Unfit for a King

An unobservant reader casually flipping through newspaper pages in the last couple of months may be excused for thinking that the fossil of a giant centipede had recently been unearthed. In reality, archaeologists from the University of Leicester had dug up a city parking lot and discovered a mutilated skeleton with multiple blows to the head and severe scoliosis of the spine. After extensive carbon dating and mitochondrial DNA testing, experts were able to conclude that the remains belonged to King Richard III of England, who ruled the country between 1483 and 1485.

So how did this medieval monarch end up in such an inglorious resting place instead of Westminster Abbey? The death of Richard III, the last English king to die in battle, ushered in the Tudor dynasty. As is often the wont with civil wars, the slain king was humiliated with a rain of blows inflicted on his dead body which was then stripped bare to reveal his deformity, before being buried hastily at Greyfriars Church in Leicester. The Church was destroyed after the Reformation and its exact location was lost to the ravages of time, until enthusiasts from the "Richard III Society" were able to determine its spot and lobbied the city to excavate the grounds.

It is said that history is written by the victors, and nowhere has this been more true than in the case of King Richard III. His successor, King Henry VIII, encouraged his court historians to besmirch the reputation of his predecessor in order to strengthen his own position. One of these writers, Thomas More, took this instruction to heart and produced a tome titled "The History of King Richard III" which compiled every unverifiable rumour into a thrilling narrative, tying his physical deformities to moral deficiencies. As this account became the official chronicle of the period, it became a rich source of material for later writers, including the most influential of them all— William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare's "Richard III", which starts with the immemorial lines "Now is the winter of our discontent", proceeds to vilify the late king as an ugly hunchback whose reign was defined by murder, intrigue and betrayal, some of which is undoubtedly true. Visitors to the Tower of London (which also houses the  Koh-i-Noor diamond) have heard the story of the "Princes in the Tower"— two young princes, who were potential claimants to the throne, were allegedly killed prior to coronation at the behest of Richard III. While such activity was not unheard of in the Middle Ages, thespians through the ages have regaled audiences with the Shakespearean interpretation of this complex character, unwittingly conspiring to immortalise the King as a ruthless crookback.

While it remains to be seen if the reputation of Richard III is restored, this archaeological discovery will remind future readers that historical plays reflect the prejudices of the time, and echoes Oscar Wilde's insightful belief that "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life". A king who bravely led his army on horseback with the discomfort of such a pronounced spinal curvature deserves more than just a modicum of our respect.

"Leading on my fierce companions," cried he, "over storm and brine,
I have fought and I have conquered! Where was glory like to mine?"
Loudly all the courtiers echoed: "Where is glory like to thine?"
"What avail me all my kingdoms? Weary am I now and old;
Those fair sons I have begotten, long to see me dead and cold;
Would I were, and quiet buried, underneath the silent mould!
William Makepeace Thackeray, King Canute