Remains Thought To Be King Richard III

Renee Montagne speaks with Member of Parliament Chris Skidmore of Bristol about what are likely the recently discovered remains of Richard III, and attempts to clear the ruthless reputation of the former English king.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's stay in Britain now and revisit one of literature's most wicked royal villains.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "RICHARD III")

LAWRENCE OLIVIER: Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this son of York.

MONTAGNE: That's Lawrence Olivier, playing Shakespeare's Richard III, who was an actual 15th century monarch. In Shakespeare's telling, Richard cut a bloody path to England's throne, murdering his brother, his wife and even two young nephews with potential claims to the crown.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, we don't know if Richard really committed those crimes. We don't even know what happened to his body. But that last mystery may be solved soon with a DNA test on a skeleton recently found by archeologists.

MONTAGNE: For more, we reached Chris Skidmore. He's written several books on English history and is a member of parliament.

Thank you for joining us.

CHRIS SKIDMORE: Thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: So these archeologists traced the long-ago king's grave to a medieval cathedral, also destroyed a long time ago, in ruins, about 100 miles from London.

SKIDMORE: Yeah, that's right, in a town called Leicester, which is the nearest town to where Richard died at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, and we've long known that Richard was buried here. He was buried in this cathedral that was then eventually demolished. And then someone else built a house on top of it, and eventually, like so many things, it's ended up being tarmacked over and became a car park.

So they began the dig this summer, and remarkably, in the site where they expected to find the body, they found a skeleton that's had its head sort of smashed in with several sort of wound marks that are very sort of indicative of being sort of hit by a sword, and also, most fascinatingly, a kink in the spine, which suggests a condition called scoliosis, which a lot of the contemporary reports talk about Richard having one shoulder higher than another.

MONTAGNE: And he was also quite famously depicted by Shakespeare as having a hunched back, what they would call in those days a hunchback.

SKIDMORE: Yeah. The evidence suggests that although Richard may have had a spinal problem, it wouldn't have been a proper hunchback. What's fascinating is that the real King Richard has been shrouded, over the years, by various different myths that were propagated by the Tudors, who were very keen to establish their own dynasty. You see, Henry VII defeated Richard in battle, and since then, every moment afterwards, they attempted to really sort of castigate him, and Shakespeare is the ultimate personification of this evil king, when, actually, wasn't like that at all.

MONTAGNE: Well, how close is he to how he is depicted?

SKIDMORE: You heard the Lawrence Olivier quote there. Actually, Richard was 31 when he died. He was actually a young man, not an old, sort of evil hunchback. And there's been a lot of hard work by historians to try and show, actually, he had a very strong desire to promote the welfare of the poor and the ordinary people in his kingdom, and he was actually very popular at the time with people.

The hunchback is a typical example of writers of the time using a disability to try and create this sort of evil monster figure of legend. We know from the portraits of Richard, they even painted a hunchback on later on. You know, it was a bit of a fabrication, really.

MONTAGNE: If it is indeed Richard III's skeleton, where would it be buried?

SKIDMORE: Well, there's been a lot of debate over here in England about if it does turn out to be Richard, not only where will he be buried. There's various different people are putting in bids to say, well, we want him buried in Leicester. There's already a memorial stone in Leicester cathedral. There's another claim that he should be buried in Westminster Abbey in London. That's were, traditionally, all kings and queens are buried.

That's where Elizabeth I is buried. That's where Henry VII is buried, as well. And then there's another claim that he should be buried in York, because Richard was actually a northern king. He spent most of his time in the north of England. But I understand this deal has been reached that he will probably be buried in Leicester.

But then there's - the other problem is, because he's a member of royal family, traditionally, members of the royal family, at their funeral, get a state funeral, and, you know, usually their body lies in state. So we last had that with the queen mother when she died a couple of years back. And as a member of parliament, I called, in parliament, for a state funeral, because I believe that we should be following the accepted customs.

MONTAGNE: Chris Skidmore is a member of the British Parliament, and his upcoming book on the battle where Richard III was killed is called "Bosworth: The Birth of the Tudors." Thank you very much.

SKIDMORE: Thank you very much.

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