The remains of Richard III have now been formally identified after months of speculation, research and extensive examination by archaeologists, genealogists and historians at the University of Leicester.
The burial date of the remains, their age, spinal curvature, slender build of the skeleton, nature of the injuries and, of course, their location in the Greyfriars church choir are all compelling evidence in the conclusion made about the famous car-park skeleton. In an example of extraordinary modern scientific capability, DNA from the remains was compared with a sample provided by a living descendant of Anne of York and found to be a direct match. All this, according to academics, supports the conclusion that the remains discovered at Greyfriars are “beyond reasonable doubt” those of King Richard III.
So, now that we know that Richard had a severe curvature to his spine and that he was of slender, almost female build, how do or should we negotiate these facts with the ‘lump of foul deformity’ and ‘poisonous bunch-back toad’ with which Shakespeare presents us? What, I wonder amidst all the hype and excitement of actually discovering what he may have looked like, would Shakespeare have made of the slight frame, the curved spine, and the severely wounded skull? And, more to the point, does it matter?
In Shakespeare’s King John, the recently crowned John gazes upon his nephew and declares: ‘Mine eye hath well examined his parts/And finds them perfect Richard’. From just his parts and some instinctive hunch, John knew that this man was the descendant of his brother Richard the Lionheart. Now, from 500 year-old bones that yield DNA, we can prove that these parts are indeed ‘perfect Richard’.
Perhaps it is fitting that Leicester should glory in the spotlight; for it was close by that Richard received three or four horrific skull injuries, and perhaps even those harrowing humiliation wounds when he was allegedly stripped and carried to the Greyfriars church in 1485. Beneath the memorial stone in Leicester Cathedral’s chancel, Richard III’s remains will be re-interred and laid to rest. No doubt, his new burial site will become a tourist attraction and perhaps even a new gathering location for the Richard III Society.
Leicester plays its part in Shakespeare’s plays, for it is the burial location of at least three of his protagonists: Lear, Wolsey and Richard III. It is, as Richmond declares to his army, ‘from Tamworth thither [...] but one day’s march’, and it lies ‘at the centre of this isle’. Shakespeare could not have foreseen that Leicester is also where enthusiasts can purchase Richard III t-shirts, and enjoy Richard III heritage breaks.
It seems curious that however poisonous, abortive, malignant, murderous and manipulative he might have been (if we are to rely on Tudor records), Richard III has become a symbol of the technological sophistication of genealogical research. We have re-discovered a king and found evidence to support speculations that have circulated about his appearance over 500 years after his death. This is absolutely astounding.
Let’s celebrate the incredible achievement of Leicester academics, and of all involved in this momentous discovery by enjoying all things Richard III. Buy a t-shirt, watch a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, or listen to William Walton’s regal score to Olivier’s screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s history play.
How will you be celebrating this extraordinary discovery? Please leave your thoughts below.