It was a tight race between Meg the history buff (and medival recreationist) and Meg the theatre major to determine who was more excited to learn of the finding of the body of Richard III.
The pictures of the amazingly intact skeleton, showing clearly the spinal deformities, indicating that at least one aspect of Richard's myth was in fact accurate are impressive and moving to look at,
|Photo from Reuters|
For me the story resonates on a number of fronts. Richard has come down to us as one of the most villianous men in history, in a large part due to two of the greatest figures of England's literary Renaissance: Sir Thomas More and William Shakespeare. Both of them lived and wrote in the Tudor Era, for the successors of Henry VII, the man who deposed Richard. To me the Plantagenet soap opera beats anything dreamed up on television, or anything the tabloids put out today about their descendents who are currently on the British Throne either. I find them totally fascinating. They have also bene subjects of some amazing theatre, not only Shakespeare's history plays, but modern works like Murder in the Cathedral, Beckett, and The Lion in Winter. And Richard III was the last one to sit on the throne of England.
And Richard sits at the center of one of history's greatest mysteries, namely what happened to his young nephews, whom he confined to the Tower of London, after setting aside their claims to be next in line to the throne. It's true Richard may well have been justified in doing so. England had barely survived the reign of Henry VI, who came to the throne before he was a year old. It was not a good time for another child king. There was even, by the nitpicking standards of the era (see Tudor, Henry, legality of marriages), some question of the legitimacy of the little princes, whose father had wed their mother is extreme secret. But then they disappeared.
Whodunit? Did Richard have them killed? Did they die of natural causes (youth mortality being what it was in those days) but Richard hushed it up, knowing no one would believe natural causes? Ornry did they die later at the hands of Henry VII, whose claim to the throne was less than theirs, and who would actually marry the princes' sister Elizabeth, to better secure his children's right to succeed.
And then there is that grand charecter created by Shakespeare, that villian of villians, one of the great parts of the English speaking theatre, one of the great roles that generation after generation of actors test themselves in. Shakespeare's chief source was Sir Thomas More, who saintly scholar though he may have been, was also an ambitious Tudor courtier who was not above writing propaganda for the folks in power. He painted Richard as blackly as possible, and then Shakespeare, writing in the reign of Elizabeth cranked it up even more, even acusing Richard of murdering his own wife. It is a magnificent piece of melodrama, and was one of Will's first big hits. To this day it remains one of the most popular of his plays. Shakespeare's view of the last Plantagenet king has far superseded history's. To put it in modern parlance, Richard Plantagenet was Swift Boated by England's greatest playwright.
None of these matters will be settled by the discovery of Richard's remains (though it does add to our understanding of both his possible disabilities, and his death on the battlefield.) But there is something moving about seeing one of history's alleged monsters reduced to a skeleton. And I am all in favor of those moments that cause us to stop and take a look at history, which is so often neglected both in and out of school. 500 years after his death, Richard III is being remembered again. And that's great.