WSU professor discusses why 500 year old skeleton causes debate | Weird
A Washington State professor is discussing debate over the skeleton of King Richard III that was found beneath a parking lot in central England.
King Richard III reigned for two years and died more than half a millenium ago at the age of 32.
The debate surrounds around the opening line in a Shakespeare play, where Shakespeare refers to the king as a hunchbacked villain who scuttled about like a shadowy spider.
"This attracts debate because it calls into question the stability of the monarchy as an institution,” explained Jesse Spohnholz, associate professor of European history at Washington State University. "The discovery of what is supposed to be King Richard’s skeleton disrupts a long-held belief by many that the king was a murderous villain and therefore his death in battle was justified.”
Historians and scientists are clashing over what the skeleton's discovery means. There’s the question of how much a long-buried skeleton can tell us about the person’s actions and behaviors back in the 15th century.
"While the bones confirm that he suffered wounds in battle and also resolve the puzzle of where he was buried, they are silent when it comes to telling us how he reigned," Spohnholz said.
King Richard’s bad boy image includes murdering his two young nephews to gain the throne and ordering his older brother to be drowned in a barrel of wine. The good guy version casts the king as a champion of the common people whose short reign brought progressive reforms.
After Richard’s death, the whereabouts of his corpse were unknown for 528 years until dug up, without a coffin, under a parking lot in England and identified by DNA testing.
"The debate is compounded by the fact that a century passed between his death in battle and when Shakespeare wrote his play,” said Spohnholz. "During that period, some believe that Tudor propagandists tarnished Richard's reputation to legitimize the ruling dynasty’s claim to the throne. Then came Shakespeare who, for the sake of drama, probably embellished the dead king’s misdeeds even more.”
While the king's battle-scarred skeleton reveals a curvature of the spine called scoliosis, the condition probably wouldn’t have caused the deformity depicted by Shakespeare, said Spohnholz.
"Shakespeare used the king’s physical deformity as a literary device as an outward expression of Richard’s supposed inward evil,” Spohnholz said.
Whether the skeleton's discovery will help clear the name of the unsavory but accepted reputation of the king is unknown.
"I think we need to sit back and wait for the facts and data. There’s still a lot of contradictory information being reported in the media and online," Spohnholz said.
As for what he teaches students about King Richard III’s reign, that won’t change much.
"Richard III probably did some bad things but wasn’t as evil as Shakespeare and others portrayed,” said Spohnholz. "I think people should remember that he lived during a brutal period marked by aristocratic factionalism, vicious scheming and competing claims to political authority. In those days, it would have been hard to be a kind king.”