Message in a Bottle
Unroll the Bones

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By now you’ve heard the news: they paved Richard III and put up a parking lot. Five hundred and twenty-eight years after his death in battle at Bosworth Field, his remains have been found and definitively identified. The location of his body, the pattern of wounds on it, and mitochondrial DNA analysis all indicate that the skeleton discovered beneath a Leicester construction site is that of the disgraced medieval king.

The amount of attention that’s been focused on this story has been somewhat surprising to me. I knew that there were a fair number of history geeks who’d take notice, but I had no idea that the mainstream media and the blogosphere would be buzzing at such an intense pitch about it.

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I suspect credit goes to multiple factors. Richard lived long enough ago that  his exhumation is of archaeological interest, triggering an Indiana Jones-like excitement about the mysterious past. On the other hand, he lived just recently enough to be part of familiar history, and to have a recognizable personality. Throw in a heaping helping of plebeian besottedness with the aristocracy, and voilà—hoopla.

Now that we know who these bones belong to, the conversation seems to be turning again to what kind of man he was. At this remove, we’ll never know his character with anything like certainty, of course. The personality that we think we know is and will always be a construct. His current reputation as an avatar of evil stems mostly from Shakespeare’s wildly popular play, The Tragedy of King Richard III.

It was first performed barely more than a century after the events it describes, when the royal family who unseated Richard was still in firm control of England. As such, it’s not surprising that it depicts Richard as a perfect monster and his replacement, Henry VII, as a glowing beacon of rectitude. It’s from Shakespeare that we get the image of a scheming “bottled spider,” a “bunch-backed toad” who seduces a widow over the coffin of her late husband, who Richard himself has killed. It’s funny that the historical figure is so hated by many, given that his fictional incarnation and the villains that he begat, including Dallas' J.R., are such crowd-pleasers.

The foulest crime attributed to the real Richard III is probably the murder of the two young princes who had a claim on his throne. It’s accepted as fact by most that the boys died at his hand or at least by his order. Over the years, however, some have argued that he’s been unfairly slandered by this accusation. There’s nothing like proof that he killed them, and very little evidence that they died at all prematurely. Some contrarian historians assert that Richard had no motive to eliminate them, instead pointing the finger at his successor.

The theory is a little complicated, but the essence is this: Richard assumed the throne on the death of his brother by convincing Parliament that his brother’s marriage and therefore his heirs were illegitimate. Two years later, the would-be Henry VII came out of France with his army. When the dust of war settled and Richard was dead, Henry had the perfectly legal edict of illegitimacy rescinded, which moved the princes back to the top of the succession list. So they were a threat to Henry, not to Richard.

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It’s a fairly convincing argument, at least as presented by Josephine Tey in her detective novel The Daughter of Time. First published in 1951, it’s considered a classic of the genre. It features Tey’s recurring hero, Inspector Alan Grant, who in this case isn’t out beating the bushes for ne’er-do-wells. Instead he’s flat on his back in the hospital, bored out of his skull. To pass the time, he starts examining old portraits and reading old records, eventually marshaling a full-scale investigation into the past. The wonderful thing about the book is how it possesses all the spirit of a thriller without putting its protagonist into any danger. The only true action derives from the mental gymnastics Grant undertakes from the safety of his cocoon, but Daughter of Time is suspenseful nonetheless.

At the very least, Tey’s tale will have you reconsidering your most closely-held knowledge. Received wisdom comes from somewhere, usually from someone who had something to gain. Whether or not Richard III had a twisted soul to match his twisted bones, his real legacy is as a reminder that truth can stand on shaky ground.

—James