The Dry Bones of Richard III

Richard III

Richard III

Yesterday it was announced that scientists and researchers have now confirmed that the remains found under a parking lot in Leicester, England are those of King Richard III. He was king of England for just a few years in the mid- to late-fifteenth century. Nevertheless, news of the recovery of his dry bones splattered across the internet, cable TV and newspapers.

By all accounts Richard III was a bad man. He almost certainly killed his nephews–first making them disappear into the Tower of London, then causing them never to be seen again. And it’s no secret he arranged for the removal of his sister-in-law’s family because they stood in his way to success.

Shakespeare’s Richard III says such charming things as

“And thus I clothe my naked villany
With odd old ends stolen out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.”

and

“And therefore, — since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days, —
I am determined to prove a villain,
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”

and, perhaps most sinister of all,

“Why, I can smile and murder whiles I smile,
And cry ‘content’ to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face for all occasions”

Even if you strip away the distortions of Richard by his successors, the Tudors, there’s still a whole lot of bad in the record to lay a dark shadow across his reign.

According to the chroniclers and now the scientific evidence, Richard died dramatically. His skeletal remains show evidence of at least ten wounds, two of which were devastating blows to the head. Some of the wounds were clearly meant to be humiliating–like the one indicating a sword thrust to the right buttock. Richard was the last British king to die in battle and his bones demonstrate the horror of it.

Henry Tudor

Henry Tudor

On the battlefield that day, Henry Tudor essentially became king. Although there was no way for him or anyone else to know it, his dynasty would reign for more than a hundred years and would change England forever. Under the Tudors, the religious change that swept the continent was welcomed into Britain. The medieval monarchy faded into the past as England accepted the Renaissance, the Reformation and the rise of the modern nation-state into its island home.

These transformations brought about by the Tudors undoubtedly affected my family. Even calculating conservatively, I had thousands of direct ancestors in Britain at the time. I have thousands–if not tens of thousands–of great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers of various degrees who were subjects of Richard III and then citizens of England under the Tudors.

For now, my ancestors’ experiences in the fifteenth century lie beyond my view. I’m not sure if any fought with Richard or Henry at the Battle of Bosworth. I don’t know if any were of such status that they might have even met one of the kings.

But I can say with relative certainty that the changes under the Tudors affected my family in at least one significant way. Almost all my ancestors were Dissenters–men and women who chose to worship in a way that differed from the royal imperative. Some were Quakers; others were Presbyterians; a few were probably Puritans. None of these options would have even been possible without the changes in the religious sphere that occurred under the Tudors.

Another possible impact the Tudors had on my family is geographical. It was under the Tudors that the process of plantation–specifically the Ulster Plantation–sped up. Although the idea of settling loyal English subjects in Scotland and Ireland dates back to as early as Henry II’s reign in the twelfth century, the real momentum for such forced (or heavily encouraged) emigration came under the Tudors. I have no doubt that many of my ancestors moved from England to Scotland or Ireland under the Tudors. And that migration planted the seed for future movements that would find them ultimately living in America.

Historians argue over how and why things change. For some, it is the people of history and their decisions that make all the difference. For others, it’s the ideas that gain strength and currency until they wash over societies like a tidal wave, regardless of any individual or his decisions.

Whatever you believe about historical causation, it’s intriguing to think how different our world may have looked–especially from the vantage point of my family–if Richard III had not died that day at Bosworth. If Henry Tudor had not made it to the throne, would England have experienced the religious transformations as it did?  Would Dissenters exist?  Would the Puritans and Quakers and Presbyterians have had any reason to flee overseas and found a new land of religious freedom?

Richard’s bones are dry.  His decisions lie buried in the distant past.  But I can’t help but think my life would be different without him.

— — —

See this BBC story for more about the wounds to Richard and for links to other articles about the discovery of his bones:  Richard III dig: Grim clues to the death of a king.

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2 Responses to The Dry Bones of Richard III

  1. pokedpotato says:

    Awesome post! I have been completely enthralled lately with all the old royalty of England/France, etc. I’m in the completely wrong time period & country, compared to Richard III (have been rereading all 5ish of The Three Musketeers series several time…), and of course fiction, not quite real, but it fascinates me enough to do a little research about what really happened. Richard III sounds like an awful person. That is neat to think how history affected your ancestors. Thanks for the good read!

  2. bronxboy55 says:

    It’s always fascinating to consider — or at least try to imagine — the countless decisions and events that, if changed in any meaningful way, would produce dramatically different outcomes many years into the future. It makes my head spin.

    Henry does look like a much nicer guy.

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