Richard III

Kathmandu just fell down like a house of cards. The thing that really shocked me about the Reuters and ap pictures coming out of Kathmandu was the sight of that four lane highway lined with apartment buildings on the way into town. City of a million people? There must have been 50,000 souls living there when I saw it 40 years ago. A village. A small town. Time marches on.

And then there’s poor Richard III stuck under a parking lot. It isn’t enough that he dies by an overkill of three hideous medieval weapons and has his naked body dragged through town. He has to be found under a grocery store parking lot and wait more than 500 years to be jack-hammered out for a decent burial. Could things really be anymore undignified? And how did they even know he was there or know it was his body?

And it’s that “medieval king—parking lot” that is such an arresting disconnect. How the mighty have fallen! And the feeling that the medieval world is under foot, well, not here, but in Europe, just feels fascinating to me. And I’m not alone. When his funeral procession made its stately way through the byways of Leicester a few weeks ago, more people turned out to view the casket than had turned out for the sight of the live monarch, Elizabeth II on her 60th anniversary parade. Way more. Because Richard is the stuff of fairytales and legend and Elizabeth II is your great-aunt.

Snippets of Richard’s story unfolded over several months in the papers, online. (The only way I read them.) I kept reading out the latest fascinating episode to my partner, who consistently showed no interest whatsoever, preferring to remain glued to his instructional ping-pong videos. I am all about history. I sometimes wonder what I am doing with this person.

They reconstructed his head and face with computers. (We live in future times. Next, they’ll be bringing him to life.) He turned out to be a handsome 32 year old with straightish brown hair cut in a shoulder-length bob with a fringe. The little black velvet hat with the jeweled broach was just the final adorable touch. Didn’t this guy live on Denman thirty years ago? Actually, he looked a lot like my brother-in-law in his younger days. Accounts of the time period said he was the handsomest man in every room and you could believe it. He looked to be a small-boned, elegant man. Poor Richard!

Much as I am interested in history, the details always bog me down. Richard was in the War of the Roses. (Did they call it that while it was happening?) The red rose and the white rose, the house of York and the house of Lancaster. It sounds so sweet, doesn’t it? It would be lords fighting each other, like in Kurosawa’s costume dramas of medieval Japan. Our guy’s costumes were just as nice, though, all that velvet, fur and brocade, and armor too. Armor is of course freaky and scary. Perhaps Richard wasn’t wearing his that day? He died of head wounds. They must have removed his helmet. Then the whole suit after he was dead. Poor young, handsome Richard! Would he have been considered young at 32, then? Well, he is to us, thirty being the new twenty. (Red being the new blonde…)

He was the last Plantagenet king. Doesn’t that sound French? The Tudors followed with Henry II. (And where did the first go?)
Richard’s name is besmirched by history. Shakespeare made him a hunchback and a disgusting, dastardly individual, responsible for the deaths of the two young princes in the tower. (Remember those poor princes in the tower?)

Well, I’m not here to add to the slander, and recent finds, of which I’m very vague, have questioned whether he did indeed poison those boys. Someone else may well have done it, perhaps on his orders, perhaps not. And he wasn’t a hunchback. It was just a case of scoliosis. One shoulder might have been a tad higher than the other. It’s all a very long time ago now, anyway. He was literally cut down in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Can’t we cut the guy some slack? He looks like a really nice person.

There’s more. It’s detail after amazing detail. It turns out Richard has a descendent living in Ontario. Chatham, I think. He looks quite a bit like him. It’s only an intervening 500 or so years. How did they ever find this guy is what I want to know? Did he always know he was a relative? Did they have his DNA on file? Is mine on file? What’s going on here?

This guy is a finishing carpenter and—get this—he ends up making the wooden casket they lay him out in. Perfect, or what?! (My partner shrugs.) It’s a simple pine box with beautiful finishing touches and no nails. Richard’s bones were carefully wrapped in white linen (like in all the old folk songs. “wrapped in white linen as cold as the clay.”) and cushioned in cotton batting. Perhaps they straightened him out while they were at it.

The final piece de resistance was an embroidered cloth draped over the casket. It was woven by a group of women who had been slogging away for months embroidering in the medieval style. It showed a procession of people dressed in the style of the times and was a thing of great beauty. I wonder if it was buried with him? Digging up the floor of Leicester Cathedral was awkward and expensive, but it seemed nothing was too good for the guy, even with England in the financial state it was in. They pulled out all the stops, and, like I said, the crowds lining the long route were enormous. It defies all logic.

It’s a fable, a legend, a myth, a fairytale, the land of Tolkien and the landscape of our childhood. To pay homage to poor slaughtered Richard III is to pay homage to that part of ourselves that lives in that dreamscape. I think Richard was probably watching as his casket moved in a dignified way through the streets of modern day England, and I like to think he was grateful for our acknowledgement of the hard, fantastical medieval life he had lived so long ago.