Viewpoint: King Richard III and his legacy

“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

For those folks keen on British history, these lines are the (fictional) last words of a cruel British tyrant who, up until five months ago, was missing. King Richard III, the hunchbacked and murderous despot from Shakespeare’s play, has been much maligned, and his body was considered lost to most historians after his death in the 1485 Battle of Bosworth Field.

Recently, a team of archaeologists working out of the University of Leicester in London, England, confirmed that a skeleton found under what is now a parking lot belongs to that same long-lost king. Originally the site of the Greyfriars friary, the parking lot over the old church and King Richard’s bones were found using ancient maps and other records.

Verification of the king’s identity took five months, and it involved a complex series of comparing DNA tests with modern descendants of the skeleton. Canadian-born Michael Ibsen, now working as a furniture-maker in London, is considered a direct descendant of Anne of York (Richard’s eldest sister), and his matching DNA provided the final confirmation needed to verify the man behind the bones.

The discovery of King Richard’s body has also started a debate in modern British society over his legacy and cruel reputation. In Shakespeare’s play, Richard is portrayed as deformed and evil, clever and conniving. He is a man who locks his two young nephews in the Tower of London until their deaths, instead of dealing with them as rivals to his kingdom.

This cruel reputation, however, is merely proof that historians, politicians and writers are as effective at changing history as they are at describing. Richard III was killed in battle with the forces of Henry VII, a raiding challenger to his throne who took his place as monarch after the victory. Henry VII’s ascension to the throne marked the beginning of the famous Tudor line and the end of the Middle Ages. With that end came a desire to discredit Richard III’s legacy as king and legitimize the reign of the Tudors.

The Tudor dynasty, which included such monarchs as the six-wived Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, worked their powers over historians and playwrights of the day to alter the way Richard III, an already-unpopular king, was portrayed (most likely to distract from the fact that they had taken the throne for themselves). John Rous, a well-regarded historian at the time of King Richard’s reign, marked that Richard was a “good lord” with “a great heart,” a man who fought for the common people. After Henry VII’s rise to the throne, Rous changed his tune, writing in his “History of the Kings of England” that Richard was freakish and evil. Born with teeth and shoulder-length hair (after having been in his mother’s womb for two years, according to Rous), Richard also murdered Henry VI and his own wife.

Modern historians see things a little differently. Without disclaiming many of the crimes alleged against him, these groups dedicated to improving Richard’s reputation say he was merely the product of an uncivil age, when violence and power-grabbing did tend to improve one’s situation and safety. He also, according to these groups, did much for the poor people of the realm. His Court of Requests gave poor people who could not afford their own legal representation a chance to have their grievances heard, and suspected felons were given rights like bail and freedom from property seizure. Most importantly, he lifted restrictions banning the printing and sale of books, and ordered that the laws of his own country be translated from their original, monarchal French into English.

Who Richard III was, no one really knows, but the discovery of his remains sparks controversy and debate, and is but another chapter in the long and complex history of British rule. To have this chapter opened in our day is a unique treasure.