ANDREW ROBERTS: SHAKESPEARE HAS A (PARKING) LOT TO ANSWER FOR…..SEE NOTE PLEASE
ANDREW ROBERT’S BOOK ” THE STORM OF WAR” IS ONE OF THE BEST HISTORIES OF WORLD WAR II…..PLEASE ALSO READ: Demystifying the Myths of War by RAEL JEAN ISAAC A REVIEW AND INTERVIEW OF “STORM OF WAR” BY ANDREW ROBERTS
The news that the skeleton of King Richard III has been found under a parking lot in Leicester, a city 100 miles north of London, should finally end half a millennium of winters of discontent for the most maligned monarch in English history. It proves that it is never too late to save one’s reputation.
In William Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” the king is shown facilitating the deaths of King Henry VI and his son Prince Edward; of Richard’s brother George, Duke of Clarence (drowned in a butt of malmsey wine); of the Second Duke of Buckingham; of Richard’s own wife, Anne Neville; and especially of the Princes in the Tower of London, the 12-year-old King Edward V and his 9-year-old brother Richard, Duke of York. It is the greatest example of theatrical overkill since the Tarantino-like closing scenes of “Hamlet” and “Macbeth,” yet there is absolutely no evidence that Richard was guilty of any of it. Shakespeare even has Richard killing the Duke of Somerset at the battle of St. Albans, which took place when Richard was 2 years old.
It is hoped by Ricardians (yes, the small but vocal band of Richard III’s supporters have a sobriquet) that the world-wide interest in his disinterment by Leicester University archaeologists will focus attention on his reputation. Just because his last stand at the Battle of Bosworth Field took place 528 years ago, it doesn’t mean that a good man’s name should continue to be sullied. As Shakespeare’s own Iago says in the third act of “Othello”: “Who steals my purse steals trash . . . but he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed.”
Richard should be admired even today. After all, here is a monarch who abolished press censorship, invented the right to bail for people awaiting trial, reformed the country’s finances, and led bravely in battle despite a crippling disability.
It was Richard’s tragedy that after being betrayed by the turncoat Stanley family at Bosworth, he then had to contend with the greatest poet-playwright in the English language spin-doctoring against him on behalf of the incoming regime. When the Tudors defeated and succeeded the last of the Plantagenets, they constantly briefed against the previous administration, blaming it for all the country’s ills. Shakespeare even has Richard say: “I am determined to prove a villain.” Who in his right mind would ever say that, especially if it were true?
Assuming that the skeleton really is that of the king—as the DNA experts at Leicester contend, having connected him to a Canadian carpenter named Michael Ibsen, who is directly descended from King Richard’s mother—its curvature of the spine implies that Shakespeare only slightly exaggerated by making him hunchbacked. A contemporary, the historian John Rous, described Richard as “slight in body and weak in strength,” yet the king led his men into many battles and at Bosworth “to his last breath he held himself nobly in a defending manner.” In an age that rightly lauds its Paralympians, shouldn’t we praise the last king of England to die in battle for even taking up the profession of arms despite his disabilities?
As Josephine Tey so elegantly demonstrated in her 1951 crime novel “The Daughter of Time,” no modern court would convict Richard III of the murder of the princes in the Tower, whose possible skeletons—discovered in 1674 under the staircase leading to the chapel—ought now to be disinterred from Westminster Abbey and subjected to DNA tests and modern pathology examinations. “Shall I be plain? I wish the bastards dead,” says Richard in the play. Yet the evidence for their murders is at best circumstantial, and at worst pure Tudor invention.
Not merely Richard III, but also his killer and successor Henry VII needed the princes out of the way. It is known that Henry became highly perturbed throughout his reign whenever (as happened regularly) pretenders appeared, claiming to be the princes. This implies that he suspected that they might still have been alive at the time of Bosworth.
Rumors abounded, for example, that they may have escaped the country into the care of their aunt, the Dowager Duchess of Burgundy. A DNA test on the bones supposed to be those of the princes might establish whether they are the royal children, but it wouldn’t tell us how they died. Yet were a full autopsy to diagnose plague, then Richard would be further exonerated. Certainly Richard’s July 6, 1483, coronation was very well attended, which might not have been the case had his contemporaries believed that he had murdered his brother’s children.
There is something uplifting in the thought that even five centuries years after his death, a wronged monarch might at last find posthumous justice.
Mr. Roberts, a historian, is author most recently of “The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War” (Harper, 2011).
A version of this article appeared February 6, 2013, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Shakespeare Has a (Parking) Lot to Answer For.
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