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Derek Coleman: Buried skeleton turns out to be remains of king

Feb. 15, 2013 @ 11:40 AM

As you may know, I am an avid student of history, but you may be less aware that I also like unraveling a good mystery or crime story. For this reason I have been closely following something that has been developing in the town of Leicester in England, since last September.

It has all the stuff of legend. There are the deaths of three kings, a wicked uncle, a crown stolen, child murders, a war, a great battle and the end of a dynasty.

It all began in the year 1483 when King Edward IV of England died at the age of 41. We are not sure what killed him. It may have been typhoid or pneumonia, but these were turbulent times and it could equally well have been poison.

Whatever the cause of his demise, his death left a problem. He had several children but only two were boys who could inherit — Edward, who was 12 years old, and 9-year-old Richard of Shrewsbury. According to English law, the young Edward automatically became King Edward V on the death of his father but, because of his age, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the boy’s uncle, was appointed as guardian.

The new boy king was lodged at the Tower of London in May of 1483 and in June, his brother joined him. Meanwhile, Uncle Richard had persuaded Parliament to declare Edward IV’s marriage illegal and this automatically made the boy king and his brother illegitimate. As such, they could not inherit the throne and that meant good old Uncle Richard was declared King Richard III instead.

Politics were dirty in those days. It is not known how much the boys knew about what was going on, but merely by existing they were a danger to their uncle. They were observed playing at the Tower in the early part of the summer but as fall approached they disappeared.

There was no formal accusation or investigation. The two young Princes simply vanished from public view and were never seen again. Popular belief has always held their Uncle Richard killed them to secure the throne for himself but there are other candidates for the evil deed.

Like all powerful men, the new king had friends who perhaps thought they might gain favor by removing a threat to Richard’s kingdom. One such was Sir James Tyrrell, Richard’s friend, who was named by many as the murderer. He is said to have confessed to the crime later while under torture but who would not? Richard also had enemies of course. The chief among these was Henry Tudor, who had a rival claim to the throne. Could he possibly have been cunning enough to have ordered the young Prince’s deaths to undermine Richard’s support? We will never know.

What we do know is that two years after Richard was crowned, Henry Tudor landed in Wales and raised an army. Richard gathered his own force and marched until eventually the two sides clashed at Bosworth Field near Leicester.

Richard’s men outnumbered Henry’s,but as I said, medieval politics was a dirty business and some of the king’s force hung back to see which way the battle was going. It swung in Henry’s favor, Lord Stanley decided to commit his men against the king and Richard was unhorsed and killed on the edge of a marsh. He fought bravely, but after his death his body was stripped naked and was taken to Leicester where it lay in a church for two days for all to see. After that the popular belief was that the dead king was taken by the mob and thrown into the river but a rumor persisted that he was actually buried near the altar in a local friary.

Richard’s family name was Plantagenet. They had ruled England for more than 270 years, but he was the last of his line, and the Tudor dynasty — which would bring us Henry VIII and Elizabeth I — now began. Forty years later, the friary where Richard lay was destroyed and about a hundred years after that, the skeletons of two young children were found hidden in the Tower of London. These were transferred to Westminster Abbey and given a proper Christian burial.

So there the story ended. Shakespeare wrote a play making Richard the arch villain, Henry Tudor the hero and history pretty much remembered them that way. That has not changed, but there is a new twist to the tale.

Last September, archeologists from the University of Leicester began digging up a parking lot in the city to try to find the remains of the old friary. They succeeded, but they also found a skeleton. In life, Richard III was described as small boned, almost effeminate, with a markedly curved spine. The skeleton found matched these characteristics and also bore the marks of ten battle wounds, including several to the head and face.

Carbon dating confirmed that the bones came from a man who had died toward the end of the 15th century. The skeleton was found in what was thought to be the right place and bore the signs of violent death. There was one way to make sure. The archeologists found a furniture maker in England and his brother in Canada named Jeff and Michael Ibsen who can prove their ancestry back 17 generations to a lady named Anne of York. She was the elder sister of Richard III.

DNA tests were done and the results were announced on Feb. 4. The body lying beneath the parking lot in a small town in the middle of England is definitely that of King Richard III.

What does this mean for world history? Nothing. We still do not know if Richard was a child killer and never will. He is to be reburied later in the year in Leicester Cathedral where, no doubt, his tomb will attract visitors for years to come. And so it should — it’s not every day you find a long dead king’s bones. Or is it? The researchers are now looking in Winchester for the remains of King Alfred the Great and I, for one, will be watching that project with equal interest.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.