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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2252

Richard III: the English king who personified mystery

Hemantha Abeywardena writes from London…

Archaeologists confirmed on Monday that the skeletal remains that they found deep down in a car park in Leicester, England were those of late King Richard III. With a perfect match of the DNA from a direct descendant along the maternal line, the expert from Leicester University triumphantly declared that the remains were of the late king beyond reasonable doubt.

For those of us who only knew about Richard in the acronym, ‘Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain’, as a way of remembering the seven colours of solar spectrum in the junior school, the news brought in a wave of enthusiasm to explore one of the most turbulent parts of the English history, which, more or less, determined its very existence.

The exact burial place of Richard III, who died in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 amidst brutal hand-to-hand combat, has been a mystery for generations of historians – up until this week. The warrior king, according to patchy records, had met his rival, Henry Tudor, while commanding a relatively larger army than that of the latter in the field of Bosworth, Leicestershire in England. Unfortunately, the king met his fate, despite being at a strategic advantage during the battle more than once, while bringing his rival to a few inches from death.

Historians believe he was dragged down to the burial place after the death in a churchyard, most probably without clothes or a coffin. The archaeologists, who carried out the painstaking search, believe the absence of any traces of clothing and the relatively small space where the body was found, support this theory.

The pendulum of the reputation of the king Richard III has been oscillating between ruthlessness and heroism over the delicate needle of controversy. According to the admirers of Richard III, who represent the Richard III society, he has been unfairly vilified by Tudor clan in order to eclipse their own catalogue of horrors, although they admit that he was far from a saint in the context of contemporary medieval political culture. They, however, hold the view that the fact he died in battle shows Richard III was a true warrior king who led the battle from the front.

The bone of contention – to love or loathe the king – mainly stems from the sudden disappearance of the two royal princes, who happened to be the nephews of Richard III while in his care. The two young princes, who used to live in Tower of London with Richard III being their protector, had suddenly vanished without a trace, the incident which, more or less, defined the legacy of the late king.

Historians believe they were smothered with a pillow while asleep, before their remains were disposed of. The two princes - the sons of his late brother – had been declared as bastards before taking them into his care - in a carefully-orchestrated plan while citing the illegitimacy of their birth. His admirers, however, do not agree; they say that the fact he took them into care, shows that he showed compassion in their hour of need.

The attempt by Richard III, to sweep the disappearance of the young princes under the carpet by not accounting for it, left a huge question mark over the bequest of the late king, although, he had taken some progressive steps to alleviate the suffering of his subjects during his short reign. The particular portrayal of him - as an evil hunchback, whose only ambition was seeking power - in Shakespeare’s play, ‘The Tragedy of King Richard the Third’ , did an irreversible damage to what was left of his reputation for centuries.

Shakespeare’s very observation – the deformed spine of the king – however, ultimately proved immensely valuable to the team of archaeologists who had been working tirelessly in locating his grave for four years. Much to their delight, one obvious form of identification was the shape of the spine in his final resting place. In addition, the majority of wounds were found in his skull, fully consistent with the historical evidence.

The location of the penurious grave of Richard III was brought about, thanks to the tireless effort by one woman of the Richard III society. Phillipa Langley’s fiercely-determined quest to find the grave of the controversial king, ultimately, resulted in the monumental discovery of the grave, despite many odds against it.
It was her hunch, not the scientific techniques, which located the burial place in an unlikely place – underneath a car park; modern science came later on, to complement the job with the involvement of X-rays, radar and carbon dating, facial reconstruction techniques, DNA tests and even CT scans.

According to Ms Langley, a trained archaeologist herself and a die-hard admirer of Richard III, she felt an inexplicable chill while walking over the area in question – and on a very hot summer day!

In Sunday Times, Ms Langley described the breakthrough: 'It was a hot summer and I had goose bumps so badly and I was freezing cold. I walked past a particular spot and absolutely knew I was walking on his grave. I am a rational human being, but the feeling I got was the same feeling I have had before when a truth is given to me.'

Mrs Langley’s involvement in the project, along with other professionals in various roles, was aired on Monday on a documentary about the search for Richard III on Channel 4. There were a few times in the documentary, when Mrs Langley became thoroughly emotional at the various nail-biting moments of the search, as if she was the reincarnation of the widow of the late king; her teammates were seen running to offer her comfort during those turbulent times throughout the documentary.

The members of the Richard III society are planning a royal burial for the late king. Neither the British government nor the Buckingham Palace has issued the official position in a press release, while maintaining an understandable silence.

Michael Ibsen, the Canadian-born furniture trader who provided the investigation team with the crucial swab for the DNA test as a direct descendant of the king’s sister, meanwhile has ruled out a claim for the British throne. “I think our chances are long gone,” Mr lbsen has simply admitted while expressing his humble opinion.

- Asian Tribune -

Richard III: the English king who personified mystery
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