Reflections on Richard III

I have followed the progress of Richard III over the past two-and-a-half years with great interest ever since archaeologists discovered the body in September 2012 amidst the ruins of Greyfriars Church in Leicester, UK. Last week. after heated debates surrounding his reburial, he was reinterred at Leicester Cathedral with ceremony due a deceased monarch (those of us who could not attend can see the service here) in a wooden coffin created by a descendant of his sister, Anne of York. Being an American with a deep interest in Plantagenet and Tudor England, this whole journey from his discovery to his burial has been utterly fascinating. In a small way, it feels as if I’ve been able to view through a small window a piece of history.

I know that many, many debates and questions have arisen over the past three years. Some questioned whether or not the skeleton was Richard’s, even going so far as to question the DNA analysis and carbon dating methods used. This challenge has subsequently been addressed by Dr. Turi King who conducted the tests that methods and tests have been peer-reviewed and have accounted for any margins of error. My personal feeling is that if the science adds up beyond a reasonable doubt, and the conclusions are supported and verified by other professionals, then I trust their judgment. It’s easy to get caught up in the media hype, especially if one does not have all of the facts pertaining to the find. But I believe in good scientific proof, and this is what the archaeological team delivered.

Another interesting debate that has recently come up was over the DNA match. Mitochondrial DNA taken from cabinet-maker Michael Ibsen proved to be a match to Richard’s through the matrilineal line. Anne of York, from whom Ibsen is descended, was, as mentioned above, Richard’s sister. But the patrilineal DNA failed to match. Some immediately speculated that this meant that the skeleton was not Richard’s. Others have pointed out that this could also mean that the Plantagenet line of descent had been broken by illegitimacy. Either way, it raises some interesting questions.

Finally, others wonder if this means that we can get closer to solving the mystery of the Princes in the Tower. In 1483, Richard’s nephews, Edward V and his brother Richard, went missing in his care. No one knows what happened to them though theories abound. Some say they were murdered on Richard’s orders or Henry Tudor’s orders. Some say they may have succumbed to natural causes. Some say they were sent to live with their aunt Margaret of York in Burgundy who was married to the Duke of that then-country. With Richard’s discovery, people have been speculating on whether or not they should test bones that are purported to be those of the missing princes. Or, could it be possible to dig up other graves and investigate their remains? This certainly poses many ethical and logistical questions.

At the very bottom of all of this lies one very important fact: the discovery of Richard III has generated an increase in historical interest and discussion. Even those who are not historians by nature, training, or interest still find that they have much to say and may even become interested in learning more about Richard. What is so neat is that any major archaeological discovery is that it generates conversation, and at the end of the day, isn’t that what good history is all about?

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