Saturday, February 23, 2013

Feb. 23, 2013, column:

King Richard III a fascinating character

By Mike Haynes
            The announcement in Leicester, England, 12 days ago didn’t get much attention in the Texas Panhandle, but for anyone interested in history or literature, it should have.
            “After 500 years, Richard III’s bones yield their secret.” That was the headline I noticed on the Reuters news service website Feb. 4. Had I not taken a Texas Tech course on Tudor England a few decades ago, I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention, either, but I knew that Richard III, king of England from 1483 to his death in 1485, was a fascinating character in real life.
Shakespeare made him even more compelling.
Philippa Langley, originator of the Looking for Richard III project, looks at the facial reconstruction of Richard III, unveiled to the media at the Society of Antiquaries in London recently. (The Associated Press photo)
            Richard wasn’t a Tudor. In fact, it was Henry Tudor’s army he was fighting when he suffered multiple wounds at the Battle of Bosworth Field, near Leicester. Henry took the throne after Richard died at Bosworth, and the Tudor line continued through Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
            The big news on Feb. 4 was that University of Leicester archeologists had found Richard’s skeleton, long lost to history. The Reuters story said:
            “A skeleton with a cleaved skull and a curved spine dug up from under a car park is that of Richard III …, solving a 500-year-old mystery about the final resting place of the last English king to die in battle.”
             In Great Britain, a “car park” is a parking lot, and this one covered the foundation of Greyfriars Church, where Richard’s body had been buried after his conqueror had it displayed to prove Henry’s victory.
            Phillipa Langley of the Richard III Society had instigated a search for Richard’s body four years ago. “We don’t normally lose our kings,” Langley told journalists.
            It isn’t often that a plot point in a Shakespearean drama plays out in the modern world. In “Richard III,” written during the Tudor Elizabeth’s reign a century after Richard’s death, the Bard described the king as an evil hunchback, “deformed and unfinished.”
            Photos of the newly discovered skeleton show a dramatically curved spine that experts say resulted from scoliosis. Richard’s skull has eight wounds, which scientists described as “clearly inflicted in battle and suggesting the king had lost his helmet.”
            According to Shakespeare, he also had lost his horse.
Skeleton of Richard III with curved spine. (University of Leicester photo)
            Richard may be best known as the prime suspect in the murders of the “two little princes,” young royalty who presented a threat to his throne and who disappeared when they were confined to the Tower of London. Historians can’t decide whether Richard had his two nephews killed, but the Tudors and Shakespeare cast him as a villain.
            Deeper research indicates that, whether Richard III committed evil acts or not, he apparently had a compassionate side that was devoted to the Catholic Church of his time.

            According to the Richard III Society, he was influenced heavily by his mother, Cecily, Duchess of York, who was considered “one of the most saintly women of her generation.” Eleven surviving books are known to have been in Richard’s library, and four were devotional: a Book of Hours, which included daily prayers; a John Wycliffe English translation of the New Testament; a paraphrase of the Old Testament; and “The Book of Special Grace” for meditation.
            Richard donated to many church causes. He supported 100 priests at the cathedral in York, his hometown, and built church colleges in several locations. His generosity revealed a concern for the poor, and he attended Mass regularly. Lynda Pidgeon of the Richard III Society wrote, “Richard fulfilled his obligations and more, and for a medieval prince that was remarkable.”
            We can’t conclude from the superficial evidence whether this infamous king actually was a spiritual man. Historians will continue to debate his character. But finding those bones in a modern car park certainly revives the controversy.
            And I’m fascinated.
(For more information on Richard III, go to .)