By Caroline Selby
Last week, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, after a 33-year-reign, abdicated in favor of her son, the now-King Willem-Alexander. He is now the youngest monarch in Europe and is the first Dutch king in more than 120 years. One has to wonder how Prince Charles of England felt while attending the coronation ceremonies. After all, he has been waiting to inherit the English throne from his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, for over 60 years.
The English monarchy fascinates me, especially the historical kings and queens. I have read many books about the Tudor dynasty and the Victorian era and, at this point, I probably know more about English royal history than American history (my apologies to Mr. J.C. Davis, my high school American history teacher). But it's something I can't help. The lives of the early kings and queens of England are an endless source of fascination... as are their deaths.
Of particular interest is the way England seems to misplace royal remains.
Earlier this year, an announcement was made that the skeletal remains of King Richard III had been positively identified “beyond reasonable doubt.”
The remains were found under a car park in Leicester, England, after a search for the “missing” church of Greyfriars, where the king had been hastily buried after his defeat at Bosworth by Henry Tudor, the future Henry VII.
Scientists matched the DNA of the skeleton to two of Richard III’s maternal line relatives. Radiocarbon dating also revealed the individual died in the second half of the 15th or early 16th century, consistent with the king’s death in 1485.
What captivated me though, is that while the mystery of the missing king is now solved, the mystery of the missing “Princes in the Tower” still remains.
Richard’s brother, Edward IV, inherited the claim to the throne during the Wars of the Roses in the mid-15th century. After defeating Henry VI, a Lancaster, in 1471, his claim was cemented, and the crown of England was destined to be passed down to his young 12-year-old son, Edward V, upon his death in 1483. The mistake he made was making his brother, Richard III, Protector.
Or was it a mistake?
There is little to no certain evidence Richard III was involved in the disappearance of Edward V and his younger brother, Richard, the Duke of York. Before Edward V could be crowned, his parents’ marriage was declared invalid, making him ineligible for the throne. Edward V and his brother were lodged in the Tower of London at this time, and were never seen again after Richard III was crowned. Many believed Richard III had the princes killed in order to cement his own claim to the throne, but the evidence against him is only circumstantial.
Other suspects in the disappearance of the two princes exist, most benefiting Richard III. But the question remains, did Richard order the deaths of the princes? Did one of his cronies take them out without his knowledge to make Richard’s claim to the throne more valid? Or did Henry Tudor get rid of them after his defeat of Richard III in order to validate his claim to the throne?
It’s one of the great historical mysteries that fascinates me.
The other thing I find intriguing is the condition of the bones. History remembers him as a grotesque man, a limping hunchback with a withered arm who craved the throne for himself. But this image of Richard is taken from Shakespeare’s Richard III, a Tudor sympathizer. Of course he would paint the enemy of the Tudors in a negative light.
With the bones, scientists found evidence of scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, which would have made him shorter, maybe with a slight a hunchback, but no withered arm. If our beliefs about his appearance are wrong, what else could be wrong? Could he be innocent of the princes’ disappearance? Was he, as some contemporaries and historians claim, actually a decent king?
History is written by the winners, and this may be one of the ultimate cases.
But Richard III is not the only English monarch whose remains have disappeared over the years. In 2008, the oldest surviving remains of an English royal, Queen Eadgyth (Edith), granddaughter of Alfred the Great and wife of Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor, were found in a tomb in a German cathedral. The tomb had long been thought empty until archeologists opened it and discovered the silk-wrapped bones of a woman inside. Tests later confirmed the remains were indeed Queen Eadgyth.
The remains Catherine Parr, the last wife of King Henry VIII, were lost for more than two centuries until they were discovered inside a ruined chapel in 1782. Charles I, executed in 1649 after losing the English civil war, was placed in a temporary tomb that was forgotten until 1813.
Some kings are still missing — Harold II, Henry I, Stephen and the ill-fated Edward V. Perhaps they will never be found. Or perhaps one of them will be the next great archeological discovery.
For a more in-depth look at the archeological discovery and history of Richard III, visit http://www.le.ac.uk/richardiii/index.html.