Readers with sharp memories will recall that, a little over two years ago, The Scrapbook was pleased to report the results of a forensic DNA test: The skeleton that had been unearthed in 2012 in a Leicester, England, parking lot, and which had been thought to be the remains of Richard III, was confirmed to be the long-lost king. The last Plantag-enet monarch, and villain of Shakespeare’s eponymous tragedy, had been recovered from the past—and from legend.
It was a long, and dramatic, journey. Richard had been killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485) by soldiers of Henry Tudor—thereafter Henry VII—and, slung naked and mutilated over a horse, carried to nearby Leicester and hastily buried underneath the choir of the Greyfriars monastery. A half-century later, England’s monasteries were suppressed (and largely destroyed) by Henry VIII, and it was widely assumed that Richard’s corpse had been disinterred and flung into the nearby River Soar. Yet there were those—mostly amateur enthusiasts of Richard—who believed that his bones might never have been disturbed, and, knowing the location of the Greyfriars choir, successfully prevailed upon the authorities to let them dig.
We know the rest of the story. A skeleton was found in the precise location beneath the world’s most famous car park, bearing circumstantial marks (a spine with scoliosis, violent injuries to the skull and limbs) consistent with history, and some recoverable DNA. Since Richard had no children, researchers at Leicester University found a direct descendant of his older sister—a Canadian-born cabinetmaker now resident in England—whose DNA furnished a perfect match with the skeleton’s. After five centuries, Richard III had been found.
This past week, after much debate about where and how Richard should be officially laid to rest, he was buried in Leicester Cathedral. Some had -argued that York would be a more appropriate location than Leicester for the onetime duke of York, and there was much back and forth about the liturgy for burying a pre-Reformation Roman Catholic monarch. But in the end, the courts decided in Leicester’s favor, and the king was entombed in a hybrid Christian ceremony presided over by the (Anglican) archbishop of Canterbury, assisted by the (Catholic) archbishop of Westminster. And he was buried, incidentally, in a lead-lined wooden coffin designed and built by the same cabinetmaker whose DNA confirmed his identity.
The Scrapbook freely admits that it finds all this quite fascinating, even astonishing, and for various reasons. Richard’s place in history is not likely to be affected by the discovery of his bones. He was undoubtedly not the caricature Shakespeare portrayed for his Tudor patrons, but he also remains the leading suspect in the murder of his two young nephews (and rival claimants to the throne) in the Tower of London. We may wonder how England might be different if Richard had prevailed at Bosworth; but counterfactual history, while fun, is ultimately meaningless.
No, The Scrapbook concludes that this story appeals for obvious reasons: A great historic mystery has been unexpectedly solved; some ecumenical grandeur has been accompanied by royal pageantry; we find ourselves staring at the tragic reality—a twisted skeleton shoved into the dirt—of history that had largely transmuted into myth.