DNA Could Cleanse a King Besmirched ; Tests of Skeletal Remains May Bring Re-Evaluation of the Reviled Richard III

By Burns, John F | International Herald Tribune, September 24, 2012 | Go to article overview

DNA Could Cleanse a King Besmirched ; Tests of Skeletal Remains May Bring Re-Evaluation of the Reviled Richard III


Burns, John F, International Herald Tribune


A stunning archaeological find in the English midlands of a skeleton buried amid the ruins of an ancient priory may offer scholars a new and more promising era to re-examine the much reviled King Richard III.

For more than 500 years, King Richard III has been the most widely reviled of English monarchs.

But following a stunning archaeological find in this city in the English midlands -- a skeleton buried amid the ruins of an ancient priory that medieval scholars believe has a powerful chance of proving to be Richard's -- a new and more promising era for the long- dead monarch could be at hand.

If 12 weeks of DNA and isotope testing confirm that the remains are those of King Richard, protagonists who believe that Richard has been the victim of a centuries-long smear campaign by the Tudors, aimed at establishing their legitimacy, hope it will lead to a reassessment of his brief but violent reign.

It is a debate that has raged since at least the late 18th century. Was Richard the villain the Tudors and Shakespeare expediently made him out to be, or, as his supporters contend, a goodly king, harsh in ways that were a function of an unforgiving time, but the author of new measures to help the poor, to extend legal protection to suspected felons, and to ease bans on the printing and sale of books?

In histories that have carved Richard's 26 months on the throne as one of the grimmest periods in the story of the English monarchs, he is cast as the murderer of two boy princes, his nephews, in the Tower of London, to rid himself of potential rivals for the throne.

In Shakespeare's "Richard III," and in movies shaped by it, he is cast as an evil, scheming hunchback -- a Manichean, murderous villain -- whose battlefield death at 32 brought an end to 350 years of Plantagenet kings, bookended England's Middle Ages, ended the Wars of the Roses and proved a prelude to the triumphs of the Tudors and Elizabethans.

Even Richard's burial place was left uncertain, an ignominy deemed fitting by Tudor successors whose dominion was secured when Richard was slain, poleaxed according to those who witnessed it, at the Battle of Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485, then bound to a horse for two days of public display, naked, beside the Soar river in Leicester, which lies about 100 miles, or 160 kilometers, north of London.

Over the next century, the foundations of the modern British state were laid by Henry VIII, son of the Bosworth victor Henry VII, and by Henry VIII's daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, and it was in their reigns that Richard's wretched place in history was cast by chroniclers loyal to the kingdom's new rulers.

It was there that things stood, more or less, until three weeks ago, when a Leicester University archaeologist working in a trench cut into a mundane city center parking lot, uncovered what could turn out to be one of the most remarkable finds in modern British archaeology -- and, judging from the clamor that has met the discovery in Britain, to demands for Richard to be reburied, like other British kings, in a place of honor like Westminster Abbey in London.

The archaeologist, Dr. Jo Appleby, unearthed a skeleton with signature characteristics, among them a severely deformed spine, what she has described as a mortal battlefield wound from a bladed instrument in the back of the skull and a barbed metal arrowhead that was found between two vertebrae in the skeleton's upper back.

The remains were buried in the choir, an area of the church in the vestigial ruins of Greyfriars Priory, where Franciscan monks would have sat during religious ceremonies, close to the altar. It was there, in the choir, that one of the most credible contemporary accounts said Richard had been interred.

But that pointer proved moot when Henry VIII seized the monasteries in 1538, ransacked them, and left priories like Greyfriars to crumble into rubble, to the point where nobody, centuries later, had any precise fix as to where they once stood. …

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