The missing king


Richard III

2 October 1452 – 22 August 1485

No viper, toad or hedgehog; no unformed bear-whelp, or lump of foul deformity. Instead, the man dug up from the car park of Leicester Social Services in September had, for the most part, an ordinary shape. His height was a little above average for the time when he had lived. His limbs were regular and delicate—almost feminine, the scientists said. Pace Shakespeare, there was no withered arm.

There was, however, a severely sideways-twisted spine, the result of scoliosis that had probably emerged in adolescence. It would have put one shoulder higher than the other, making him stand shorter than he was. He might have needed extra cushions in his chairs, and extra tugs when putting on those robes of green velvet and crimson cloth of gold so lovingly detailed in his orders to the Wardrobe. But then a king would get that sort of help anyway.

The body now identified as Richard (give or take the last layers of DNA testing) was found beneath the choir of the vanished Grey Friars, the Franciscan priory in Leicester. An honourable place, but hardly good enough for a king, and the work was done hastily: the grave dug too short for the body and the body itself crammed in without shroud or coffin, with its hands bound in front of its privates.

The skull, when found, was open-mouthed, as if it still yelled ‘Treason! Treason!’ When you lose a battle, as he had just lost Bosworth, on August 22nd 1485, to Henry Tudor, that is how you end. The body was battered. The face, however, was kept intact, to show the people he was dead. It has now been reconstructed: younger-looking than its 32 years, smooth with fresh paint and plastic and, in an odd way, innocent.

His supporters hope this new Richard can come to replace the old. Time to focus on the loyal brother, the brave soldier, the highly competent administrator of the north of England, the pounder of the Scots; time to remember the man who brought in special courts to hear the complaints of the poor, who abolished ‘benevolences’ (taxes, unvoted by Parliament, disguised as gifts to the king) and who banned any curbs on the new art of printing.

And time to bury deep the accused murderer of Henry VI, Henry’s son Edward, George Duke of Clarence, Lord Hastings and his own two pathetic nephews, the princes in the Tower: the crook-backed, leering, strawberry-fancying villain of Polydore Vergil, Thomas More, Shakespeare and Laurence Olivier, dragging his spider-body round and round the stage of history.

To a large degree, though, the man who was Richard III has already been uncovered. He has been found in his books, most of them second-hand and well-thumbed: The Guidance of Princes, Wycliffe’s New Testament, The Art of War, stock romances. In these he wrote his name and, sometimes, the motto tant le desiree, ‘I’ve wanted it so much’. (The crown, perhaps?) On the calendar page of his book of hours he carefully wrote in his name, birthplace and birth-year against October 2, his birthday.

This was a man who spent the Christmas of 1484 over-partying, and who liked to appear in a sea of silk banners of his own device, the white boar; but who also had a particular devotion to St Anthony the Hermit, patron of those who struggled against the sins of the flesh. Compared with his hedonistic, amorous brother, Edward IV, there was a moral strictness, almost prudishness, about Richard, much emphasized by him when in 1483 he made his risky lunge for the throne.

Full obituary in The Economist:

What really brought down Richard III:

Fight over the bones:

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