Book review: Was Richard III a murderer -- or was he just misunderstood?

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This is an irritating book. As founder of the Scottish branch of the Richard III Society, co-author Philippa Langley is hardly a neutral source about England's King Richard III. She is dedicated to clearing Richard's dark reputation.

She's also dedicated to Richard in a way that most people aren't toward people who have been dead for 500-odd years.

By Philippa Langley and Michael Jones
St. Martin's Press ($27.99).

Some exposition is in order. Richard III has had a bad reputation since, well, since he took the throne from his 12-year-old nephew and put that nephew and the boy's younger brother into the ominous Tower of London.

Shortly thereafter, the boys disappeared, never to be seen alive again. And two years later in 1485, Richard died in battle fighting the man who became Henry VII.

Last year Ms. Langley and historian Michael Jones oversaw the exhumation of Richard's bones from beneath a Leicestershire parking lot. The book is two stories at once: the exhumation and Richard's history.

Through it all, Ms. Langley displays a flair for the melodramatic and the self-promoting. She described her first walk through the parking lot this way: "I found myself drawn to this wall and, as I walked toward it, I was aware of a strange sensation. My heart was pounding and my mouth was dry ... As I got near the wall, I had to stop, I felt so odd ... I knew in my innermost being that Richard's body lay here. Moreover, I was certain that I was standing right on top of his grave."

Later, Ms. Langley made a scene upon viewing the dead king's skeleton:

"I shed quiet tears of despair ... He seemed unprotected, and I felt like a ghoul invading his privacy. I saw faces, mouths moving, and then I heard the word hunchback again. It was all too much: I had to escape that dreadful room."

Even her concern for Richard's fate seems a little odd. Here is how she learned that Richard's corpse had been stabbed in the buttock. "Woosnam-Savage squeezed my hand, and quietly told me to prepare myself. ... I could hardly take in his words. ... I drank and laughed that night. It's true what they say: When the dark times pass, people need to remind themselves that they're alive."

It's hard to know whether an eye roll or a stomach lurch is the most appropriate response here. Ms. Langley doesn't miss an opportunity to insert herself into the story. She lets it be known up front, before describing almost anything else, that she is writing a screenplay about the exhumation, that she commissioned people to design a tomb, that she arranged for a TV documentary of the dig, that she arranged funding for it.

In short, that as these overwhelming emotions were washing over her, she was also planning, writing and composing commercial projects about the whole venture. It is hard not to view her behavior as calculated or exaggerated, or perhaps stemming from a desire for attention.

The exhumation itself bore fascinating results. Among other things, it showed that Richard had a bad case of scoliosis (curvature of the spine), causing one shoulder to be higher than the other and one shoulder bone much bigger than the other. So he wasn't a "hunchback" with a "withered arm," as later hostile accounts would put it, but there were nuggets of truth in those descriptions.

Ms. Langley's purpose, however, is not so much to describe the dig -- although she does -- but to portray Richard in a positive, nay, a laudatory light. She is certain that his true nature was kind and benevolent, although she concedes he did usurp the throne, likely murdered his nephews and summarily executed his opposition. In her view, these actions just showed that Richard was a bit impetuous.

Equally irritating is how Ms. Langley and co-author and historian Michael Jones dispense with certain other aspects of Richard's life. They state categorically that his wife died of tuberculosis. This diagnosis is by no means clear.

Other sources speculate it was cancer, and rumor at the time had it that Richard poisoned his wife to death. The book does not even address these claims. After the death of his wife, Richard purportedly considered an incestuous marriage to his niece to cement his hold on power. The authors dismiss these assertions as "unfounded" and believe Richard when he "vigorously denied them."

But other evidence makes this claim hold more weight. In any event, it deserves more than a cursory denial. Lastly, Ms. Langley's certainty that Richard was good and kind begins to annoy. Her certainty seems to stem from a feeling, and feelings can't necessarily be dispelled by evidence.

Richard had many fine qualities -- courage, fortitude, loyalty and charisma. But history has denigrated his memory for valid reasons, namely because of his ruthlessness and ambition. This book would have made a better read if it had focused on the facts of the exhumation and Richard's life, not on the author's obsessions.




Laura Malt Schneiderman:

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