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Unearthed
Richard III's remains unearthed; how about his reputation?

 Edmund Kean as Richard III.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
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Date published: 2/12/2013

UP FROM IGNOMINY: Now that King Richard III's body has been retrieved from under a parking lot in Leicester, England, will his reputation likewise be elevated?

All we Americans know about Richard III we learned from Shakespeare. He was a man misshapen in body and spirit, a power-mad usurper who blithely murdered his rivals and tossed his nephews in the Tower of London, never to be seen again. "Conscience is but a word that cowards use," he cries in "Richard III," sounding more like a 15th-century Hannibal Lecter than an exemplary leader.

But sophisticated 21st-century observers should also realize the limitations of fiction. Did "Hyde Park on Hudson" accurately depict FDR? Was "W." a clear view of George W. Bush? "The play's the thing," Shakespeare wrote, and, indeed, serving drama often involves departing from the truth to keep audiences happy. And so it may have been with Richard III.

Born in 1452, Richard lived in a time, says historian Charles Ross, "now seen as a ruthless and violent age as concerns the upper ranks of society, full of private feuds, intimidation, land-hunger, and litigiousness." Contending for the throne of England was a bloody occupation, one in which Richard was fully engaged from a young age. Richard was the last of the Plantagenets, the dynasty that had ruled England since 1154. A member of the House of York, he was, in fact, a "hunchback" (he had scoliosis), he did imprison his nephews, and he did kill his rivals. He may even have been manipulative.

But he also had a good legal mind: He instituted the principle of equal justice under the law and the concept of clear property titles; he reformed the jury system in his short two-year reign. And he was brave: The king died in the final battle of the War of the Roses defending his throne from Henry Tudor, whose official historian wrote, "King Richard, alone, was killed fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies."

The Tudors, who took over the crown, include Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, the "Good Queen Bess" of Shakespeare's day. Could pleasing her be why the Bard depicted Richard III as an evil monster happily overthrown by Henry Tudor?

The University of Leicester went in search of Richard's body, hastily buried in the graveyard of Church of the Grey Friars, a structure that vanished when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. Scientists using DNA evidence have positively identified the skeletal remains found under a parking lot as those of Richard III.

Now all that's left is for the Richard III Society to resurrect his reputation. "Truth is truth to the end of Reckoning," the Bard also wrote. Perhaps, now, it will emerge.