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Ruth Marcus: A mystery fit for a king

BY RUTH MARCUS Published: February 10, 2013

Shakespeare would have loved this epilogue.

The bones of his most reviled villain, Richard III, unearthed in the decidedly unkingly venue of a public parking lot. The monarch's feet were missing — probably chopped off during the construction of a brick outhouse during Victorian times.

“The evil that men do lives after them” and all that — but you don't get more poetically just than being left to molder, coffinless, in a crudely dug grave scarcely big enough to hold the body.

The Richard story is compelling in part because archaeologists' ability to apply the tools of modern science to ancient history is so cool — if blended with a bit of tweedy showmanship.

“The next slide that I'm going to show you is a world first,” announced Richard Buckley, lead archaeologist at the University of Leicester, as cameras clicked on the photograph of Richard's bones.

The 500-year-old skeleton's spine is contorted with scoliosis and his right shoulder is higher than his left, echoing the Shakespearean image of Richard as hunchback.

It displays traces of halberd blows to the head and postmortem “humiliation wounds,” including a knife thrust upward through the buttocks. This gruesome evidence lends credence to the story of Richard, unhorsed and killed at Bosworth Field in 1485, having his body defiled by supporters of the victorious Henry Tudor.

The scientific evidence that linked the skeleton to Richard was multi-disciplinary. Analysis of the teeth showed a remarkably high-protein diet, rich in fish, indicative of a nobleman. Radio carbon-dating of a fragment of rib bone placed the date of death between 1455 and 1540.

Yet if science has its triumphs, history faces inevitable constraints and enduring mysteries. It is written by the victors, and Shakespeare was the ultimate Tudor spin doctor. A century after Richard's death, he portrayed him as a “lump of foul deformity.”

Shakespeare's Richard has young nephews murdered. He has his brother drowned in a vat of Malmsey wine. He seduces his wife after having killed her first husband and father-in-law, then eventually poisons her as well, scheming to marry a princess and cement his claim to the throne.

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