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Editorial: Remains of the Day; Reconsidering Richard III

Bring up the bodies indeed! In England, a team of historians, archaeologists and forensic scientists has identified misshapen bones exhumed last fall as those of King Richard III. Imagine finding under a parking lot a well-preserved skeleton dating back to the 15th century; now consider that the remains are “beyond any reasonable doubt” those of a notorious monarch renowned for vile deeds. Pretty stunning. But what to make of it?

For the Richard III Society, founded in 1924 to restore the good name of the last of the Plantagenet kings, the discovery in Leicester turns a long winter of discontent into glorious summer. More than 500 years of history have not been kind to Richard, whose life ended abruptly at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. It was there, in the words of William Shakespeare, that the besieged king famously shouted: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” He ended up instead with the kingdom of Heaven (or perhaps Hell) and was tossed, naked, into a shallow grave near what are now the ruins of Greyfriars Priory in the Midlands.

The Richard III Society and other backers of an otherwise disfavored monarch would like to see history rewritten. That won’t be easy. Richard III ranks right up there with Machiavelli, his contemporary, and with other evil schemers of the political realm. According to popular legend, based in no small part on Shakespeare’s aforementioned history play Richard III, he was a murderous hunchback who killed the pacific King Henry VI and Henry’s son, Edward, Prince of Wales; seduced Edward’s widow; plotted the death of Edward’s brother Clarence; and disposed of his two nephews — one the rightful heir to the throne — in the Tower of London. He may also have poisoned his wife. In other words, he was busy holding on to waning power.

But there’s another legend, less commonly told. Richard III was a good man and fair-minded ruler who became the victim of one of the most successful defamation campaigns in history, a campaign fueled in part by master propagandists such as Sir Thomas More and Shakespeare, whose great grandfather is thought to have fought at the Battle of Bosworth Field — against the king’s men. The real villain, if you accept this storyline, is Richard’s successor, Henry VII, who sought to portray Richard as a fiend in order to justify deposing him. Didn’t Henry VII have a compelling motive to kill the young princes in the Tower?

Just how the exhumation of Richard’s bones helps to solve the enduring mysteries of his character we can’t say for sure. But we have a feeling that the Richard III Society, which backed the archaeological project, isn’t finished. It would like to see Richard acquitted of at least one of his alleged crimes, the murder of his nephews, an event that lives large in British memory; to that end, the society has to get hold of the young princes’ bones, too, and apply more forensic magic in order to discover their genetic makeup. Defenders of Richard III say there are anomalies that suggest the bones taken from the Tower and now lying in Westminster Abbey may not belong to the princes after all. Meanwhile, the hunt is on for the princes’ direct descendants, just in case DNA evidence becomes available.

Whatever happens, Richard III will now receive a burial fit for a king, reportedly in Leicester’s Anglican cathedral. This unlikely series of events is a colorful reminder that the seemingly distant past is just below the surface and that the dead bones that lay scattered by — to borrow a phrase from Richard III — are not to be mocked.