The Long Winter of His Discontent

Hollywood producers and directors quite often choose their films’ heroes and villains according to their point of view and ideological and political proclivities. This is nothing new. Artists and writers have from time immemorial sought to propagandize through their works. Virgil’s Aeneid, for example, was a paean to the Roman Emperor Augustus’ provenance – the heroic Aeneas escaping from burning Troy to found Rome and a race of noble Romans.

So did William Shakespeare seek to ingratiate himself with the powers that be in his time. The history plays – the Henrys and the Richards – all recount the century-long internecine Cousins’ Wars, sometimes incorrectly referred to as the Wars of the Roses. These plays culminate with the Bard’s Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, Henry Tudor, rescuing England from the villainous murderer Richard III in 1485. Or so the eponymous play relates.

Shakespeare’s Richard III depicts the king as a ruthless, ambitious monster who had his nephews, the sons of the late King Edward IV, declared bastards, then imprisoned in the Tower and murdered so he could assume the throne. The play describes Richard as a deformed hunchback with a withered arm, “and that so lamely and unfashionable that dogs bark at me as I halt by them” that “since I cannot prove a lover … I am determined to prove a villain.” Bad guys in art and literature are described and depicted as physically ugly and/or deformed, while the good guys are handsome and beautiful. Victor Hugo tried to dispel that stereotype in the Hunchback of Notre Dame with mixed success. But that is another story.

King Richard’s short reign of 26 months ended when Henry Tudor, then Earl of Richmond, revolts and defeats him at Bosworth Field, near Leicester. Richard ignominiously tries to escape crying for “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.” Thus, Shakespeare seals the king’s reputation as a cowardly villain.

For centuries, only King John, who was so incompetent that he lost all of England’s lands in France, got crossways with the Pope that resulted in the latter forbidding church services in England during part of John’s, and oppressed his people and even the barons so much that they revolted and forced him to sign the Magna Carta, had a worse reputation than Richard III. And even John was buried in a tomb in Worcester Cathedral with some dignity. Richard was not. He was slain in battle, his body stripped naked, mutilated, and unceremoniously buried in Greyfriars church at Leicester without even the minuscule dignity of a shroud or wooden coffin. The church was destroyed during the English Reformation, and Richard’s resting place was lost to history.

Until this past week, that is. Some intrepid archaeologists and historians managed to find King Richard’s remains beneath a parking lot at the Greyfriars site. Phillipa Langley, a member of the Richard III Society, founded n 1924 promote research into the life and times of the king, led the search which last September uncovered a skeleton that was believed likely to be Richard’s. Yesterday, it was announced that the circumstances coupled with DNA tests, have confirmed these are Richard’s remains. While his spine shows severe scoliosis – curvature of the spine – no evidence of hunchback or a withered arm were was present.

It appears that plans to re-bury Richard’s remains in Leicester Cathedral are in the works. The Ricardians, as the Richard III buffs are known, will continue his rehabilitation. Now Richard’s long winter of discontent may be made a glorious summer by this sun of York, to paraphrase the opening lines of Shakespeare’s play, which, along with his others, and in spite of historical inaccuracy, will doubtless remain a rattling good yarn.

For more reading on this story see http://www.richardiii.net/

Note: The present Queen Elizabeth II is a collateral descendant of Richard III. Richard’s niece, Elizabeth of York, the daughter of King Edward IV, married Henry Tudor thus ostensibly uniting the Lancaster and York lines. Their daughter Margaret Tudor married James IV of Scotland. Margaret and James’ great-grandson became James I of England when the last Tudor, Queen Elizabeth, died. James’ daughter Elizabeth Stuart married the German Elector of the Palatinate. Her grandson became George I when the Stuart dynasty ended with Queen Anne’s death in 1714. With exception of three reigns totaling 18 years, since 1714 the English/British monarch has been a woman or a man named George.

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