William Langley attempts to discover the real truth about Richard III, Shakespeare's pantomime villain
The reign of Richard III was short and accident-prone but far worse rulers are more kindly remembered, and none have suffered the indignity of being dug up from beneath a municipal car park.
The discovery of ancient bones in Leicester city centre last week caused worldwide excitement. Not least in the home of Michael Ibsen, a 55-year-old Canadian furniture maker, who is believed to be Richard's closest living descendant. "I really hope it is him," said Mr Ibsen, who has agreed to provide a DNA sample. "I feel stunned. It's one thing to have in some way a link to history. It's another altogether to be directly involved in something of such significance."
Things may not be as thrilling as Mr Ibsen imagines. Even before he visited the site, he had encountered pub bores bent double with their jackets hoicked over the heads, cackling: "Now is the winter of our discontent."
This is the problem with Richard. Everyone knows the stage villain. Hardly anyone knows the king.
"Hell's black intelligencer" scuttles tarantula-like through Shakespeare's play, scheming, seducing, settling scores and racking up a higher body-count than a Scorsese movie. By the time it all ends on Bosworth Field in 1485, Richard is established as the greatest monster in literature, the model for everyone from Freddie Krueger to Lord Voldemort. Hardly surprisingly, no English heir to the throne has been christened Richard since.
The " Beast of Bosworth's" ability to fascinate is not in doubt. Neither is the brilliance of Shakespeare's creation. The problem is whether the real Richard bore any resemblance to the writhing psycho we see on stage. Ricardians -- as the king's modern supporters are known -- believe he was stitched up by the incoming Tudors, who found the blackening of Richard's name, and by extension the whole Plantagenet line, politically useful.
Certainly, the attacks on Richard's character began within days of his death. The victorious Henry Tudor -- later crowned Henry VII -- laid a string of accusations against his fallen predecessor, culminating in the charge that Richard had murdered his two nephews, Edward and Richard, the Princes in the Tower, to clear his path to the throne. The Tudor propaganda machine was sophisticated for its time, and had some success in portraying Richard, as the literary critic Stephen Greenblatt says, "as a monster of evil, a creature whose moral viciousness was vividly stamped on his twisted body".
The lasting damage, though, was done by Shakespeare a century later. It is no secret that the Bard was a better playwright than historian, and with Henry's granddaughter, Elizabeth, on the throne, he had a vested interest in giving poor Richard both barrels. The king he came up with was an "abortive, rooting hog", a "lump of foul deformity", a "poisonous, bunch-backed toad", and a sexual inadequate. "Since I cannot prove a lover," he tells himself, "I'm determined to prove a villain."
And so, of course, he does. Today, the Richard III Society, which has been closely involved in the Leicester dig, maintains a "reputation management" section on its website. Part of the cagily worded text reads: "In the process of trying to manage the reputation of Richard III, the society has to be careful that it is not seen as some sort of dedicated 'fan club' who will not have anything said against its 'hero'. The society encourages the view that it is not possible to use current social values to judge medieval monarchs and their actions and it seeks to find the truth."
The core problem for the king's supporters is that their man has -- at the very least -- a strong case to answer. Richard had both the means and a motive to kill the princes. He produced neither alibi nor explanation for their sudden disappearance and there is significant circumstantial evidence connecting him to their deaths. The princes were firmly in his custody at the time. It would have been difficult for anyone to have removed them from the Tower without Richard's authority. One of his court favourites, Sir James Tyrell, the Master of the Horse confessed, 17 years after Richard's death, that he and two other men had committed the murders on the king's orders. Then there is the damning contribution of Sir Thomas More, the incorruptible and later canonised Lord Chancellor, who, 30 years after Richard's death, wrote a history of the period, in which Richard is portrayed as a villain of the first order.
The question of Richard's guilt has occupied academic, literary and judicial minds ever since. The historian Alison Weir, in her book, The Princes in the Tower, concludes that "only Richard could have been responsible for their deaths", while the famed Hollywood attorney, Bert Fields, who carried out a private investigation and wrote Royal Blood, believes the charge would never stand up in court.
"Richard didn't know the princes very well," says Fields. "He probably met them only four or five times in his life. But they were his brother's children and I find it hard to believe, knowing what we do of his character -- which was basically decent and marked with intelligence -- that he would have done anything so foul. He lacked what lawyers call the proclivity to kill; he didn't have it in him."
Richard's reign lasted only 25 months, and while he managed some lasting achievements, including an expansion of rights to justice and freedom of expression, he was essentially a bungler, who made needless enemies and a complete tactical botch of the Battle of Bosworth.
If the skeleton in Leicester, with its telltale twisted spine and battle wounds, proves to be Richard, protocol will demand that he be reburied with full state honours. Assuming the British can agree that he deserves them.