About Corazon

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A New Burial (and Birth) for Richard III

To even the causal fan of Shakespeare, tales of the pale, abusive and foolish English King Richard III ring quite familiar.   As the final king of the Plantagenet line, Richard's legacy has become synonymous with the epitome of Machiavellian deceit and malevolent cunning.  British historians have, for centuries, marked the end of the Middle Ages with his death, while men like Shakespeare have esteemed Richard as little more than a petty, cruel and repulsive hooligan:
"And thus I clothe my naked villainy With old odd ends stolen out of holy writ,And seem a saint when most I play the devil.
[...]
I shall despair.  There is no creature loves me; And if I die, no soul will pity me:Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myselfFind in myself no pity to myself?"
And though it is true that Richard III was a relatively ineffective and perverse figure (Richard suffered from scoliosis and other physical deformities that seemed to add further credence to his abhorrent reputation), Shakespeare (and others) was wrong to label him as arguably the most vile figure to ever sit upon the English throne.  Surely much of the negativity surrounding Richard's legacy can be attributed to the propagandist efforts of the Tudor dynasty, which supplanted Richard in 1485.  True, Richard was an inept, oblivious and cocky leader but he was far from being the devil incarnate.  In many ways, Richard simply died in the wrong place and at the wrong time; an unfortunate casualty of history.  No wonder why Shakespeare chose to portray Richard as one of his most vile of anti-heroes.

With that being said, it looks like Richard may catch a bit of a break.  Over the past month, archaeologists with the University of Leicester have been excavating lands in and around Bosworth Field, the location where Richard was killed in battle.  Shortly into their excavations, archaeologists were astonished when they discovered human remains that appear to be those of Richard himself.  DNA and other scientific tests are still needed to confirm the findings but all early accounts seem to suggest that Richard III's final resting place has been unearthed.

Needless to say, this discovery has set off a firestorm of excitement within the historical and archaeological community.  Many have seen this moment as an opportunity to reevaluate the legacy of Richard by rescuing him from the rhetoric of generations past.  As Robert McCrum aptly states:
Richard was the last English king to fight and die on the battlefield. The end of both the Wars of the Roses and the Plantagenet dynasty was a turning point in English history. For these reasons alone, Richard III has a special place in the national myth. What follows, however, was sheer propaganda. Contrary to popular opinion, this came not from Shakespeare but from the pen of the saintly Thomas More.
The History of King Richard III was a hatchet job designed to explore the nature of power, leading to tyranny, and the sin that made such despotism possible. In More's account, Richard is accursed and unnatural, a parricide who broke all ties of kinship, like the figure of Vice in a morality play. An avuncular protector who was not a protector, a plotter and a killer, More's Richard contrives the murder of his nephews (Edward V and Richard of York), the princes in the tower. More, a loyal Tudor servant, had no interest in an impartial history. He wanted to present a narrative of evil with the hunchback king as a secular Satan.
I couldn't agree more.  It is rare when a historical figure is granted a "rebirth" 527 years after their final act.  This is a wonderful opportunity for not only the British people but the world to recognize the profundity of this discovery.  Already different organizations in Britain have been arguing over where Richard III's remains should ultimately rest.  Most historians agree that Richard intended to be buried in York, but others insist on giving Richard a full royal and state-sponsored funeral, with internment at Westminster Abby.

No matter how this story plays out, there is little doubt that Richard III is about to become a whole lot more popular now than ever before.  And even though all the DNA tests and royal processions will ultimately end with Richard's bones still ending up in a crypt, a new legacy is likely to be born.  Again, from Robert McCrum:
So this, perhaps, is the redemptive archetypal version that might be available to the British people soon: "The Return of the King" - his bones triumphantly verified and acknowledged, a new tomb...and another royal shrine for the British tourist trade.  As in the best dramas, we're now held in suspense, awaiting the closing act...The king's bones may yet become a secular relic, an object of national veneration.  Shakespeare, for one, would relish the irony.

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