It was undoubtedly a good thing for William Shakespeare that England’s King Richard III, killed in 1485, had been dead for at least a century before the immortal bard got around to writing about him and his 26-month reign.
Historians seem to agree that Richard III was a bad man, even by the brutal standards of 15th-century England. But under Shakespeare’s quill pen, he became one of the greatest villains of theatrical history: deformed, although not as deformed as Shakespeare made him out to be, murderous, treacherous, unscrupulous, deceitful, self-pitying, with a litany of failings that ended only when he was struck down and hacked to death at the Battle of Bosworth Field, the last major battle of the Wars of the Roses. It ended his House of Lancaster’s claim to the throne.
He was buried in an unmarked grave, without benefit of coffin, in the basement of a church in Leicester that was later razed. Had Shakespeare known, surely he would have incorporated that ignominious end in his play. As it was, he had the desperate Richard racing about the battlefield pleading, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”
Last fall, archeologists excavating a parking lot found a skeleton with severe scoliosis, the remains of a body that had been quickly and carelessly buried. Genealogists were able to identify the skeleton by comparing its DNA with that of a modern-day relative, a Canadian woman 17 generations removed. It was Richard III, British scientists announced in February.
Mysteries continue to unfold at the site. University of Leicester archeologists working near Richard’s grave this week have reported the discovery of another body inside a double coffin, likely buried more than 100 years before the monarch’s death. Its occupant’s identity is unknown. Britain’s Guardian newspaper reports that archeologists think it may be a medieval knight called Sir William Moton, buried in the Greyfriars church in 1362.
The unhappy Richard’s remains have been safely recovered and treated with dignity, and next year will be reburied in a place of honor in Leicester Cathedral. But, thanks to Shakespeare, his reputation will always remain as one of a pluperfect villain.