Richard III of the House of York was the last English king to die in battle—on August 22, 1485, at Bosworth Field. Now that the archeologists at University of Leicester have found his twisted remains under a parking lot, there is much revisiting of his story. Recent forensic tests revealed that the king had not been the older man of the Shakespearean play who declares in the opening monologue that he was “Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time / Into this breathing world, scarce half made up” (Act I, Scene I). Instead, he was 32 years old when he died. At close to 5’ 8’’, he was tall for a medieval man, with a slender build. Instead of being a misanthrope and a tyrant, contemporary accounts show him as a devout man and a great manager of the state’s affairs. Despite the scoliosis that began affecting his spine at the age of ten, and not at birth, the king fought and died on the battlefield.
Richard, Duke of Gloucester, became Protector of the Realm after the death of Edward IV in 1483. He put his brother’s sons, princes Edward V and Richard, in the Tower of London, which was both a royal residence and a prison. Soon after, the Parliament declared the princes illegitimate based on Edward IV’s newly discovered bigamy.
In his book, The Greatest Lies in History, Alexander Canduci explains that after this point, the princes posed no more risk to Richard’s claim to the throne. Even more, Richard and Elizabeth Woodville, the mother of the two boys, were reconciled in 1484, which would be after the alleged murder of the princes in the Tower in 1483—making it hard to believe that the queen could forget her loss so soon. So when did the princes die and who had the most to gain from their deaths?
The most plausible theory, which started circulating during the 17th century, revolves around Henry Tudor, the man who defeated Richard III to become Henry VII. Henry Tudor had strong blood ties to the royal family on all sides, but no strong claim to the throne. One of the main declared reasons for his rebellion had been that Richard III usurped the throne from the rightful king, young Edward V. Henry Tudor fought and won the battle of Bosworth on the premise that the Parliament’s nullification of Edward V’s claim to the throne had been wrong. But instead of putting young Edward on the throne after his victory, Henry crowned himself king.
Now Henry needed Edward V and his brother Richard out of his way.
Henry Tudor put an end to the War of the Roses and the Plantagenet line. But the Tudors’ claim to the throne had to be strengthened. The Tudor rose was designed of two roses superimposed: the red rose of Lancaster holding inside the white rose of York. But symbols can only go so far—rewriting history goes further. During the reign of Henry VIII, Thomas More wrote about the princes’ being smothered with pillows by order of Richard III. During the reign of Elisabeth I, William Shakespeare finished the job to where Richard III is still best remembered today by the pitiful cry: “A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!” (Act V, Scene IV).
We won’t know when princes Edward and Richard died, not until forensic tests give us more clues. The incomplete remains of the two skeletons are now buried in the Westminster Abbey, but the Church of England has refused requests for a DNA test. The Guardian reports on February 5, 2013:
DNA testing was refused on the grounds that it could set a precedent for testing historical theories that would lead to multiple royal disinterments. The church was also uncertain what to do with the remains if the DNA tests were negative, potentially leaving the church with the dilemma of how to manage bogus bones.
There’s danger in revisiting history. We’ve built a whole system of belief and social order on one version of the past. Even though it may not be the real history, it’s hard to set the past right without life-threatening trauma. Much like setting straight Richard III’s twisted spine.