Richard III has one hell of a car park bill

As an insatiable student of history, I geeked out this morning when I saw that Richard III’s remains had been found in a car park (a parking lot) in Leicester. (As you might expect, the BBC has the best coverage of the goods.)

The skeleton had taken a fatal head wound, the burial site matched the alleged location of Richard III’s final resting place, the remains matched the time period and Richard’s age, and a mitochondrial DNA test matched known descendants of Richard. Most intriguing, to me, was the fact that the skeleton had a curved spine — scoliosis — that was the basis for calling Richard a “hunchback.”

Richard’s story — the brother of a king who became king himself under interesting circumstances, only to die in battle against Henry Tudor at Bosworth Field — holds political significance even now. Namely, the story shows that history is written by the victors — in this case, the Tudor dynasty, victorious in the final stand of the Wars of the Roses, painted Richard as a deformed, child-killing villain, with the help of one William Shakespeare. And above all, it shows that “might makes right.”

The discussions on the BBC story are fascinating to read. A few decry Richard as a murderer who should be left where he was found. Others say he was framed and that Henry Tudor was responsible for killing Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, in the Tower of London. (While I think we’ll never know for certain, I tend to believe that Richard did it; come at me.) There are those who want him interred in York Minster or Westminster Abbey (right now a Leicester burial is planned). And there are those who insist that Edward IV was not a legitimately born son of Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, and Cecily Neville and that Richard III, his younger brother, was the legitimate king after all. Oh, and Henry Tudor (Henry VII) was a usurping jerk.

This last part is interesting for a few reasons. First, Edward IV overthrew Henry VI, the last Lancaster king, and thus could, in theory, have claimed the throne by right of conquest no matter who his real father was. Second, Richard’s claim was largely through being Edward’s brother, based on Edward’s success against Henry VI. Richard and Edward’s father had been a duke but not a king. So if Edward was illegitimate and not qualified to be king, Richard as his brother should not have had a claim either — it’s circular logic, saying that Richard was the rightful king and not Edward, when Richard’s immediate claim was derived from Edward’s military success. If Richard was the rightful king, it follows that Edward must have been, too; if Edward’s claim was bunk, his heirs’ claims must have been too, surely? While it’s true that both men had claims by being descended from Edward III, they were certainly not alone there; the primary argument for the York dynasty at that point was defeating the Lancasters.

And the same can be said for Henry Tudor. Rightful claim or not — Henry’s mother was descended from a legitimized branch of Edward III’s family through his son, John of Gaunt, and his father descended from a Welsh upstart who married Henry V’s widow, a French princess — Henry still defeated Richard and could claim the throne by right of combat.

That justification for rule just seemed lost on much of the BBC audience. Arguing about legitimacy and parentage and the church and rights, while forgetting that in those days, the throne belonged to whoever could keep it. Richard failed, Richard died and Richard lost. And he wasn’t the first one — Henry Tudor (technically on the Lancasters’ side, but who founded the Tudor dynasty) overthrew Richard, who helped overthrow Henry VI. Whose grandfather Henry IV overthrew his own first cousin, Richard II. And on and on back to William I. So who gets to decide who’s rightful? When does a usurper become legitimate, and vice versa? Ask 10 different people and you’ll get 10 different answers. So it goes.

Regardless of how misplaced I think some of the commenting on this story is, it’s nonetheless a huge development in understanding a critical moment in English history — considered the dividing line between the Renaissance and the Middle Ages by many — and I was thrilled that it happened. I also hope that more can be done to understand Richard and how he lived, and maybe even change popular opinion about his reign and personal character. There’s a lot to be learned here, and I for one am curious to see where this all goes.

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