Skip to main content

Richard still the criminal king

By Dan Jones, Special to CNN
February 6, 2013 -- Updated 1800 GMT (0200 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dan Jones: Richard III's remains found; some see chance to redeem his bad reputation
  • Jones says the bones reveal and confirm his appearance, how he died and his injuries
  • Nothing changes his rep as a usurper of the crown who likely had nephews killed, Jones says
  • Jones: Richard good or bad? Truth likely somewhere in between

Editor's note: Dan Jones is a historian and newspaper columnist based in London. His new book, "The Plantagenets" (Viking), is published in the U.S. this spring. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Richard III is the king we British just can't seem to make our minds up about.

The monarch who reigned from 1483 to 1485 became, a century later, the blackest villain of Shakespeare's history plays. The three most commonly known facts of his life are that he stole the crown, murdered his nephews and died wailing for a horse at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. His death ushered in the Tudor dynasty, so Richard often suffers the dual ignominy of being named the last "medieval" king of England -- in which medieval is not held to be a good thing.

Like any black legend, much of it is slander.

Richard did indeed usurp the crown and lose at Bosworth. He probably had his nephews killed, too; it is unknowable but overwhelmingly likely. Yet as his many supporters have been busy telling us since it was announced Monday that Richard's lost skeleton was found in a car park in Leicester, he wasn't all bad. In fact, he was for most of his life loyal and conscientious.

Dan Jones
Dan Jones

To fill you in, a news conference held at the University of Leicester on Monday confirmed what archaeologists working there have suspected for months: that a skeleton removed from under a parking lot in the city center last fall was indeed the long-lost remains of Richard III.

News: Richard III: Is this the face that launched 1,000 myths?

His official burial place -- under the floor of a church belonging to the monastic order of the Greyfriars -- had been lost during the dissolution of the monasteries that was carried out in the 1530s under Henry VIII. A legend grew up that the bones had been thrown in a river. Today, we know they were not.

What do the bones tell us?

Well, they show that Richard -- identified by mitochondrial DNA tests against a Canadian descendant of his sister, Anne of York -- was about 5-foot-8, suffered curvature of the spine and had delicate limbs. He had been buried roughly and unceremoniously in a shallow grave too small for him, beneath the choir of the church.

He had died from a slicing blow to the back of the head sustained during battle and had suffered many other "humiliation injuries" after his death, including having a knife or dagger plunged into his hind parts. His hands may have been tied at his burial.

Opinion: What will the finding of Richard III mean?

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



In other words, we have quite a lot of either new or confirmed biographical information about Richard.

He was not a hunchback, but he was spindly and warped. He died unhorsed. He was buried where it was said he was buried. He very likely was, as one source had said, carried roughly across a horse's back from the battlefield where he died to Leicester, stripped naked and abused all the way.

All this is known today thanks to a superb piece of historical teamwork.

The interdisciplinary team at Leicester that worked toward Monday's revelations deserves huge plaudits. From the desk-based research that pinpointed the spot to dig, to the digging itself, to the bone analysis, the DNA work and the genealogy that identified Richard's descendants, all of it is worthy of the highest praise. Hat-tips, too, to the Richard III Society, as well as Leicester's City Council, which pulled together to make the project happen and also to publicize the society and city so effectively.

However, should anyone today tell you that Richard's skeleton somehow vindicates his historical reputation, you may tell them they are talking horsefeathers.

News: Back from the grave, King Richard III gets rehab

In the wake of Richard III's remains being discovered, take a look at some of the thespians who have brought the historical character to life. In this photograph: Kevin Spacey in "Richard III" for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, 2012. In the wake of Richard III's remains being discovered, take a look at some of the thespians who have brought the historical character to life. In this photograph: Kevin Spacey in "Richard III" for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, 2012.
Richard III on stage and screen
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
>
>>
Photos: Richard III on stage and screen Photos: Richard III on stage and screen
Skeletal remains are of Richard III
Skeletal remains are of Richard III
The king in the parking lot
Quest: 'Pauper's grave for a King'

Richard III got a rep for a reason. He usurped the crown from a 12-year old boy, who later died.

This was his great crime, and there is no point denying it. It is true that before this crime, Richard was a conspicuously loyal lieutenant to the boy's father, his own brother, King Edward IV. It is also true that once he was king, Richard made a great effort to promote justice to the poor and needy, stabilize royal finances and contain public disorder.

But this does not mitigate that he stole the crown, justifying it after the fact with the claim that his nephews were illegitimate. Likewise, it remains indisputably true that his usurpation threw English politics, painstakingly restored to some order in the 12 years before his crime, into a turmoil from which it did not fully recover for another two decades.

So the discovery of Richard's bones is exciting. But it does not tell us anything to justify changing the current historical view of Richard: that the Tudor historians and propagandists, culminating with Shakespeare, may have exaggerated his physical deformities and the horrors of Richard's character, but he remains a criminal king whose actions wrought havoc on his realm.

Unfortunately, we don't all want to hear that. Richard remains the only king with a society devoted to rehabilitating his name, and it is a trait of some "Ricardians" to refuse to acknowledge any criticism of their hero whatever. So despite today's discovery, we Brits are likely to remain split on Richard down the old lines: murdering, crook-backed, dissembling Shakespearean monster versus misunderstood, loyal, enlightened, slandered hero. Which is the truth?

Somewhere in between. That's a classic historian's answer, isn't it? But it's also the truth.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Jones.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1812 GMT (0212 HKT)
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 2124 GMT (0524 HKT)
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2331 GMT (0731 HKT)
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2350 GMT (0750 HKT)
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2300 GMT (0700 HKT)
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2031 GMT (0431 HKT)
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT