The Lit Maven

The Thrill of Discovery

Posted on: March 12, 2013

Every now and then, I read my way past celebrity foul-ups, military offensives and warnings of the latest computer viruses in the news and find something that really captures my interest.  In February, it was the confirmation of the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton underneath a parking lot in Leicester, England.  The actual discovery was in September 2012.  I didn’t even know he was missing but professors at the University of Leicester did – for quite a while!  They documented it on the University’s website.  As usual when the unexpected captures my attention, I thought up more questions than were answered in the articles, videos and press releases. Some of the questions answered included:  1) How did they know it was Richard III? Mitochondrial DNARichard III SculptureThe testers found Michael Ibsen (descended directly from Anne of York, Richard’s sister) who didn’t know he was related until a team of specialists showed up at his door with a Q-Tip.  2) What was Richard doing in Leicester? Fighting the Battle of Bosworth Field during the War(s) of the Roses.  He was the last of the Plantagenet line and the last English monarch to die in battle.  3) Why wasn’t he buried in London? The battleground was close to Leicester, home of the Grey Friars monastery that had a convenient little cemetery next door.  Monks + Cemetery = Instant Burial!  No need for formaldehyde that day!  4) How did they know where to find the skeleton?  There are historic records indicating that the body was taken to the friary and buried inside either at the altar or near the choir area. It certainly didn’t help that Henry VIII had the church destroyed during his reign.  So that takes care of the answered questions. Now to the unanswered:  While the construction workers were laying the parking lot, didn’t anybody notice bones — especially since they knew there had been a cemetery there?  The bones were found fairly well intact. Wasn’t there anyone – ANYONE – who noticed that Richard never returned to London after the battle?  His valet, his cook, his wife – his subjects?  Sure, someone knew he died, but was there no one interested in having his body returned to Ye Olde Plantagenet Family Crypt?  Love him or hate him, he was the ruling king, after all.  And, if they knew exactly where he was buried, why didn’t they leave a note for the long-suffering Leicester professors to find buried under a rock on the side of the parking lot?  Answer:  Richard was fighting for his throne against Henry VII.  He lost, Henry won. End of story, end of the 30-year War of the Roses and end of the Plantagenets. The ever-generous Henry VII did pay for a plaque that was hung in the church indicating that this was Richard III’s burial ground (after he displayed Richard’s naked and humiliated body to the citizens of Leicester as proof of death).  The plaque has not been found to date. These questions intrigue me, but not as much as imagining the feeling of those present who saw the bones for the first time after 600 years of internment.  As Rod Serling would say, “Imagine if you will…” Phillipa Langley, a screenwriter and originator of the Looking for Richard Project, sums it up very nicely in the UK’s Guardian on February 5.  So, after he is poked, prodded, tested, massaged, chronicled and documented, Richard III’s remains will return to the ground at Leicester Cathedral.  The controversy surrounding him, however, will continue.  Do we believe the Shakespeare version or was Richard not that bad, a victim of Tudor gloating?  I’ll leave that up to the scholars. For now, the king can be laid to rest – again.

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