Posts Tagged ‘Richard III’

Richard III, Roland Greene, and the lineaments of kingship

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013
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KQED host

The world will be talking about Richard III for awhile – and so was Michael Krasny yesterday on his radio program “Forum.”  You can hear the whole thing on San Francisco’s KQED here.

He was joined by Stanford’s Roland Greene, a professor of English and comparative literature and Rosemary Joyce, an anthropologist from UC-Berkeley.

Joyce pointed out the sheer improbability of it all:  the tiny plot of land being explored had a small probability of being the vanished Greyfriars priory – the fact that the researchers found the Franciscan monastery, which had been destroyed by Henry VIII, alone would have been a significant achievement.  When the University of Leicester set out its goals, “the least likely was being able to recover and identify the remains of Richard III,” she said.  “With ground-penetrating radar, they were able to find the images that suggested where the walls were.”  Then the grand slam: the scientists found the remains of Richard III “on the first day, the first hour.”

The English prof

A few snippets from the conversation with Roland:

MK:  What can we learn now that we have his skeleton intact?

RG: I think it’s a commemoration and an affective event more than a historical event.  In the sense, commemorative, because it takes us back to that moment in 1485 that’s really the end of Middle Ages in England beginning of Renaissance.  Affective because feel for that mortal body that’s under a parking lot.

MK:  Mortal, but regal, too.  There’s a difference between those two bodies, isn’t there?

RG:  As you know, in the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance there was a doctrine of  the king’s two bodies – which conceptualizes the difference between physical body, which gets sick and gets old, and the regal body, the body politic, that is the body in which the kingship resides. Any time you see the mortal body of a king, whether dead or alive – and you could say the same about the present day Queen of England – one is always struck by the mortal aspect and the frailty of a physical body.  At some time, people always want to look for the  lineaments of kingship in such a body.  …

The anthropologist

MK:  There’s still a lot of facts we don’t know …  there were a lot of things he did – innocent until proven guilty, bail as we know it today, helping the poor, easing book publishing – he made some real contributions.”

RG:   He was a very complex figure for that time. The difficulty of sorting out his historical veracity from the legend is that it’s clouded by Thomas More and Shakespeare, who wrote very powerful propaganda that gets between us and the historical reality. He only reigned for a couple of years.

Bare ruinèd choirs … post-dissolution Glastonbury Abbey

What will we learn?  According to Joyce, the bones have “already begun to tell us things we didn’t know. He  ate so much marine fish that radiocarbon was affected.  His diet was high in meat and fish.  Also, the kind of scoliosis we now know he had would have started when he was about ten, and was progressive.”

That finding alone has somewhat demystified the Richard III legend already, said Roland.  “There’s something very prosaic in what amounts to scoliosis in real life.  It reminds you of the imaginative distance spun by More and Shakespeare.”  In an earlier era where disfiguring disease could be seen as a curse, however, “his physical suffering may have made people look askance at him in his lifetime.”

The king of the car park

Monday, February 4th, 2013
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Earliest surviving portrait, circa 1520

The first question that everyone seems to ask is:  Why was he buried in a parking lot?

Few people, apparently, have heard of the dissolution of the monasteries and the destruction of churches under Henry VIII and his heirs, one of the great legacies of the Tudors.  Remember Shakespeare‘s “Bare ruinèd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang”?  Some of the churches were merely stripped of anything valuable, others, such as the Franciscan monastery of Leicester, were leveled to the ground.  According to Wikipedia, “The church foundations, floor levels, and demolition layer were found under some 30 centimetres (12 in) of garden soil, itself capped by a further 45 centimetres (18 in) of mill waste used to create a base for the car parking area of recent years.”

When the experts announced today that they had definitively identified the bones of Richard III (the curvature of the spine was so pronounced that breathing would have been difficult and the pain agonizing), what astonished me most was the savagery of the attack that killed the king in the Battle of Bosworth Field, 1485, which put the first Tudor, Henry VII, on the throne.  According to the Guardian:

The hands lay by his side, but as found suggested that he was buried with arms still bound, just as he was lugged from the battlefield. The skull lay with the largely undamaged face up – itself a significant and sinister point, according to the experts, hiding the savage blow to the base from a halberd, a fearsome medieval pike-like weapon, which sliced through bone and into the brain and would have killed him in seconds. …

There was another sword slash to the skull, which would also have penetrated to the brain and proved fatal in moments, but the others came after death, and were described – in an image still resonant from many battlegrounds today – as “humiliation injuries”. They could not have happened to a man protected by armour, and are consistent with the accounts of his body being stripped on the battlefield, and brought back to Leicester naked, slung over the pommel of a horse. That, almost certainly, was when the thrusting injury through the right buttock and into the pelvis happened.

Professor Lin Foxhall, head of the university’s archaeology department, and Bob Savage, an expert on medieval weapons from the Royal Armouries, pointed out that Richard’s face was relatively undamaged.

The winner, so to speak. (Musee Calvet, Avignon)

“They’d killed the king and they needed to keep him recognisable,” Savage said. “To me, the injuries are fully consistent with the accounts of his dying in a melee, and [being] unhorsed – I believe he was dead within minutes of coming off his horse. But they took care not to bash the face about too much.”

“It’s the Gaddafi effect,” Foxhall said. “We saw just this in the horrible mobile-phone footage of Gaddafi being found, and you can hear the voices shouting ‘not the face, don’t touch the face’. It’s one of those dreadful lessons from history which we never learn.”

In Winter King: The Dawn of the Tudor England, Thomas Penn describes the battle this way:

“This day,” soldiers heard Richard’s shout, “I will die as a king or win.” He was swept away, battered to death so viciously his helmet was driven into his skull.  … After the battle, the dead king’s wrecked body had been slung over a horse, its long hair tied under its chin, then set on display at Leicester’s Franciscan friary, naked except for a piece of cheap black cloth preserving its modesty, before a perfunctory burial – “like a dog in a ditch,” some said.

And Greyfriars in Leicester is where he remained for these last five centuries or so.  According to the New York Times:  “Friars fearful of the men who slew him in battle buried the man in haste, naked and anonymous, without a winding sheet, rings or personal adornments of any kind, in a space so cramped his cloven skull was jammed upright and askew against the head of his shallow grave.”

Now this is the reason I’m telling the story.  I don’t know much about the War of the Roses, I don’t know who killed the Princes in the Tower, but I do know something about the Tudors, and Henry VII was a calculating, greedy extortionist in a grasping, avaricious family with slight claims to the throne.

So cut away to Easter Sunday, 8 April, 1509:

Unable to eat and struggling for breath, Henry’s mind was fixated on the hereafter.  … emaciated and in intense pain, he staggered into his privy closet, where he dropped to his knees and crawled to receive the sacrament. … Pervading the carefully worded penitential formulas, [Bishop] Fisher later noted, was a sense that the king acknowledged and truly repented the depradations of his regime.  As Henry lay amid mounds of pillows, cushions and bolsters, throat rattling, gasmping for breath, he mumbled again and again to the clerics, doctors and secret servants around him – indeed, “freely,” to anyone within the close confines of the privy chamber – that “if it pleased God to send him life they should find him a changed man.”

When I read this passage last year, I remember other accounts of people who wished they’d done it differently, wished they could get another crack at it.  Irena Sendler, after saving 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto, was troubled at the end of her life, and slept restlessly, wondering … was there something more she could have done?  If Steven Spielberg is to be believed, Oskar Schindler wished the same, at war’s end – he regretted the sacrifices he could have made and didn’t.  Shakespeare’s Desdemona dies asking simply for one … more … moment…

Richard III’s end was violent and merciless, Henry VII’s was anguished. Sooner or later we’ll all hit the end of the road.  And there are worse places to find oneself than a car park.

Forgive the schmaltzy music, but here’s the last scene from Schindler’s List.

Postscript on 2/6:  We got some nice pick-up from 3quarksdaily on this – thanks Morgan Meis!