Alas poor Richard III, we knew him. But really how well? That is the question. With the discovery of the skeleton of Great Britain's last Plantagenet monarch ignominiously buried under a parking lot north of London, once again we are reminded that to the victors go the spoils of war — and the ability to control the narrative of history.
King Richard III's winter of discontent and certainly disrespect has lasted some 528 years after his death in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. The end of his brief, two-year reign brought Henry VII to power and ushered in the Tudor era. Given his brief time on the throne, Richard's life might well have been relegated to a historical footnote were it not for the inventive and lively pen of William Shakespeare, whose play The Tragedy of Richard the Third, written around 1592, introduced one of literature's great villains, a violent, duplicitous, maniacal, limping, hunchbacked Machiavellian figure.
But Shakespeare's understanding of Richard's supposedly cruel and dysfunctional rule was largely influenced by the Tudor-controlled version of events. Or put another way, the historical shortcomings of Richard III might be viewed as an Elizabethan version of Oliver Stone's JFK. It is true that Richard's reign and life ended for want of a horse. His reputation has taken a centuries-long beating for want of a better protagonist. Now the unlikely discovery, verified through DNA testing, of the king's remains by Philippa Langley, a British writer and member of the Richard III Society (there's the rub), has sparked a renewed debate among scholars over whether Richard truly was the raving despot so robustly portrayed by the likes of Laurence Olivier, Ian McKellen and Kevin Spacey.
Or was Richard, as some scholars now suggest, a more nuanced ruler, who respected the rights of his commoner subjects and introduced the concept of bail for criminal suspects? Shakespeare's chilling characterization probably will continue to trump whatever objective academic examination of Richard's rule reveals.
But at least for the moment, history is the thing.