Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Coldest Case?

My beloved Aunt Jean’s granddaughter had a baby, a lovely little girl.  It took a minute, but I figured out who Baby Rose is to me:  she’s my first cousin twice removed.  Here’s a riddle about relationships of that sort:  Your father’s sister’s sister-in-law could be what to you?

Amazing news:  They think they’ve found the bones of King Richard III!  Yes, that king made infamous by Shakespeare but whose reputation has been explored, refined and cleared by many scholars once it was safe to do to; that is, after the last Tudor (Elizabeth I) died.  He was in truth a short man with a crooked spine, but a brave soldier, a good administrator, and beloved in his time.

My last two years of service in the U.S. Navy (July 1966 – July 1968) were spent in England.  While there I did a lot of sightseeing.  One of my first trips was to Chester, and one “souvenir” I brought back to London was a cat.  Chester is in Cheshire so she was a real Cheshire cat.  She turned out to be one of the best cats I have ever owned, intelligent and kind.  But that’s not the real story here.  In 1967 I read Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time, in which a bed-ridden London police investigator investigates the historical mystery of Richard III.  Was he a “crouchback” with a withered arm who murdered his first wife, his brother, and most infamously, his two royal nephews in the Tower of London?  Tey convinced me none of it was true.  I got indignant, I took it personally; I wanted to knock open Henry VII’s magnificent tomb in Westminster Abbey and toss his bones into the Thames.  Instead I made a lone pilgrimage to Bosworth Field, where Richard III fell in battle against that same Henry Tudor.  It was at the end of a rustic, grassy lane in the quiet summer countryside.  As I approached it on foot I became aware that the grass in the meadow was trampled and torn by hooves.  There was not a single modern object in sight, and I was suddenly afraid I had stepped through a time warp and had arrived back in August of 1485 wearing twentieth century clothing and not able to speak a word of Middle English.  I was hugely relieved when a bulb horn sounded behind me and I turned to see an old English Ford coming up the lane.  The driver stopped.  He was Rev. Boston, rector of a local church.  He explained that the cattle in the field had been rounded up because they were suffering from hoof and mouth disease.  Familiar with the War of the Roses, he gave me a little tour of the area, including the chapel where Richard heard his last Mass before the battle.  He told me Richard’s body was taken to Leicester, not far away.  So I went there next and after some interesting adventures – including being invited to watch a group of men practicing ringing “changes” on a set of bells in a church tower – I was introduced to another rector of St. Nicholas, a church so ancient its back wall used to be part of the wall the Romans built around a Jewish ghetto.  He took me out onto the sidewalk and pointed to a cluster of Victorian buildings across a broad street.  “They buried him at Greyfriars, ’cross the way,” he said, pointing as if the abbey still were visible.  “And some of Henry’s men came and dug him up in the night, and threw his body in the river Soar and nobody knows where he lies.”  His hand was trembling with anger and indignation.  And I was as angry as he was.

But now it turns out he might be wrong, the body was not taken away, but left honorably buried under the floor of the choir.  Henry VIII repressed the abbey in 1538 as part of his program of confiscating the wealth of abbeys, nunneries and monasteries, and it was later demolished.  The site is today a parking lot.  An archaelogical dig has now been done (or is underway), and the outlines of the old abbey revealed.  And under the floor of the choir two skeletons were found, one a woman’s and the other a man’s.  His bears the marks of violence, a skull broken as if by a sword, and a metal arrowhead embedded in his spine.  And the spine is crooked, just like Richard’s.

A descendent of Richard’s sister has been asked to give a sample of DNA to see if the bones could be Richard’s.  There is already talk of what will be done with the bones if they prove to be his.  Will there be a royal funeral?  Will he be buried in Leicester?  Or will the bones be brought to Westminster?  Or perhaps to York Minster, the mighty cathedral in York – he loved the north of England, and it loved him.  The city fathers of York wrote in their official record, “On this day our good King Richard was piteously slain and murdered, to the great heaviness of this city.”  I would want with all my heart to be present at the ceremony, if there is one, when he is re-interred.

Answer to riddle:  Your mother.


Linda O. Johnston said...

How fun that a historical mystery you were already following now has another twist, Monica. I'm always looking for things relating to the time of King Charles II of England, since his court is where the predecessors of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels were first popularized.

Mary Barton said...

I had read with interest through a reinactment website that Richard III's grave might have been found. I hope that the DNA evidence proves that the skeleton is indeed Richard.

Monica Ferris said...

I was sad and angry that I could not visit Richard's tomb - but now I might. History is, of course, prologue to the present, and the more we can connect with it, the better we understand our present world. Besides, it's fun!

Monica Ferris said...

I hope it is his, too. I have a strong feeling that it is. The Cathedral Church in Leicester is making a strong case that the bones be interred there - they already have the only memorial to Richard III in the country. On the other hand, Richard was in the process of having a chapel built into York Minster for himself and his wife when he was killed. England takes its history personally; this is going to be an interesting fight.

Betty Hechtman said...

It's amazing what you can find out with DNA.

Whitney J said...

I have read that Josephine Tey book, too. I loved it and was equally interested in the idea that Shakespeare and history could have been wrong. I am excited at the lengths you went to to find out. Also, the answer to the riddle could also be your aunt, if your father has another brother who is married.