Tudor was terrified of Richard. Of him, of his memory, and of the idea that this crown could so easily — just that easily — be taken from him too. I’ll bet that thought kept him up every single night of his life.
It suggests that Sir Thomas More, that sainted advisor to Henry VIII who died rather than be foresworn, may have been a vigorous, avid propagandist (liar) when it suited his purpose.
It touches on an old, deep truth, something that we all know but try to ignore: that “facts” really can be relative, and we would do well to take “history” with a grain of salt (and maybe a pint of ale).
It may mean that we have to accept (again, and again) that our ancestors were human too: not monsters, not saints, just human beings doing a job, fighting to get ahead, driven by love, lust, ambition, greed, fear, hope, and wanting something better for their children than they had themselves. They’re just like us, even though we want them to be legend.