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Science confirms some physical truths about a medieval English king but leaves his character forever under a cloud.
In a year to date of tedious political sniping in Australia, upheaval in the Middle east, depression in the US and widespread gun toting insanity in that country which has lead to murder and mayhem, there is no doubt that the least depressing story has been this week’s confirmation that the remains of the dastardly English monarch, Richard III, have been uncovered after more than 500 years. I certainly have not been as excited by anything as much as this fascinating story for a long time.
I have a degree in history, so perhaps I am what is commonly called a history nut, but the stories of long dead heroes and villains have always drawn me to the subject, and this one has many fascinating angles. The story of finding Richard encompasses so many things.
First of all it is a story about the nature of history, which stems from the simple desire to know the truth. It is also a story about the difference between history and propaganda, especially Elizabethan propaganda, and lastly it is about the nature of human identity. People are fascinated by the question of identity, which is why genealogy is so popular, and the quest to identify Richard’s skeleton highlights the fundamental importance of genetic identity. It is a physical fact that we cannot escape, even after 17 generations.
Let me make it clear that I am not partisan about Richard III. However, I read Josephine Tey’s terrific whodunit, The Daughter of Time, when I was about 14 and was instantly hooked. Whether or not you agree with her conclusion about Richard’s being more of a goody than a baddy -- and Henry VII being the real baddy -- Daughter of Time still remains an outstanding original example of an historical novel. It was one of the first to present history as a detective story. As it turns out, the discovery of King Richard’s remains and the historical and scientific evidence is like a time machine version of a CSI cold case.
Tey was a very much a fan of Richard, unashamedly querying both the “deformed character in a deformed body” thesis, as in Shakespeare’s portrayal, and whether he actually had his two royal nephews killed. She came to the conclusion that he wasn’t deformed and didn’t kill the young princes and that these stories were part of a Tudor propaganda campaign to bolster a weak, even illegitimate dynasty, a fact that dogged Elizabeth’s reigned and loomed large in her psyche.
It is possible that the truth is actually somewhere in between. Of all the English kings the physical appearance of Richard III is a consistent theme. No other sovereign had as much attention paid to any aspect of his physique (save perhaps Henry VIII’s girth) than Richard “crook-back”. As the skeleton shows, he did indeed have a very crooked back, a bad scoliosis. He was decidedly deformed; he might have limped, as one shoulder was higher than the other. His shoulder might have been easily dislocated and tended to “pop out”. He possibly kept his arm tucked up at the elbow, explaining the withered arm convention. All in all, none of this would have improved his disposition since he was probably in almost constant pain.
The main thing to remember about his character is that he was a medieval king at the tail end of an internecine war that had almost destroyed the kingdom. He was almost the last man standing. He really only had one agenda, getting power and keeping it. So I find it a bit pointless to speculate about whether he had the two princes killed. One was his brother’s heir, Edward V, aged 12. An heir and a spare running around would have been too dangerous to allow.
Philippa Maddern professor of medieval history at the University of Western Australia, agrees:
“There’s no DNA test to prove either these bones belong to a man who unjustly disinherited, and then assassinated, his nephews – or the reverse. The scholarly consensus nowadays is that Richard III almost certainly did order the killing of his brother’s sons Edward and Richard, aged twelve and ten, sometime between late June and November 1483. No texts record their appearance after October 1483 at latest; their household servants were apparently dispersed; the fact of their murder was taken for granted, in January 1484, by the French Chancellor, who had no particular axe to grind.”
Most tellingly, as Michael Hicks argues, the boys were “politically dead” by November 1483. From then on Richard’s opponents, apparently convinced that the princes had been killed, stopped planning to reinstate the young Edward V, turning instead to candidates with exponentially weaker claims, like the eventually-victorious Henry Tudor.
So who had the power and motive to order the murders, and the power to conceal them ? Richard, of course.
The argument that he was a good ruler, as his stalwart defenders in the Richard III society do, is interesting, but what is the point? Does it reflect his character or his personal morality? Rulers might be simultaneously efficient generals and administrators, as Richard seems to have been, and completely unscrupulous politicians, as were Hitler and Mussolini.
More to the point is how much of Richard’s reign is clouded by the monstrous portrayal of Richard in Shakespeare’s play. Was Richard, indeed, a victim of Tudor propaganda? Now, that could be true, even if he did have the princes killed. One should not underestimate the Elizabethan propaganda machine, which was devoted to two causes, demonising the old Catholic establishment and propping up the legitimacy of Elizabeth herself.
All through her reign Elizabeth feared that her claim to her throne would be undermined. She had good cause. Despite being named in Henry VIII’s will as the successor to her sister Mary Tudor, her claim was nowhere near as secure as Mary’s. Since her father’s “divorce” from Catherine of Aragon was illegal under canon law, Elizabeth was illegitimate in the eyes of all the European monarchs. What is more, she was made illegitimate after her mother’s execution. Unlike Mary Tudor, whose backbone was stiffened by her father’s attempts to disinherit and bully her, and who had a very secure sense of her royal inheritance, Elizabeth was always insecure. Later this insecurity turned to something very near paranoia over the threat of her cousin Mary Stewart’s prior claim, which was backed by the Catholic monarchs.
The idea that Richard was the usurper, not her Tudor grandfather Henry VII, lent legitimacy to the upstart Tudor dynasty, including Elizabeth’s own reign. Shakespeare was part of that propaganda, because he was the actor, manager and playmaker for The Kings Men, the company which had a sort of royal prerogative and often performed at the court. His play is simply part of the state approved propaganda and mythology of the day.
History and myth are always intertwined, never more so than in the bloody history of the Wars of the Roses, which leaves television’s Dynasty for dead. But one aspect of this story that isn’t myth is the fascinating scientific quest to identify the bones now confirmed as Richard III’s by matching their DNA with that of Canadian-born furniture maker Michael Ibsen and his cousin, who are really the last Plantagenets, the 17th generation of descendants of Anne of York, Richard’s sister. Neither of these men have children. How serendipitous that the Mitochondrial DNA of their common female ancestor should allow us to identify the remains of a much mythologised and controversial king.
The scientists used mitochondrial DNA based on the maternal line, since genealogical evidence for the paternal lineage cannot be trusted. Although mitochondrial DNA is not especially good for pinpointing identity, the researchers were able to do it by using the two living descendents to "triangulate" the DNA results. Their results rest on Ibsen and his cousin having sufficiently rare mtDNA to make it unlikely that they both match the dead king by chance. This will have to be peer reviewed, but the archeological evidence combined with the DNA analysis make it very likely that the skeleton is that of Richard III.
For me, the scientific quest to identify the bones of Richard contains broader mysterious echoes. People are really dumbfounded by this new technology which can trace ancestry. It answers to our fascination with who we are and our heritage. Perhaps it also tells us something that our new society is trying to forget: that the genetic identity of a human being is inextricably tied to the truth of who that person is. Truth really is the daughter of time.
Angela Shanahan is an Australian newspaper columnist.
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