Early in February of this year, archaeologists made an amazing discovery: a skeleton buried under a parking lot in Leicester, England turned out to be the remains of King Richard III, the last Plantagenet king to rule England. The skeleton itself was unearthed the previous fall, but finally identified, thanks to DNA testing.
I was all over this story, for several reasons. I have a degree in physical anthropology, which involves the study and identification of human bones; I love English history - the earlier the better; and like so many others, I was familiar with Richard III and the controversy over his life. He had a pretty awful reputation as the man who killed his two young nephews in order to become King. William Shakespeare portrayed him as an evil hunchback with a withered arm and uncontrolled, amoral ambition.
The New York Times as a nice article, photo and a video about the story at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/05/world/europe/richard-the-third-bones. html?_r=0 for those of you who are interested. I was fascinated! First, the spine is definitely shaped like the letter S—a sign of scoliosis. (His arms look fine, though. Will Shakespeare must have exaggerated just a bit—yet another fascinating discovery.) His skeleton shows the proof of many wounds; Richard died in battle after ruling England for a short two years. Plus, the fact that scientists found viable DNA from a 500 year old skeleton was amazing, too. I guess this makes me a Bone Geek, but there it is.
All of this fascinating news led me to pick up the novel The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman. It tells the story of Richard III from his early childhood until his death in 1485. Penman does her research. This is beautifully written and at almost 1,000 pages, very thorough in scope. I happen to own a first edition hardcover of this book, but believe me, I was very tempted to spend $10 and buy it for my Kindle, just to save my poor wrists. Penman tells us the potentially confusing story of the War of the Roses, a battle between the House of York and the House of Lancaster for the throne of England. She does a terrific job of helping the reader keep all the characters and the events straight. It was a complicated time politically, and Penman outlines how alliances and loyalties might have been created, changed and abandoned. I think any author who writes of this time takes a stand, and leads the reader to take one as well: either you believe Richard did make his nephews “disappear” from the Tower in order to take the crown, or you believe he was innocent and wrongly maligned by his political enemies. Penman is solidly on Richard’s side.
The problem with reading historical fiction is that I know how this story is going to end. Richard will die on the battle field of Bosworth, but first, he will lose his young son and heir, and his wife, Queen Anne. I’m almost on page 800, so it’s coming soon, and it’s incredible how sad I’m feeling, knowing these characters that I’ve come to love will soon perish. But I have to say that, knowing now where his remains are makes it a little easier to reach the end of this wonderful novel. The story hasn’t ended yet, for there is another great battle brewing: where to bury his remains now that the lost King has been found.