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Richard III happily in between truth and fiction

By John D. Nitowski
On February 6, 2013

In October 1066, William the Bastard, the descendant of the Viking Rolf the Ganga, crossed the English Channel to take the Throne he believed was rightfully his after the death of the heirless Edward the Confessor. He killed the rival king Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings and established the Plantagenet dynasty that ruled as Kings of England (among a list of other titles) until the year 1485. On August 22 of that year, after a sporadic and bloody struggle between two branches of the Plantagenet family, the Yorks and the Lancasters, a bastard branch of House Lancaster (this is an incredibly simplified summary of the Wars of the Roses) killed King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, ending the Plantagenet dynasty, closing the English Medieval period, and establishing the famous Tudor family as the monarchs or England with the ascension of King Henry VII.
After Bosworth Field, the Tudors went about consolidating their reign and set about reminding the English people what a tyrant and an all around jerk Richard III was. This started with throwing his body into a decidedly unroyal grave, repainting all his portraits to show him as a deformed monster, telling embellished stories about locking the true heirs to the Throne in the Tower of London (thus securing his ascension to the Crown), and most famously, combining all those tactics in Shakespeare's famous play Richard III.
In Richard III, Shakespeare shows the late monarch to have a hunched back and a shriveled arm. Remember, Shakespeare was writing his play in 1592, when Elizabeth I was ruling England. Do we really think that poor Billy Shakes is going to insult Lizzy's grandfather? Especially when all she has to do is flick her wrist and off with his head? Nope. While it's not inconceivable that Richard was deformed, it questions his mettle in battle since (obviously) no one was there, but he still wrote about Richard willing to exchange his entire country for just surviving the battle (that Elizabeth's grandfather won), "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"
So a lot of historical revisionism has occurred recently, questioning whether Richard III really was so terrible for England. John O'Farrell writes in An Utterly Impartial History of Britain that Richard knew how terrible child kings (like his nephew Edward V) have been for England, and chose to spare his country from another disastrous reign of a prepubescent boy in the most powerful office of the land by assuming it himself, "And once a politician has slipped into that dangerous mindset in which they equate their own advancement with the national interest, the end can justify all sorts of terrible means."
The exhumation of Richard's remains has only enhanced this human image of him. Shakespeare's monstrous depiction of the monarch is rather absurd: portraying the King with a hunched back and a shriveled arm. But the skeleton examined at the remains of Greyfriars Church (destroyed during the reign of another Tudor, Henry VIII) was only abnormal for the very obvious evidence of (idiopathic adolescent onset) scoliosis.
Of course, all that really proved was a skeleton buried in an ancient church with a lot of battle wounds (the skull was hacked at several times and the brain was obviously exposed) and a crippling back disease. But science is awesome. Here's why: genealogical research tracked down Richard's older sister's descendant Joy Ibsen, a 16th generation great-niece of King Richard III. Ibsen, a Canadian immigrant, died in 2008 but her son Michael offered a sample of his own DNA, which revealed that Michael Ibsen and the skeleton shared a relatively rare mitochoNdrial DNA sequence. In other words, after five centuries, King Richard III can finally be laid to rest properly.
Many historical revisionists (including Terry Jones' awesome "Medieval Lives" series on Youtube) have scoffed at the theory that Richard III was malformed and that Shakespeare's description was very simple propaganda. But the revelation that he did actually have a physical deformity is a poetic way to describe historical truth: somewhere in between black and white.
This isn't your usual column. There's no angry rants. No controversial opinions. No, "Hey, did you think of that, society?" Just something we could take time to appreciate. I mean seriously, do we have to be angry about things all the time? It's nice to see how science and history can copulate and make an interesting love child we can all just read and enjoy.  


By John D.

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