The Wars of the Roses ended at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, bringing England’s Plantaganet dynasty to a violent close and elevating the Tudors to the English throne. But the battle over the legacy of Richard III — the English king killed that day — still rages. The confirmation this week that a misshapen skeleton discovered beneath a parking lot in the city of Leicester was that of the last Plantaganet king is a dramatic reminder that history’s judgment is rarely final.
Richard’s reputation as the most reviled monarch in England’s history owes much to William Shakespeare, who portrayed the king as a ruthless villain with a character as twisted as his spine. “That bottled spider, that foul bunchback’d toad,” he is called in Shakespeare’s narrative, which drew heavily on propaganda meant to paint Richard as a usurper to the throne, and the Tudors as England’s legitimate rulers.
But historical judgments are rarely so one-sided. For generations a counter-narrative has maintained that Richard was, by 15th-century standards, an enlightened sovereign. He lifted restrictions on printing and selling books, for example, and reformed criminal procedure by instituting bail for accused felons.
The remains discovered in Leicester settled at least one controversy about Richard: He did indeed suffer from scoliosis, or a badly curved spine. But the skeleton showed no evidence of the withered arm and other deformities sometimes ascribed to him. Now, more than five centuries after his ignominious burial — he was stuffed naked into a hastily dug hole — the last English king to die in battle is to be buried with honors in an Anglican cathedral. But his place in history, fought over for so long, is still in contention.