Richard III’s remains positively identified

“Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York,” says the malevolent Richard III in Shakespeare’s eponymous play.  Generations of Shakespearean actors have portrayed him is a sinister hunchback, greedily eying his brother’s throne and eventually murdering two young boys in order to obtain it.  The play was a perfect example of the victor’s ability to write history.

Laurence Olivier as Richard III

For centuries, people accepted Shakespeare’s portrayal at face value.  Starting in the late 19th century, though, contrarion historians started challenging this view.  They claimed that Richard III was a reasonable, temperate monarch, and that Henry VII was an overreaching usurper who needed to blacken Richard’s name in order to hold onto the throne that he had won by war, not by right.  The problem for these revisionists always remained those missing boys in the Tower of London.  Did they die?  Did Richard murder them?  Did Henry VII murder them?  Who knows.

What we do know is that Shakespeare was right about one thing:  Richard was indeed a hunchback.  Thanks to a stunning example of historic investigation, coupled with modern forensic science, we can look at Richard’s skeleton — and he had significant scoliosis:

Richard III's skeleton

We also know now that he fought ferociously in the Battle of Bosworth, for his skeleton reveals ten significant cuts, three of which were on his skull, with each of those three having the right to be called a death blow. There are also indications that Henry’s soldiers engaged in a little body mutilation after he did. Richard did not go gently into the night.

What struck me about the skeleton, in addition to the scoliosis and cuts, was Richard’s teeth.  They’re beautiful.  I didn’t expect the late-medieval corpse of a 32-year-old man to have such straight, white teeth:

Richard III's teeth

Whenever I think of medieval smiles, I think of a mouth opening to reveal gaping holes and blackened stubs. Richard’s smile, though, must have been lovely: big and white.

The media claims that this skeleton will allow a wholesale reevaluation of Richard’s reign. My imagination is failing me, though, because I don’t know how a skeleton can reveal whether he usurped the throne, whether he was a good administrator for the two years he held it, or whether he murdered his nephews. It can tell us about diet and health, certainly, but the only historic fact it seems to prove is that he was a hunchback. Whether he was a good or a bad hunchback is something to discern from the documentary record, not the bones.

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  • Jose

    A most enjoyable read is The Last Plantagenents by Thomas Costain. He has a surprisingly charitable view of Rich III.

    It’s been years since I looked at it so I may dig up my copy for another read. When I first picked it up the internet capability of author searches wasn’t available, and now I see he has several other books.

  • jj

    There was once – not too terribly long ago – a lady by the name of Elizabeth Mackintosh in Scotland, who was, somewhat rarely for her day, well-educated.  She had a busy life, and a great talent for which she had no time, her life being as busy as it was.  (She actually went to school to become a physical therapist and phys ed teacher.)  Then one day her father became ill, and remained so for a while.  There being no one else to care for him, she abandoned her busy life and moved home to care for him.  Now she had time.  She used it to create two characters, one named Gordon Daviot, the other Josephine Tey, and under those names she took the previously non-utilized talent out for a walk, and wrote a number of books and plays of all kinds: mysteries, histories, biographies, etc.  (It was a play written by ‘Gordon Daviot’ that launched John Gielgud’s career.)  And, as ‘Josephine Tey’ she wrote a book that has been widely regarded – and named in surveys –  as the finest mystery ever written.  This of course is The Daughter of Time, and it’s about Richard III – and I’m sure everybody here has read it.  And maybe you read it when younger, and didn’t quite realize what it was.  What it is, is a historical investigation and summing-up of arguments, driven by insane research.  (Professional, academic researchers working their way through the Paston letters, for example, discover that she was there ahead of them.)
    On the other hand, there are far too many people who think a run through Daughter of Time makes them an expert on Richard III – it doesn’t.  It doesn’t even make you an expert on the evidence.  But what the book does do is summarize the known evidence (and invite you to get interested and go farther); and the arguments.  It does it almost in the form of a brief that would do many a lawyer proud, and it does it very entertainingly.  You are presented the evidence, much as you would be with a case.
    And that’s about all anyone can do at this remove.  Bookworm’s right: the forensics aren’t going to tell us much beyond what they already have – he had scoliosis and put up a hell of a fight at Bosworth – and they can’t tell you anything about motives, etc.  Shakespeare’s motive to make Richard a villain was perfectly plain: he was patronized by Elizabethans, who were Tudors, and knew perfectly well they were usurpers and regicides with just about zero claim to the throne – but he obviously couldn’t cross his patroness.  So he didn’t, he created Richard as monster – it was much safer for him.
    If you haven’t done it in a long time, or if you never read it, check out The Daughter of Time.  You will n ot be rendered an expert, but you may well be rendered interested. 

  • Michael Adams

    I recommend The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey. It’s a detective-novel approach to unraveling the mystery of the Princes in the Tower. I had not read it when I last visited Westminster Abbey, thirty years ago.Parishioners formed a kind of patrol, to keep history tours from over running their church. One lady there, once I understood her purpose and expressed my agreement with the effort, shared a little local gossip, which is often surprisingly reliable, and said she was pretty sure the boys were done in by “that fellow over there,” Henry VII.I don’t know whether she had read Tey’s book, but she was setting forth much of the same information.