Richard III May Be Gone, But His Bones Remain

While everybody else is busy tweeting and texting and blogging and friending, the stolid citizens of Britain soldier on, using picks and shovels, digging up ancient airplanes in Myanmar, finding carrier pigeons with coded messages who died in chimneys during the Second World War, and this week, finding the bones of one of their ancient kings under a parking lot in Leicester.

What is it with these people? All of these things have happened in the last six months.

The digging down at the end of a runway in Myanmar, actually many, many runways, came about when an Englishman became fixated on a long ago order issued by Lord Mountbatten of England in 1945, which said that a large number of Spitfires, as many an 140, should be buried by the RAF as the Second World War was winding down. This Englishman, David Cundall, over the course of 17 years spent more than $200,000 searching with devices like magnetometers and ground radar to try to locate buried airplanes at the ends of various runways. Last autumn, he hit pay dirt—he announced he’d found 20 of them in the ground just past the end of one runway. What should he do with them? Some will be given to the government of Myanmar. Others will come back to England. Still others he will keep. It’s finders keepers.

Next came the carrier pigeon. This was an accident. A man in Surrey, England was in the process of restoring his fireplace. During the chimney renovation, he found the remains of a carrier pigeon with a little metal cylinder attached to its leg, inside of which a British officer had placed a rolled up message. The message was removed, unrolled and read—it was readable—dated 1944 but the rest was in code so the Nazis couldn’t read it if they grabbed the pigeon. So now everybody in England wants to know what it says. And this means they will have to find someone who can crack a code that was last used more than half a century ago.

Finally we come to Richard III. A woman, Philippa Langley, was doing a screenplay about his life. He was a miserable man, killing those around him who stood in his way to becoming the next king. One of Shakespeare’s plays is Richard III. It pretty much follows the worst of what is believed about him—from killing first Lady Anne’s husband, then his brother Clarence, then Lord Hastings, then the two crown princes, to make his way to the front of the line, although for artistic license, Shakespeare sometimes gets the killings out of order. Shakespeare also described Richard’s physical appearance—a small, slight man with a hunched back and a right shoulder higher than the left—a truly awful fellow, physically, who was just awful in every other way, too.

He was so awful that when he was 29 years old and finally did get to be crowned king, many people in his court, fearing for their lives, fled to France to team up with Hebnry Tudor, another prince who wanted the crown. Eventually, on August 22, 1485, the armies of the king met up with the armies of Henry Tudor for a big battle. It was called the Battle of Bosworth Field. During it, King Richard III was killed. And Henry Tudor declared himself King Henry VII, who was, as it turned out, a much nicer king. Richard III had only been king for two years. But they had had enough. According to stories about that battle, the body of Richard III was stripped naked and thrown into the nearby River Soar.

The woman doing the research about Richard III, however, came upon a description of the battle, written in Latin a few years after it was over, by John Rouse, in which it was said that monks from the nearby abbey took the king’s body away from the scene and had it carried 20 miles to be unceremoniously buried in a particular corner of the cemetery at Greyfriars Priory.

So which was it? He died and had been thrown in the river? Or he died and had been buried unceremoniously in an abbey graveyard? Philippa Langley wanted to know. The abbey, in ruins, still exists. Where the graveyard was is now a parking lot. They located the corner where the king was supposed to be. And they dug. And there he was.

Of course, they had to send DNA from his bones out to be studied. And they also had to come up with DNA today from one or two of his descendants. They found two. One was a 55-year-old Canadian-born furniture maker named Michael Ibsen. The other was a woman who has asked that she remain anonymous. Scrapings of their DNA were offered up. It would take weeks to find out if it matched.

Meanwhile, all the bones were assembled in a lab on a table. The king’s bones were practically all there. And by God, he did look like the king.

He was small and slight. He had a curved spine, which would have given him the hunchback. His right shoulder was higher than his left. His face was in a scowl. (No, that’s not right).

Scrapings were taken from his bones and studies made of them, not DNA studies, which showed that his diet had to have been rich in meat and fish—something that only the wealthy of that era could afford.

Also it was clear how he had been killed. His skull was crushed just behind where his right ear would have been. It had been hit by a heavy object, and considering the size of the injury and what we know today of the sorts of weapons people used when they went to war in 1485, he had been hit by a halberd, a long piece of wood with an axehead at the end. You could whack somebody from a good distance off, without getting close enough for them to grab you before you did it.

He was also stabbed several times in the face and chest which, people theorized, might have been done after he died by members of Tudor’s army who hated him. That would make sense.

The DNA sample came back a match. It was him. No doubt about it. The king is dead. And he got buried under a parking lot.

At the present time, the bones of Richard III lie on a piece of black velvet cushion in a glass case in a locked room in the library at Leicester University.

And a battle is looming over where to rebury him. Some want him back under the parking lot. Others want him reburied with the rest of the monarchs in Westminster Abbey in London. And still others want him buried in the cemetery next to Leicester’s popular Anglican Cathedral, which is 200 yards from the parking lot. They could open a visitors center at the cemetery. Do the king proud.

Of course there is, and has been  for many years, a Richard III Society. This is an organization dedicated to bringing justice to a man they have long felt has been misunderstood and damned.

“I think he wanted to be found,” said Langley, who is also a member of that society, to a reporter from The New York Times. “He was ready to be found and we found him, and now we can begin to tell the true story of who he was.”

Bring on the Spitfires and carrier pigeons.

Did you know that, in Hyde Park, there is a monument commemorating the great sacrifices made by our animals friends who aided their comrades during World War I and II?


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