Are we approaching the end of a centuries-old character assassination?

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


Book Review: Loyalty Binds Me

Back in January I read Loyalty Binds Me, one of a projected trilogy about a time-travelling Richard III–a surefire disaster or an intriguing proposition, depending on one’s viewpoint. I suppose I was somewhere in the middle because, frankly, I love the idea of time travel and wish I could do it myself, but simultaneously wondered how the author would pull this off.

Here’s what I found.

Loyalty Binds Me by Joan Szechtman

Modern Day Trials of the Last Plantagenet King

208970_444671668905742_169100148_nLoyalty Binds Me, second in a projected trilogy concerning Richard III, the medieval monarch of the “Princes in the Tower” tradition, takes on a huge task. Many readers will be familiar with the last Plantagenet king’s travel to present-day in the first installment, This Time, and speculative fiction fans (and others) will revel in such a journey. However, when Richard finds himself now under arrest for the murders of his nephews–which, mind you, happened some 500 years ago, and there exist contradictions to this charge–he experiences firsthand effects of the success the Tudors, Shakespeare and others have had in blackening his reputation. But how, readers may ask, does the author manage to overcome the label of absurdity; will enough modern lawmen actually believe this is Richard III come to this era, and are willing to risk their careers on such a prosecution? How can this be portrayed?

Worry not, readers, for Joan Szechtman not only manages all this heavy lifting, but also does it with the mark of a brilliant writer: by making it look easy. The flow of the book is so smooth, that when I read certain parts I actually gasped at the ups and downs Szechtman took me through with Richard. So thrilling are those danger moments, I found myself mentally shaking my fist at the need to sleep; I simply had to keep reading and find out what happens next.

One of the ways I can think of that helps the author achieve this is her understanding of today’s society. Unlike most people in Richard’s time, our society has been through so much with technology that even those who scoff at the idea of time travel still often contemplate it with a fair degree of seriousness. Coupled with the viable descriptions and scientific explanations through the book, many doubters will do a double take at the possibilities. Then there’s the government. Oh yes, they want a piece of the pie, and that, paired with the widespread belief that governments already know more than they are telling, clicks it all into place.

Ms. Szechtman also brings to bear the unfortunate understanding we all have of post-9/11 policing. When Richard’s tormentors are unable to move in the direction they wish, they play the terrorism card, using that to threaten him with indefinite detention. If that doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of readers today, it at least erases the sometimes smug sureness that we have progressed as much as we think, in terms of governance and liberty, from the days when Richard sought to bestow greater rights on those accused of crimes. It is sadly ironic that this king now falls victim to abuse of power that can cause someone simply to disappear. What grows from this is that where once there was care for a character, now there is great concern for the peril he is in.

Through all of this, the author allows us to peek into the lives of Richard’s modern-day family, his new wife and her two daughters he has adopted, as well as his beloved son Edward, whose resilience for the new world he is in is fairly strong–witness his grasp of technology, for example. But Edward, who woke from death to find his mother taken from him, speaks to us of how childhood, despite how overhauls, trends and social structures have changed it over the centuries, remains the same. Children are strong but vulnerable, astoundingly bright though need help navigating through even some of the briefest of situations and, perhaps most heartbreaking, love so strongly and want to please, yet withhold as a form of protection. They show us that we adults are given responsibility that is almost frightening in its ability to impact. Yet with brilliant economy Szechtman portrays all this in those peeks we are allowed, and we witness a family coming to terms with the usual trials all families must go through, as well as those of a father who has been arrested, and the merging of medieval and modern times–a blended family like no other.

This is by no means an exhaustive review of everything wonderful in Joan Szechtman’s latest book, but it does point the way to the other two, one as yet unpublished, for this book is not easily put down and forgotten. For those who already care about Richard, it will be a reader’s delight. Others who are new to the king, or willing to re-consider what exactly constitutes “common knowledge,” will find a wealth of historically accurate information as well as recognizable background details in order to do. Moreover, because the second book is written to be enjoyed independently, reading it first will not involve any guessing at the start. But Joan Szechtman’s Loyalty Binds Me will make you want to go back for more.

A copy of Loyalty Binds Me was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review.
Image courtesy Joan Szechtman.