Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Richard III: Is the proof in the bones?

Those of us who have read Josephine Tey's mystery, THE DAUGHTER OF TIME, are very familiar with Tey's spirited and logical (made eminent sense to me) defense of Richard, the last Plantagenet king of England. In her brilliant tour de force, Tey has Alan Grant, her contemporary detective, temporarily out of service with a broken leg, lying in hospital with nothing to do but read and conjecture. He gets caught up in the ages old mystery of Richard while leafing through some books and in the end comes to the conclusion that Richard III was not the odious creature of nightmares which history had made him. (Though many historians discount Tey's conclusions.)

Was Richard a vile murderer? Did he or did he not have his two young nephews - sons of his brother Edward, heirs to the throne - murdered? Did Richard then usurp the English throne? Was Richard the repulsive, arch villain created by Shakespeare? Did he have a crooked arm as well as a crooked back and crooked morals?

Tey thinks not. She posits that most of the descriptions and tales of villainy were written many years after the death of  Richard. The much maligned king died during the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 (War of the Roses). "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!" The last monarch of England to have been killed in battle. Shakespeare's play was written in (aprox.) 1592. Sir Thomas More's accounts of Richard's villainy were also written many years after the so-called facts.

Now that the remains of Richard have been found under a car park in Leicester (which centuries ago were the grounds of a Franciscan monastery where Richard's body is said to have been taken), and positively identified as the remains of the heretofore missing king, one mystery seems to have been cleared up.

Though Tey might have it otherwise, apparently Richard did have a crooked back. Skeletons don't lie. Tey claimed that most of Richard's deformities were products of inventive and vindictive Tudor minds, most especially that of Thomas More who seemed to have borne Richard an everlasting hatred. History is always written by the winners, after all.

Of course Shakespeare's play, written for the Tudor Queen Elizabeth, didn't help matters any. Has there ever been a more foul villain?

Regardless, for years Richard's defenders have worked to polish his image and clean up his act. Other villains with names like the Duke of Buckingham were offered up as the real culprits upon whose orders the two defenseless princes were killed. The boys were certainly never seen again after they disappeared into the recesses of the infamous Tower of London.

I tended to side with Josephine Tey in her assessment written so provocatively and yet logically in her brilliant masterpiece mystery. But now it looks very much as if Richard did suffer from an extreme curvature of the spine which might have given him the 'hunch back' appearance described by Shakespeare.

No 'withered arm' though. So there's that to think about. Also, it was to the Tudor's benefit to have Richard appear as foul as possible in written transcripts many of which as Tey points out were written a hundred or so years after his death.

While the discovery of Richard's skeleton is very exciting news, I'm wondering if it will help revise history is any way. If Shakespeare was correct about the 'hunched' back, was he also correct about Richard's villainy?

Would those battle-scarred, battle-torn, treacherous times account for much of what we, today, view as horrific? Would they also account for Richard, a relatively young man of 32, being portrayed by Shakespeare (and others) as so much older? Not to mention his appearance in most contemporary adaptations?

Will Richard's skeleton prove or disprove anything? I, for one, can't wait to read the first book written about this amazing discovery. In the end, it may just prove that Richard, rather than being a cardboard black and white villain, was more gray than anything else - a convenient scapegoat who was definitely not all good, but perhaps, not as definitely all bad.

And oh, by the way, why does any of this matter?

For me, the truth and understanding of history is always important. As Michael Crichton so wisely said, "If you don't know history then you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know it is part of a tree."


  1. Two minds thinking alike. I just did a post on him.. yours is better

    love ya yvonne

  2. It was explained on TV here that the skeleton had scoliosis of the spine. Although it would have been obvious when he was undressed, when dressed it would hardly have been noticeable. Shakespeare made him appear like the hunchback of Notre Dame but in fact that image appears to be untrue.
    The curvature does not protrude from the back but snakes down the back.

  3. I'll head over to read yours in a moment, Yvonne. I'll bet there are lots of Richard III posts happening all this week and the next...

  4. Then Josephine Tey could still have been correct in her assessment. Athough in those times there was very little relative privacy and servants would come an go in bedroom chambers and elsewhere and unless Richard was an especially private man it might have been easy enough for word to get around about his 'defect'. Still, as Tey says, why wasn't there more info? Why did it take so long for the 'hunchback' image to emerge?

    Thanks for the info, Rosemary.

  5. My own opinion is that it was all to do with the vilification of Richard under the new Tudor regime. When Shakespeare wrote Richard lll it was 100 years later and we know how stores can be altered and changed within days and weeks. Shakespeare was also living under Tudor patronage.

  6. Exactly, Rosemary. Who was more Tudor than Elizabeth I? Shakespeare knew whom he needed to please.

  7. I've been fascinated to watch this happening over the last few months - and to think, Richard III lay just 20 miles from my house!!!!

    I've been to the Bosworth Battle Visitor centre and walked around the vast areas the various stages of the battle's progress. There is a large pennant marking the (presumed, but now disputed) exact spot of the monarch's demise - I have to say that for all it was a beautifully bright Summer day when I visited, there was a heavy and oppressive melancholy about the place.

    Apparently, there are plans afoot to attempt to carry out DNA testing on the bodies of two children that were discovered in 1674 in the White Tower at the Tower of London, to determine if they were indeed the remains of the fateful nephews presumed murdered on the orders of their uncle, Richard III. Now THAT will be a truly interesting piece of research! I do love it when History 'comes alive' (so to speak) like this!

  8. I just did a post on my favorite Richard III books this week, and I'm part of a blog tour this month with Anne Easter Smith, an expert on Richard III.!
    Hope you will pop on over to my blog to read her guest post (on the 14th)

  9. Dear Yvette - I find all of this most fascinating. I imagine that with DNA testing, we'll have more interesting discoveries like this. I read in one article that the place in the parking lot under which Richard III was found was a reserved parking space, marked simply "R." One couldn't write better fiction than that!

  10. I love Tey's novel, too, and I do think Richard has been unfairly portrayed by history. I'm not sure how his bones will serve to shed any light on the matter, though. Now if they found the bodies of the princes, that would be a whole different story.

    I'm curious as to where he's going to be reinterred. I read somewhere that there are two Richard III societies fighting like angry cats over it.

  11. Had to come back and re-read,
    this is so very interesting.
    You did a bang up post.

  12. I totally buy Josephine Tey's argument. I studied the Tudors in college and Henry VII was one nasty piece of work.

  13. Sue, I think there are always 'heavy atmospheres' at long ago battle scarred places. When I visited Scotland I felt that same feeling when we visited the Highlands. It's hard to describe, but certainly it can be felt.

    This discovery of Richard III's skeleton is one of the most exciting things to have happened in a long time, for those of us who are fascinated by history.

    I'm wondering if there will be a documentary. One supposes...

    1. Yvette - there was a 90-minute documentary on TV over here on Monday evening to tie in with the announcement that the bones were indeed those of Richard III. It wasn't very good - dominated by the posturings of one of the presenters - Philippa Langley. She was somewhat the driving force of getting the dig in action but she carried on almost as if she had some sort of relationship with the deceased monarch! If they'd have let the real experts have their say it would have been much more informative.

  14. I'll be there, Joanne. But first, I want to get over to your post ahead of time and see what Richard III books you're recommending.

  15. There's no such thing as coincidence, Mark. You know what they say. :)

  16. Tasha, the latest I read was that the skeleton was to be interred at Leicester Cathedral.

  17. Thanks, Yvonne!! I'm just a Richard III fan girl. Ha.

  18. Lauren, between you and me, I think Tey's argument makes a helluva lot of sense.

  19. Thanks for the info, Sue. I'll wait until PBS has some sort of show about it. Maybe they'll cut some of her screen time. :)


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