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Off with his…feet?!! February 5, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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The body of King Richard III, one of the most maligned rulers in British history, has finally been found, 527 years after he was slain in the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, a battle that ended the War of the Roses and the Plantagenet succession. The victor of Bosworth, Henry VII, spawned the Tudor dynasty that produced his son, the monster Henry VIII, and the great queen Elizabeth I. (Oddly, the victor, Henry Tudor, was a better accountant than a warrior, balancing England’s budget and building its treasury, as well as maintaining peace through the rest of his reign, gains that would all be lost during the reign of his son, Henry VIII.)

The excitement all started in a parking lot in the city of Leicester (in classic British fashion, pronounced “Lester”). Archaeologists at the University of Leicester were attempting to find the site of Greyfriars Priory, where the king had supposedly been interred after his death, and pinpointed the location to the parking lot. They began the dig, and, in September 2012, unearthed both the remains of the priory and a very unique skeleton. The skeleton had suffered trauma to the skull, consistent with death in battle, and had a steel arrow embedded in its spine.

Head trauma plus an arrow in the spine would have killed any warrior; why would this one have been special? For one thing, the spine was a classic case of scoliosis, an S-shaped curvature of the spine, leading to the descriptions of Richard III (most famously by Shakespeare) as a hunchback. Instead, he was probably wracked by pain from his spinal deformity and unable to stand fully upright, but scoliosis would not have caused an actual “hunchback.” And there was also the fact that the skeleton was alone, rather than in a common grave with other warriors killed in a common battle.

The injuries to the skeleton, consistent with descriptions of Richard’s wounds in battle, and the curved spine, along with history’s assertion that he was buried at Greyfriars’ in Leicester, made the archaeologist’s hearts beat faster. But it was a specialty of the University of Leicester, evolutionary genetics, that seems to have proved Richard III’s identity beyond doubt. Taking DNA from the skeleton and comparing it to the DNA from two direct descendants of Richard’s sister, Anne of York, produced a virtually perfect match. The king had been found at last.

Richard III has been portrayed as a deformed, murderous monster, willing to kill his own young nephews to gain access to England’s crown. But this is really due to a propaganda smear on the part of William Shakespeare, whose patron was the great Elizabeth I, the scion of the House of Tudor.

It strikes our friend Ben and Silence Dogood as highly likely that a playwright of that era—who was basically viewed by the nobility as a lackey, a performing monkey, however great his talent, and treated accordingly—however celebrated, would have had a keen awareness of the respect due his patrons and have written his plays accordingly. Doing otherwise could have cost him his livelihood and patronage at least and sent him to the rack for treason at worst.

For a different view of Richard, one espoused by the many members of the various Richard III societies in Britain and America, and one incidentally also espoused by our friend Ben and Silence, one has only to turn to the historical novel by Sharon Kay Penman, The Sunne in Splendour. There Richard is portrayed as a noble and far-seeing ruler whose vision is ahead of his time.

Ms. Penman makes clear that it is only because he lost at Bosworth Field that he is not recognized as the great king and ruler he actually was, but rather vilified by his enemies as deformed (and thus, in his era, marked by the devil and unfit to rule), in an era in which any deformity or defect was marked as the sign of the devil rather than a sign of genetic flaw or inbreeding amongst the nobility. Science was light years away from Bosworth Field, and anyone who put forth the conclusions of science in Richard’s day, in his defense, would have been marched forth posthate to the stake.

In the wake of the skeleton’s excavation and identification, there has been much controversy as to where it should rest. The University of Leicester, which funded the excavation and has ultimate say, has announced that Richard III’s final resting place will be at the Cathedral Church in Leicester. Factions who oppose this move suggest York, Richard’s seat, or Westminster Abbey or Windsor Castle, traditional burial sites for British kings.

Wherever he lies, our friend Ben and Silence hope he lies in peace, finally given the reverence he deserves. He lived just 32 years and has been vilified for 527 more. Surely it’s time to give the king his due, especially in light of the horrors his usurper’s son, Henry VIII, perpetrated?

But one issue remains unresolved. Richard’s skeleton is missing its feet. They appear to have been cleanly cut off the bone. That all the other bones are in hearty good form—shockingly so, after 500-plus years—the missing feet are astonishing. Why would anyone want to take Richard’s feet, of all things? We’ve all heard the urban legends about modern corpses being cut down to fit in their coffins. But apparently poor Richard wasn’t even given the dignity of a coffin burial; instead, he was just put in the ground. So what happened to his feet?

If anyone has a theory about this, please let us know. The excellent state of preservation of the rest of the skeleton makes this even more bizarre.

Somehow, that a king should be buried in a parking lot says more about our modern state of society than pretty much anything else we can think of.