One of the most remarkable stories in archaeology draws to a close this week with the reburial of the bones of King Richard III. It’s remarkable that they should have been found at all; but to have found a body that displayed some of the physical deformities Richard was said to have had; to have used DNA evidence to prove the bones’ provenance; and for the source of that DNA to be an unassuming carpenter now responsible for making the coffin that Richard will be laid to rest in on Thursday is just extraordinary. It is a story that I have been utterly gripped by.
And I’m not the only one, judging by the level of the world’s media that has descended on Leicester in recent days. Richard is a figure with a global reach, despite having only ruled for two years. He was the last English king to die on the battlefield, and has also been described as the last medieval monarch, his death signalling the end of the Wars of the Roses and the beginning of the Tudor dynasty. And yet I’d argue that the long-standing interest in Richard stems not just from anything he did during his life, but largely from a play written over a century after it ended. It is Shakespeare’s version of King Richard that most people think of when they consider him, even if they’re not consciously aware of it. Finding his body has finally allowed us to compare the real man with the villain so frequently portrayed on stage.
One of my earliest memories of live theatre was watching Derek Jacobi in Richard III. I would have been 13 or 14, and what surprised me was just how funny he was. Jacobi played him in quite a traditional way, very much the pantomime villain – dressed in black, hair greased back onto his head. But what was extraordinary to me at the time was the way Richard talked directly to the audience – stepping outside the confines of the stage, commenting on his actions and revelling in them. The fact that Richard seems so in control of his schemes is another key reason for the play’s endurance. Richard is described at one point as ‘a bottled spider’, an apt description for the man sitting at the centre of the web, pulling the strings and manipulating those around him.
One of the play’s most despicable acts is the murder of Richard’s young nephews, the so-called ‘princes in the Tower’. What could be more evil, more heinous than the killing of innocent children? There’s been a long-standing debate about whether Richard was actually responsible for their murder, and certainly the point is not conclusive. But one theory new to me, and which I only became aware of thanks to a recent documentary, was the idea that the young boys were not murdered at all. Maybe they just fell ill and died – the date of their disappearance was during summer, the height of the plague season. Not only that but several of Edward’s elder brothers and sisters had perished in their early teens. Could the heir to the throne have suffered a similar fate?
It’s an intriguing theory, but one a lot less interesting – and much sadder – than the one Shakespeare comes up with. Setting aside the possible political motives behind his play, there’s some comfort in the idea that someone (however malevolent) is in control, that events are being stage-managed. But the painful truth is that life is rarely that neat. Too often it is luck, ignorance and accident that are the true driving forces behind history. When we look too hard for agency, it is perhaps because none exists.
Nowhere is this more true than in the fate of the body of Richard himself. The king could perhaps have imagined that his defeat at Bosworth field would lead to his death and ignominious burial at the hands of Henry Tudor. But he would never have believed that, over half a millennia later, his body would be rediscovered and he would finally receive the royal funeral his status deserved. A king he may have been, but it seems that Richard was as prone to the uncertainties of blind chance as the rest of us.