Discovery of remains fuels royal debate

  • Article by: ANTHONY FAIOLA , Washington Post
  • Updated: December 1, 2012 - 4:14 PM

Unearthed bones thought to be those of long-lost Richard III are stirring up questions about his legacy.

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ADDS TRANSMISSION NUMBER - Undated University of Leicester handout photo of a stone frieze, which may have been from a choir stall, which was discovered during an excavation of the car park behind council offices in Leicester, made available Wednesday Sept. 12, 2012. Archaeologists searching under the city center car park for the lost grave of Britain's King Richard III have discovered human remains. Bones unearthed during the dig have been sent for DNA testing and the experts hope that they turn out to be those of the medieval king. Contemporary chronicles say Richard's body was brought to Leicester, 100 miles (160 kms) north of London, after the king was killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

Photo: University Of Leicester, Associated Press - Ap

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Tyrant or hero? Rightful monarch or child-killer? Despotic hunchback or brave scoliosis sufferer?

Now is the winter of our debate over one of England's most notorious villains: Richard III.

Under a parking lot 90 miles northwest of London, archaeologists have unearthed what may become one of this nation's finds of the century -- half-a-millennium-old bones thought to be the remains of the long-lost monarch. But if the discovery has touched off a feverish round of DNA tests against his closest living descendants, it has also lurched to the surface a series of questions in a country where even arcane points of history are disputed with gusto.

What was the true nature of a king depicted by William Shakespeare as a twisted soul who locked his young nephews -- and rivals -- in the Tower of London, never to be heard from again? Did Shakespeare offer a fair accounting of record, or was the Bard a spin doctor for the House of Tudor?

Whether the bones prove to be Richard's or not, the discovery has set academic journals, websites and university lecture circuits abuzz. On the floor of the House of Commons, members of Parliament are clashing, with representatives from York -- for whom Richard was the last hope against rival Lancastrians in the War of the Roses -- demanding the restoration of his image. One organization of die-hard Richard III supporters (there are at least two) is running a national ad campaign to clear the king's name.

"We must rewrite the history distorted by that, ahem, writer from Stratford," said Hugh Bayley, a member of Parliament from York.

That bones were found at all is a testament to the tenacity of Richard's supporters. After his death, the king's body was interred at a Leicester monastery and became buried in time and memory. But earlier this year, screenwriter Philippa Langley cobbled together $52,000 to finance what become a single-minded ambition: finding his remains.

After comparing ancient maps and modern plans, a team of archaeologists at Leicester University pinpointed possible locations of the old monastery and had a stroke of luck when the most likely site for Richard's grave was found to be in a parking lot. There, they uncovered the remains of a man -- exactly where texts said the monarch was buried -- who was of the right age and nourishment level and who had suffered battle trauma and spine damage.

DNA tests against a Canadian descendant of Richard's oldest sister should be completed early next year.

Experts say there are few objective depictions of Richard III from his reign. Rather, his legacy was built largely on "Tudor propaganda." What is clear is this: After decades of war between rival houses, Richard III became the last king of England to fall on the battlefield, slain while defending his crown against a marauding upstart backed by France. That upstart, Henry VII, seeded a House of Tudor that over a century would break with the Vatican, humble Spain and usher in a golden age of British arts, enlightenment and power.

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