"Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of York."
"No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity."
"And thus I clothe my naked villainy with old odd ends stolen out of holy writ, and seem a saint when most I play the devil."
"Conscience is but a word that cowards use, devised at first to keep the strong in awe."
"A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" ~ from Richard III, by William Shakespeare
News has come this week of the confirmation of an astonishing find in Great Britain. An archaeological dig beneath a former church yard turned parking lot last fall in Leicester has been verified to be the final grave of King Richard the Third. Long villified by the Bard and by history, Richard is a king who still had his defenders. It's a story that particularly appeals to me; archaeology has always been a personal interest.
Richard was the last of the Plantagenet line, meeting his end at the climax of the War of the Roses, succeeded by his rival Henry Tudor, soon to become Henry VII. He ruled England for two chaotic years. He has long been held to be a hunchbacked ruthless dictator, murderer of his young nephews so that he could take the throne. Shakespeare wrote him as the title villain in one of his historical plays, written at a time when Henry Tudor's granddaughter was on the throne of England. His defenders counter that Richard was the subject of propaganda painting him as a monster or as the devil incarnate, and point out some of the reforms he made in his short reign- legal representation for the poor, the concept of bail, laws written into English.
Archaeologists at the University of Leicester have been at work carefully excavating the site in the heart of Leicester, and last fall found the remains they believed might be the long lost king. DNA tests were conducted, in collaboration with geneticists, and enough of a genetic sample could be retrieved from the bones for testing. Mitochondrial DNA, passed down by women, could be matched up against descendants of Richard's sisters to look for a match. Genealogists had tracked potential family lines to two sources. One chose to remain anonymous, and the other was a Canadian man, Michael Ibsen, whose family history could be traced back to Richard's sister Anne. The tests proved a genetic link, down across the centuries, to that skeleton in a paved-over grave.
Much information has already been circulating about the remains. An examination of the skeleton suggested it belonged to a man of Richard's age, bearing serious wounds, including head trauma, just as Richard himself was cut down at Bosworth Field. There were indeed deformities in the spinal column, fitting the hunchback aspect of the King's history.
Now there's just the question of where to bury his remains. Leicester Cathedral has offered to open up space, and the Cathedral is indeed very close to the site of the grave, so in keeping with general funeral tradition, it makes sense for the remains to be buried there. Though it seems the city of York may be expecting the King to be handed over so that he can be buried in a place he identified closely with, so we shall have to see what happens.
In the end, this was a King of England. Where the truth about him lies- either as a ruthless man or a misunderstood monarch- Richard now deserves a proper resting place befitting that royal legacy. The team of archaeologists, geneaologists, geneticists, and various scholars involved can feel pride in an exceptional find. And a family on this side of the Atlantic can feel a connection to a distant ancestor across the centuries.