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Scholars Hope Richard III’s Remains Spur Reexamination of His Reputation

February 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
An archaeological dig has led to the discovery of the remains of Richard III, one of the most legendary and reviled British monarchs. But did the 15th century king deserve his reputation? Gwen Ifill talks to New York Times reporter John Burns about the historic find and what will happen to the king's bones and notoriety now.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: For more on the significance of this historic discovery, we’re joined by John Burns of The New York Times.

John Burns, it’s kind of hard to look at this story and not ask yourself, how does one lose the bones of a monarch? How did it come that they didn’t know where Richard III was?

JOHN BURNS, The New York Times: Well, he was a very special monarch.

I know, as a boy who grew up in English schools, how profoundly reviled Richard III was. Shakespeare, of course, played a very large part in that with his eponymous play “Richard III,” which depicted him as an evil, malicious, murdering uncle of the princes in the towers, as a hunchback with withered hands and so forth.

And he has for 500 years been largely seen in that sort of light by the people in this country. And the fact that he disappeared had something to do that. That is to say, there was no instinct really to go and find him. And the people who buried him wanted to get rid of him as quickly as possible because the Tudors, that is to say, the people who defeated him on the battlefield at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, had absolutely no interest in giving him the honors due a king.

GWEN IFILL: Now that scientists and archaeologists have had a chance to examine these remains, what do we know that we didn’t know before? For instance, he’s described in by — Shakespeare described him as a hunchback, that in fact scoliosis. He wasn’t quite that?

JOHN BURNS: No, he wasn’t.

And, of course, it’s a very unfortunate feature of this story is that there was in medieval times and indeed more recently than that an instinct to depict people with physical deformities as in some way morally deformed as well. Thank goodness we have moved way, way beyond that now.

But I think there is a possibility that the discovery of the skeleton — and it does seem to be convincing that this is Richard III — will launch a new era in scholarship in which the Shakespearian, if you will, version of Richard III will be reexamined. And there are people who belong to an organization called the Richard III Society who say that in fact he was one of the best English kings.

He was only on the throne for 26 months, but that he introduced a number of things, including fairer trials, for example, including a relaxation of restraints on printing presses, which they say took a very long time after his death to become reality again in this country.

GWEN IFILL: I know that’s what Richard III’s admirers would like to do, retell the story. But how is simply finding his remains going to allow people to get into the bottom of what his motivations were or what he did, what he didn’t do, how evil he was or wasn’t?

JOHN BURNS: Well, that was a question being asked insistently today at the news conference in the city of Leicester, where this confirmation that the skeleton was Richard III’s was held. It’s really a hope, more than a conviction, on the part of those who believe that Richard wasn’t a man who deserved the revulsion that he has earned in five centuries since.

It’s their hope that there will be now a new wave of scholarship and popular interest in this dead king that will lead to a reexamination of things which have been for too long closed, if you will, in the mind of the great British public.

GWEN IFILL: I read in your story today that it wasn’t just this DNA tracing to the descendants of Richard III, but also something called radio carbon dating which allowed them to figure out that these were really his remains. Is this something that they could have figured out even 10 or 20 years ago? Would we have had the technology?

JOHN BURNS: No, I think modern science has quite a lot to do with this. And the science was pretty exhaustive.

They know, obviously, that it was a male, the skeleton was a male. They know that he died 25 or 30 years either side of 1485, which is in fact when Richard III was killed on the battlefield. The skeleton, of course, has revealed a great deal about the curvature of the spine. They know that this was a person who, for example, had a very high-protein diet, which was reserved in those days, in the middle ages, only for the most wealthy and the powerful.

And then probably most convincing, other than the DNA, was the wounds, including a very large hole we saw as we were led past the skeleton, rather reverentially, I have to say, today, a very large hole behind what would have been the left ear of the skull, which the experts said was consistent with a blow by a halberd — that’s an axe-like medieval weapon — which is consistent with what witnesses to his death on the battlefield said. They said he was felled by a tremendous blow from a halberd.

So, I left there pretty well persuaded that this is Richard III, less persuaded that the scholarship will turn upside-down what has been the common public conviction. But I think we’re in for a few interesting years of scholarship. And who knows where that may lead?

GWEN IFILL: So, what happens now to his remains? Are they just reinterred where they were found or do they go — aren’t most British monarchs at Westminster Abbey or treated with some sort of special attention?

JOHN BURNS: They are indeed.

And that’s what members of the Richard III Society had hoped for, that he would join other English kings in that abbey in London across from the Parliament, where many royal burials and indeed royal weddings as we know have been held. But it has already been decided that Richard will be reinterred at the Anglican Cathedral in Leicester about 200 yards from where the skeleton was found, that it will be done at a memorial service, not a funeral, because he’s already had a funeral 500 years ago, a pretty hasty one.

And that will take place early next year and will be accompanied by the opening of a visitors center in the grounds of the cathedral, which will no doubt be a major tourist draw.

GWEN IFILL: John Burns of The New York Times, thank you so much.

JOHN BURNS: It’s a pleasure, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: You can read more about the DNA analysis that helped to uncover this mystery on our Science page.