My kingdom for a hatchback! Richard then and now

Peter Jackson
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I’m still having trouble with this Richard III thing.

First, how does someone stand on a piece of asphalt and get a hunch that the remains of a 500-year-old king are underfoot?

Philippa Langley, a filmmaker and active member of the Richard III Society, says she was walking through a town parking lot in Leicester in August 2009 when she felt a “chill.”

 “It was a hot summer and I had goosebumps so badly and I was freezing cold,” she told the Sunday Times. “I walked past a particular spot and absolutely knew I was walking on his grave.”

It helps, of course, that she was engrossed in thoughts about a Richard III screenplay she was writing.

It’s also no small coincidence that experts had already determined the car park was on the probable site of the lost church of Grey Friars, whose priests claimed to have interred Richard in a crude grave.

No matter. Langley felt a ghost. A little embellishment never goes astray when you’re unearthing medieval bones.

Second, how does one get DNA from a 500-year-old corpse?

Carbon dating I can understand. Scientists have long been able to estimate time of death from any organic material.

But DNA? How many times have you heard about a murder case where 20-year-old DNA was “too degraded” to get a reading? This murder victim is 500 years old. Not even the cast of “Bones” could do anything with that, other than create fancy computer graphics and sleep with each other.

Not only that, but matching the DNA to some bloke from Ontario? Boggles the mind. Shouldn’t this fellow be a duke or something?

The silliest facet of all this is how Langley and her colleagues seem convinced this discovery will somehow serve to mitigate Richard’s bad reputation. I don’t see how a bag of old bones is going to do that.

Yes, you can reconstruct the face and give him soft skin and a stylish moustache. You can make him look like Johnny Depp or Daniel Day-Lewis. Good looks hardly pre-empt bad acts.

True, it turns out he had scoliosis rather than a hunchback. So his contemporaries weren’t good at distinguishing human deformities. Whether it’s a lumpy back or a raised shoulder, it hardly matters when some fair-skinned royal is stabbing you in the back.

I only lay claim to a potted history of Richard III, but it strikes me most of the stories about him are true — murdering heirs and such. This was a different time, after all. You could hardly expect him to be sipping tea and tending to his organic garden.

Talk about reputations, let’s look at another ruler from roughly the same time. Vlad the Impaler was considered a hero to the Bulgarian people, and he went around impaling enemies like marshmallows on a stick. He impaled them.

The things people will overlook.

Shakespeare didn’t think highly of the last of the Plantagenets.

His Richard was a brutish sort, given to tantrums and violent outbursts.

At one point in his play, Shakespeare has Richard growing ever impatient as two messengers arrive to report armed masses are gathering against him.

A third messenger enters.

“My lord, the army of the Duke of Buckingham …”

“Out on you, owls!” howls the king. “Nothing but songs of death?” He gives the third lad a good wallop.

“The news I have to tell your majesty is, that by sudden floods and fall of waters, Buckingham’s army is dispersed and scatter’d,” replies the messenger.

Oops. To compensate, Richard offers the boy his purse — by which I assume Shakespeare means a male carry-all. If I were that messenger, I’d have called my shop steward.

Later, in the heat of battle, Richard utters his most famous line:

“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse.”

No small irony he ended up buried under a corral for horseless carriages.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s

commentary editor.


Geographic location: Leicester, Ontario

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Recent comments

  • Colin Burke
    February 20, 2013 - 13:28

    Wondering, loving one's enemy is not always inconsistent with killing him in fair fight, as people mostly fought, or knew at least that they ought to fight, in Richard's time. Anyone who kills deserves to be killed, and it would be charitable to assume that both Henry and Richard believed that the other deserved to be killed. At least Richard was more ready than Henry to risk being killed in an effort to deal out what he deemed his enemy deserved. Wanting people to have what they deserve, rather than giving them everything they want, is real love, at least if one wants them to have it because they deserve it and not just because they won't like it.

  • Wondering
    February 20, 2013 - 09:58

    Colin, Do you not praise Christainity, where one should love his enemy? Yet you praise Richard's guts and logic.

  • Colin Burke
    February 20, 2013 - 08:58

    Richard at least had the guts and sense of logic to challenge his Tudor rival, a mere Welsh upstart, to settle their respective claims by fighting it out in single combat, which the craven Tudor cravenly declined.