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He’s Richard the Third, He Is

Feb 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 22 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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As readers may have guessed, The Scrapbook was delighted by the news that the bones dug up from under a parking lot in the British Midlands a few months ago are, indeed, the remains of King Richard (“Now is the winter of our discontent  .  .  .”) the Third of England. 

Richard III

Richard III

In the old days, of course, we would have had to be content with relative confidence in his identity: The man under the car park suffered from scoliosis, as any reader of Shakespeare’s Richard III would suspect, and bore unmistakable signs of having been clobbered by a weapon of war (perhaps a halberd) in the skull, shot by an arrow, and abused in his postmortem state.

There was also evidence of a rich diet, especially seafood, indicating what we would call a comfortable lifestyle by the standards of late medieval England. Then, too, the parking lot is located where a church stood centuries ago, the same church where the corpse of Richard III was supposed to have been shoved unceremoniously under the choir after the Battle of Bos-worth Field. 

This is all circumstantial evidence, and pretty persuasive at that. But the decisive fact is that the skeleton, despite being 528 years old, contains DNA residue, which proved an exact match with two living descendants of Richard’s sister, Anne of York. So, by any reasonable measure, the skeleton in the car park is the last Plantagenet king of England—dethroned after two years by his rival claimant, Henry Tudor, later Henry VII—who may also be described as the last medieval English king, and the last to lose his crown on the battlefield. 

The archaeological world, as well as the global community of Anglophiles, is clearly excited. But Richard’s recovery has led to an unanticipated quandary: What to do with him? Nobody wants to return him to the parking lot, we’re relieved to report: The current consensus is that he should be laid to rest in nearby Leicester Cathedral and buried according to the rites of England’s Established Church. Some argue, however, that as the last standard-bearer of the House of York, Richard belongs in York Minster; and since he died in 1485, a generation before the Reformation, he should be granted a Roman Catholic funeral. (The Scrapbook suspects that some middle solution will be found, perhaps a joint Anglican-Catholic service in Leicester Cathedral.) 

When the DNA results were announced, the New York Times speculated that it “could lead to a reassessment of his brief but violent reign.” This seems highly unlikely. Yes, there is a diehard Richard III Society which has long agitated for a heroic reassessment of Richard’s reign and character. And yes, Shakespeare’s drama (written and produced in the midst of the Tudor dynasty) makes Richard more villainous than he -really was. But the modern historic consensus is comparatively balanced, and the great blot on his reputation—the murder of his two young nephews, Richard of Shrewsbury and the uncrowned Edward V, in the Tower of London—remains incontrovertible.

So The Scrapbook is left with a few instructive conclusions. First, it is intriguing to see how the discovery of historic bones in the English Midlands appeals to imaginations across the world. And second, it tells us something about the transient quality of power that a king of England should be killed, his naked remains thrown over a horse, and essentially dumped into anonymity. Which yields a third, perhaps unifying, conclusion: Shakespeare notwithstanding, all players on the royal stage in those days, in England and elsewhere, were SOBs by our standards—but posterity favors the winners.

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