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Richard III

December 19, 2012

Given that this is Richard III’s biggest year since he lost a certain battle in 1485 it would be remiss for the much maligned monarch to get a mention on this blog.

Earlier this year, archaeologists went in search of Richard’s final resting place and quite amazingly, may well have found it in the Greyfriars site where his body was alleged to have been interred, now located beneath a council car park.  After several weeks of digging an adult male skeleton was found which had an arrow head embedded in the spine as well as damage to the skull, matching contemporary reports describing his death.  The skeleton is also believed to show evidence of scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, a physical characteristic that has come to define the king in the intervening centuries.  You can read more about the dig and subsequent tests on the body here and here. There’s also a BBC Radio 4 In Our Time episode about the Battle of Bosworth in which Richard met his fate here.

Richard’s reputation is the subject of fierce debate.  His association with the Tower is strong, most notably through his alleged role in the disappearance and murder of his nephews – the princes in the Tower.  We’ll probably never know who was responsible for their fate, though that hasn’t stopped us from speculating over the centuries.  In 1984 a mock trial of Richard was held at the Old Bailey and some of the nation’s finest minds got to grips with the topic, though obviously without witnesses who had passed away some 500 years previously of course.   Here’s the introduction rather blandly presented by a minor royal who seems to have been drafted in because, like Richard III, he is the Duke of Gloucester. 

Undoubtedly, Shakespeare’s own play of Richard III has had a significant influence on our perception of Richard.  The play recounts the many failures of the king, no doubt to the great amusement and satisfaction of the Tudors whom Shakespeare was flattering.  Here’s a BBC animated tale of Richard III.

But we should not be so eager to pass judgement and condemn Richard for his evil deeds.  The Richard III Society offer an alternative to the assumed narrative and they are quick to point out that Richard was a dutiful servant and brother to Edward IV, as well as being a capable leader and lawmaker who did much to alleviate the plight of the common man.

History is rarely straightforward, it’s part of what makes it such an engaging subject, but one would hope that with the attention surrounding Richard III this year (which will come to a head with DNA results early in 2013), that we can look a little more objectively at this much maligned king of England.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 19, 2012 5:09 pm

    Shakespeare, unfortunately, had no more choice than most artists about being an imperial stooge if he wanted to get ahead.
    Voice of Authority: “Can you make the Queen’s ancestors any more perfectly spiffing, and her ancestral enemies – who have claimants to the throne lurking about today, as a crazy coincidence – even more nasty and weasel-eyed crazy?”
    Shakespeare: “CAN we! You just wait! I got started with ‘hunchback and kept on going!”

    Cf. also the Blackadder I version of Richard III played by Peter Cook. Hysterical send-up, with a vaguely skeevy Henry Tudor hanging about deliberately misrepresenting everything in a very lurid and largely fictional chronicle of the fall of the Lancasters. Great stuff.

    • Alex Drago permalink
      December 20, 2012 10:02 am

      Good point. Obviously we know so little about Shakespeare himself that it’s hard to ascertain whether he felt his artistic freedom was being compromised, but given the commissions he undertook, one would assume that whatever scruples he felt, if any, were overcome.

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