A Letter to Richard – the King Who Returned from the Grave
First of all, forgive me for not calling you Your Majesty. There are enough Majesties in the world of the living. You do not deserve comparison with the humdrum rulers living in comfort today. After all, you were the only King of England to fall in battle for a thousand years.
You are Richard the Third. You have been with me ever since as, a ten-year-old schoolboy, I learned the “Kings and Queens” by heart – the dates of every king and queen since your ancestor William I took the throne from Harold in 1066.
You might have thought that a two-year reign was just a footnote in English history. That you would take your place among the more insignificant monarchs, like so many of your undistinguished predecessors.
For your fame, you have to thank the dynasty whose founder cut you down at Bosworth. Would Shakespeare have demonised you so memorably were it not in his interests as a loyal subject of the Tudors to do so?
So you reached us as a villain. A child-killer glorying in the transformation of your winter of discontent. A fighter screaming for a horse before the axes fell. I’ve seen you in the theatre and on film, as have more people than you ever reigned over. You have been caricatured as a malevolent crab, scuttling around the stage with your hunched back and withered arm. A picture of low cunning and devilish deeds to set before the chalk-faced virgin queen William Shakespeare was so eager to please.
Were you so much worse than the ruthless miser who took your place? Than the murderous, spendthrift wife-killer who took his place? Than the whole monastery-pillaging, martyr-burning, intolerant and capricious dynasty that led us towards our destiny as a maritime empire?
What was the alternative future snuffed out in 1485? Would we still be a Catholic nation today, spared the marital upheaval that led to the creation of the Church of England? Would we be a United Kingdom, or would we have meandered along as an insignificant country on the edge of Europe cohabiting peacefully with our neighbours the Scots? Perhaps your death spared us another century of the Wars of the Roses.
Now that you have returned to us, I have so many questions to ask you.
Look at your reconstructed face in the mirror. Were you really the fresh-faced, handsome man the forensic sculptor revealed to the world this week? Did you bear the scars of former battles or the marks of the pox? Was your 32-year-old face lined with the pain of keeping a regal bearing while your twisted spine cruelly contorted your posture?
Did the demands of your office turn your mouth into the cruel set visible in the few portraits that remain of you? Were your eyes cold and piercing, or open and enquiring?
When your body was dragged away from Bosworth Field, did you carry the stubble of a street fighter, or did you go to your death freshly-shaven like a King?
Did you speak English as your first language? Or the French of your Norman predecessors?
What of the Princes in the Tower? Now is the time to confess. If you did kill your nephews, you will surely not be judged more harshly today than your Ottoman contemporaries, who regularly disposed of their close relatives in order to secure their undisputed succession. If not you, then who? Was it your successor, who found a way of disposing of other claimants to the throne, such as Edward, Earl of Warwick?
And why did you make that desperate charge at Henry’s bodyguards, when perhaps you could have escaped to fight another battle?
You owe the discovery of your remains to a woman referred to as “amateur historian” (as if by her characterisation as an amateur we should take her less seriously than all the other amateurs – Herodotus, Suetonius, Bede, Gibbon and Macaulay for example). What was it that chilled her to the bone when she first walked on that car park above your grave?
We will never know whether the Tudors unfairly damned you, or whether you really were the brave but evil man who made good laws. You were a man of your times.
But isn’t it ironic that your reward for lying in an unmarked grave for half a millennium is that millions now look upon your face, whereas all your successors until Queen Victoria – the first monarch to be photographed – moulder in their graves without a faithful likeness other than the portraits painted by those paid to please?
Welcome to a world that in many ways must be beyond your imagination. In some ways, though, it must seem very familiar. If you could look at your fellow monarchs and rulers, you might be surprised to see the crowned heads of Europe reduced to impotent figureheads or indolent exiles. But among the modern Emperors, Tsars, Caliphs and Khans – royal or not – that rule much of the planet, you would not be surprised to see the same instincts for self-preservation that drove you. The brutal exercise of power so prevalent in your time is alive and well today.
And once the clerics agree where you are to be re-buried, hopefully that resting place will be your last.
But be sure that you will forever have a special place in English history as the king who came back from the grave.