The Return of Ruthless Richard III

Clockwise from top left: Dan Kitwood/Getty; U Penn; Andreas Solaro, AFP/Getty; Robbie Jack/Corbis; U Penn; Radiological Society of North America, via AP

A king, one shoulder higher than the other (an armorer's nightmare), the golden circlet of the crown upon his helmet, is fighting for his life and his throne. Seeing the odds of a victory, which should have been his for the taking, suddenly shorten when his vanguard flounders in marshy ground, he has made a gambler's throw: a frontal charge at the enemy with a long column of his most loyal knights behind him, meant to smash its way to his rival and kill him. The wet ground has lost him his mount, but he is cutting his way through the bodies with a swinging battle ax. He makes for the standard bearer of the enemy, fells him. Surely, the Welshman, the Tudor who wants his crown, cannot be far behind. Another swing, another knight, much bigger than his own slight frame, goes crashing down in his clanking hardware. Now Richard is within feet of his quarry when it all goes wrong. A presumed ally, his troops held in reserve, perhaps sensing the shift in the day's fortunes, has thrown in his lot with the enemy and is attacking his rear; his scarlet-coated men throwing themselves into the fray. Everyone, all those men groaning and stumbling and hacking in the soft ground, feels the beginning of the end. Ranks of them close in on the king from whose helm the crown has ominously fallen. Defying everything and everyone, the king swings and flails, is engulfed, and a halberd slices through his helmet and into his brain. He sinks and folds and it is over. It is always finished when the leader of an army loses his life, for these thousands of men, knights and hardened men at arms, archers and gunners (for there were both cannon and harquebuses on Bosworth Field) are not fighting for an idea or a country, but for the person of the king who, in some way they don't ask themselves, is England.

The chronicles of the late 15th and early 16th centuries have told us this, but those histories were written either by, or to please, the victors. But now we have Richard III's story as written on his bones: a forensic romance. Not just the deep cleft in his skull where the halberd penetrated the helmet, but the marks of the subsequent indignities and mutilations inflicted on his corpse. It was always known that the new king, Henry Tudor, made sure to expose Richard's body for either two or three days (sources differ) in Greyfriars Abbey where it was deposited, and it may have been, as one of the histories describes, half-naked, its lower half covered merely by "a poor black cloth"—the ultimate humiliation for a king who had reveled in royal costume. The skeleton shows signs of lunging stab wounds through the right buttock, another targeted indignity and, more mysteriously, the body's feet are missing. Most dramatically of all, the backbone is curved like the blade of a scythe: the sign of "idiopathic" scoliosis, a condition that would have come upon the prince, Richard, as a boy and which would have thrust one shoulder up high enough for critics during and after his life to jeer at the deformity. Thomas More, whose unfinished biography is the first thrilling work of historical narrative—more a novel than a true history—and Shakespeare, who drew on More, may have been unjust in making Richard a monster, and there is no sign of the withered arm at the center of one of More's most dramatic and fanciful scenes. But the bones tell us they were right to picture Richard III as deformed, and entirely of their time to imagine what effect this might have on the self-consciousness of a noble steeped in the chivalric literature of manly perfection, and on those many who feared and hated him.

Richard's skeleton—the only royal remains to have gone missing since those of King Harold, the last Saxon king who died on the field of Hastings in 1066—has fleshed out his story. It has brought him back to life (a source of macabre satisfaction to the dead king) more materially and physically than anything mere words or portraits could accomplish. And, it seems, the more we live in a time of ephemeral tweets, fleeting fashion, and the airborne fluff of the contemporary, the more we crave companionship with our ancestry, to be able, as W.H. Auden put it, "to break bread with the dead." Trade historians like to imagine that the ubiquitous appetite for the past is somehow philosophical: the putting of urgent and serious questions designed to preempt the repetition of folly. But this has always been only a part of history's work. The other side has been essentially magical, paranormal: the revivification of the lost. This is why millions are spending time in the company of Daniel Day Lincoln, or in the brutal world of Hilary Mantel's necessary thug, Thomas Cromwell, or hanging on the rustle of the bustles in Downton Abbey. But all that striving: the spraying of grime and gore to get the "look" of a time right, is lame beside the raw truth of those bleached bones now laid out on black velvet in Leicester.

An illustrator imagines Richard III on a white horse in battle on the day of his death. Heritage Images/Corbis

But the truth they bring us to is, inevitably, incomplete, and does nothing whatsoever to vindicate the romantic heroism, battle wounds aside, that the Richard avatars have projected on the remains. "I'm sorry," said Philippa Langley, the driving force of the Richard III Society, which paid for the excavations and DNA analysis, on beholding the reconstructed face of the king, "but he just doesn't look like a tyrant." Just what she imagines an authentic despot to look like she didn't say. The Ricardians insist that their hero has been twice killed by the Tudors: once at Bosworth Field and many times thereafter by their hired pens. The Machiavellian monster of egotism—"I am for myself alone"—brought to life by Shakespeare's brilliant pen, was actually a champion of the poor; the impartial and honest dispenser of royal justice in the north of England and a paragon of Christian piety. In fact, just because the Ricardians—like groupies clinging to the jeans of a long-dead sexily wicked rock star—yearn for him to be wicked good, doesn't mean to say there isn't evidence to suggest that Richard did not have some of these qualities. But it's also likely that they went along with a streak of absolute ruthlessness, a willingness to do whatever it took to get the crown, including usurpation, proxy murder, and summary arrests and executions without even a gesture of judicial process. All this was in fact fair game in the Machiavellian playbook. The Prince was not written until 28 years after Richard's death, but attitudes to what needed to be done to establish oneself in unchallenged power—the benefit to oneself and to the commonwealth being the same thing—had not changed all that much. Describing Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli writes admiringly of his will "to protect himself from his enemies, to win allies, to conquer either by force or deceit, to make himself loved and feared by the people, to be followed and revered by his soldiers, to wipe out those who can do him harm." All of which makes Richard III neither antichrist nor paragon, but just a prince of his time.

And that time—the second half of the 15th century—was richly ambiguous. An ancient feudal world in which power was controlled by great landed magnates with their own armies that they might or might not deliver to the king; a world obsessed with honor, dynasty, bloodlines, was on its way out. Richard was the last English king to lead his troops in battle on native soil, and an exemplar of all the warrior qualities of the old chivalric rule book. What would replace it would be the embryo of the modern state run by bureaucrats, Rovean political strategists, and image-manipulators like Thomas Cromwell, and above all by men who knew how to generate, manage, and preserve revenue. Richard's victor, Henry VII, was famous for husbanding his resources and, perhaps, naturally stingy too, since he supplied exactly 10 miserable pounds for Richard's coffin. His own tomb, meanwhile, is the most magnificent in Westminster Abbey.

Richard, though, was not a relic of an obsolete political culture. It was precisely under the reign of his older brother Edward IV that the financial bureaucracy began to be professionalized. Governing the traditionally wild and woolly north of England, where the big boys of the aristocracy were very big indeed, Richard recruited and made use of upwardly aspirational gentry, many of them down on their fortunes but razor-sharp in their acumen, as well as the minor toffs who wouldn't swagger their way into conspiracies. It was this grasp of the future that paradoxically alienated the nobility who finally turned against him, including the Stanley family who betrayed him on Bosworth Field. (His last words were not anything to do with horses but, with absurd disingenuousness, "Treason! Treason!")

The royal bones were found beneath this parking lot in Leicester, England. Dan Kitwood/Getty

But there was the other side of Richard and his world, which both made him and broke him: a politically canny warlord who was, as the books of honor said, un chevalier sans peur et sans reproche: a knight without fear or reproach. On the fearless side, Richard was peerless. But reproaches would do him in.

His problem was the famous royal ancestor who had died 30 years before Richard was born, the man whom Shakespeare made the essence of the perfect knight and liege lord: Henry V. The early death of the impossibly ideal king had been a calamity. The French lands won by his famous conquests were all rapidly lost; the English crown became the cat's paw of feuding dynasts; and Henry VI, who succeeded as a child, grew to reveal himself as a mad, self-appointed saint. Richard was himself only 9 when his father, the Duke of York, went into revolt simply by virtue of the weakness of the king and his ownership by self-interested nobles. The duke was defeated and killed, leaving the cause to Richard's brother Edward who took the crown by force of arms, lost it, and then regained it—as the young, now visibly deformed (but famously dauntless) teenager whacked his way across the battlefields of England.

Richard had been a conscientious if estate-grabbing governor of the north for his brother for 12 years when, unexpectedly, Edward IV died in 1483, leaving yet another boy-king, 12 years old, as his successor. Uncle Richard had been named Protector. And the Machiavellian Question now asserted itself. Would England, which had endured decades of civil war, be allowed to collapse back into it, the child monarch the prey of the ambitious? Or, should a strong man do whatever it took to ensure this wouldn't happen? Was what followed all for Richard, or all for England? Who would make the distinction? Not him!

Wales Cardiff Castle Stained Glass window showing King Richard III and Anne Neville; a stone in Leicester Cathedral memorializes the infamous British monarch. Travelib Wales/Alamy, Rui Vieira/PA

But the means he used to create this rock-solid center of power and loyalty undid the end. The fear-love calculus is always a finely balanced thing—just ask any American politician, or Tony Soprano—and perhaps because of all the mayhem and massacre he had lived through, Richard erred on the side of terror. To his nephews he was the kind of Protector you needed protection from. A campaign was orchestrated to broadcast the news that they were in fact illegitimate, which would make Edward V, the uncrowned king of three months, unfit for coronation. Into the Tower they went, were seen by one witness playing in the yard, and were never heard from again, although the skeletons of two boys matching their ages were found near a staircase on the precincts in the late 17th century. Then came the chopping list of all who might get in the way of his kingship (Shakespeare was more or less accurate about this): the lords surrounding the boy's mother, Elizabeth; then one of his own supporters, Hastings, whom he suspected of going soft on the queen mother's party. All of them were bundled off to the scaffold without even a pretense of judicial process. Richard's own consigliere, Buckingham, was driven to a botched rebellion.

This was not terribly British, or rather English—for the Welsh in fact hated Richard and the Scots were at war with him. Parliament was craven, and the Church trembled and toed the line, for Richard was always ready to endow pious foundations and be the benefactor of Cambridge colleges. But even without the backward frisson of Tudor history, you have the distinct impression that all of the actors above did so in a state of sweaty fear and self-loathing. The historian John Rous, who had sung Richard's virtues when he was on the throne, was one of the most extravagant inventors of his demonology, including the story that his mother had carried him for two years and that he was born with teeth and shoulder-length hair.

The curved vertebrae are the results of adolescent scoliosis. University of Leicester/Demotix; via Corbis

Was anyone for the usurper? Certainly the north, and York in particular, which is why the minster wants his bones to be laid there as he himself would probably have wished. But the north was never enough, and its great magnates held their noses and looked the other way as Richard galloped off to Bosworth Field and his last bloody hurrah.

That little pile of bones gives us something more than a costume drama, eternally thrilling though that is. At its center is the Machiavellian man who tried to fit his contorted form into the guise of both the archaic and the modern roles he (and by his own calculation England) needed: warlord and consummate politician; the embodiment of both terror and benevolence. All his Tudor successors felt the same way. The difference was that they made sure to get others to do the dirty bits for them while they appeared to rise like royal angels above the blood and the lies. Plus ça change, as Dickon might have said, his long-jawed skull grinning beneath the car park.