In case you haven’t heard, a Leicester car-park-turned-archeological-dig has revealed some of its secrets to us, although pieces of the jigsaw have yet to be fitted together. A skeleton recovered in the church buried beneath the modern asphalt, thought to possibly belong to the last Plantagenet king, Richard III, is undergoing DNA testing expected to be complete before the year is out.
How much, beyond the identity of the remains, will be revealed, and what new possibilities can or will be introduced by what can be determined for sure? The Richard III Foundation, Inc. posted a short essay on their FB wall today, discussing that question, and it is well worth the read.
DNA testing may soon identify the mortal remains of Richard III, exhumed from a car park in Leicester this week, but the same science could also clear his name of murder and bring to an end a miscarriage of justice five centuries old.
Richard III is the most unjustly reviled king in our history. The Tudor propaganda machine, the denunciation of Thomas More and the genius of Shakespeare turned this monarch into an ogre, the hunchbacked tyrant of myth.
The central charge against Richard is, of course, that he murdered the princes in the Tower, his nephews, to clear his way to the throne. This, in turn, depends on one key item of forensic evidence: two skeletons, now in Westminster Abbey, long assumed to be those of the murdered boys.
DNA testing could swiftly establish if these bones really are those of the dead princes and how they died. It is more likely, however, that these remains date back far earlier than the 15th century; if so, the case against Richard would be fatally undermined, clearing the way for his reputation to be restored as a wise king, a gallant knight and a courageous disabled rider, cruelly traduced by history.
The decision lies with the Queen. Without her permission the bones cannot be tested, and so far she has proved unwilling to disturb these skeletons in the royal cupboard.
The story of the evil king is embedded in Britain’s national mythology. After Edward IV’s death in 1483, his brother had Parliament declare the illegitimacy of his young nephews and crown him Richard III. The princes, aged 12 and 9, were consigned to the Tower of London and disappeared, presumed murdered on the orders of their uncle, who then perished, horseless, at Bosworth Field.
One contemporary report cited “much whispering among the people that the King had put the children to death,” a story that suited the Tudor victor of Bosworth, Henry VII. Thomas More filled in the gory details of “the dolorous end of these babes … by traitorous tyranny taken, deprived of their state, shortly shut up in prison, and privily slain and murdered … by the cruel ambition of their unnatural uncle.” He said the bodies were buried “at the stair foot, meetly deep in the ground under a great heap of stones”.
But there was no hard evidence that Richard, or anyone else, had done away with the princes. Then in 1674, workmen demolishing a stone staircase in the Tower made a discovery: “About ten feet in the ground were found the bones of two striplings in a wooden chest … which were found proportionate to the ages of those two brothers.” Quite how to identify a stripling skeleton and why the murderers should have buried them so deep was never explained.
Charles II commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to provide a marble urn. The supposedly royal remains of “Edward V, King of England, and his brother Richard, Duke of York” were duly interred in the Abbey beside a plaque condemning “their uncle, Richard who usurped the crown, imprisoned them in the Tower of London, smothered them with pillows, and ordered them to be dishonourably and secretly buried.” Case closed.
In 1933 an analysis of the bones was led by Professor William Wright, of the London Hospital Medical School, the foremost anatomist of the day. The report, owing more to wishful thinking than scientific proof, found that the bones were likely to be those of the princes, although it was impossible to establish gender, date, age at death or whether the two skeletons were related to each other.
Over the centuries, many other human remains have been discovered at the Tower. One skeleton discovered in the grounds has been carbon-dated to the Iron Age. The Tower is built on a Roman site, and the Romans buried slaves beneath buildings to bring good luck. Some of Wright’s findings actually suggested that one or both of the bodies might be female.
The huge strides in science mean that the mystery could now be solved. Nothing wipes away conspiracy theory faster than a DNA swab, and the exhumation of the great and good (and bad and dead) has forged a new branch of verifiable scientific history. Jesse James, the Unknown Soldiers of Vietnam, Tsar Nicholas II, the last Dauphin of France and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid have all surrendered their secrets from the grave
Comparing DNA from the bones in the Abbey with that of Edward IV and his Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, the princes’ parents interred at Windsor, would swiftly establish if they were indeed of royal blood. If they have been wrongly identified, that would not prove Richard III’s innocence, but it would demolish the physical evidence that has been used to condemn him for more than 300 years.
Would Richard really have done away with the sons of a brother to whom he was demonstrably loyal, inviting scandal so early in his reign? Others, including Henry Tudor, had ample reason to want the princes out of the way. There is some evidence that Richard may have smuggled his nephews to safety on the Continent.
If the murders cannot be pinned on Richard with any certainty, then the last English monarch to die in battle has surely been maligned by gossip, political manipulation, Victorian sentimentality and literary licence. It served successive monarchs to blacken Richard’s name and assume his guilt; his latter-day successor now has the opportunity to set at least the scientific record straight.
Initial findings suggest that the body believed to be Richard III may indeed have suffered from curvature of the spine, which renders his death all the more heroic. At a time when we are celebrating the athletic achievements of people with disabilities, here was a monarch who charged into battle with severe scoliosis and perished “fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies”: Crookback Dick, the last of the medieval chevaliers, our greatest Paralympic monarch.
In Shakespeare’s version, the king dies calling for a horse, prepared to renounce his ill-won kingdom to save his own skin. Now science may ride to his rescue, locating his body and saving his reputation with the avenging weapon of DNA.
–The Richard III Foundation, Inc. is a non-profit educational organization that focuses on King Richard III and the Wars of the Roses