The cover story, written by historian Simon Schama, looks back at the means Richard III used to create his rock-solid center of power and loyalty—that undid him in the end.
A king, one shoulder higher than the other (an armorer’s nightmare), the golden circlet of the crown upon his helmet, is fighting for his life and his throne. Seeing the odds of a victory, which should have been his for the taking, suddenly shorten when his vanguard flounders in marshy ground, he has made a gambler’s throw: a frontal charge at the enemy with a long column of his most loyal knights behind him, meant to smash its way to his rival and kill him. The wet ground has lost him his mount, but he is cutting his way through the bodies with a swinging battle ax. He makes for the standard bearer of the enemy, fells him. Surely, the Welshman, the Tudor who wants his crown, cannot be far behind. Another swing, another knight, much bigger than his own slight frame, goes crashing down in his clanking hardware. Now Richard is within feet of his quarry when it all goes wrong. A presumed ally, his troops held in reserve, perhaps sensing the shift in the day’s fortunes, has thrown in his lot with the enemy and is attacking his rear; his scarlet-coated men throwing themselves into the fray. Everyone, all those men groaning and stumbling and hacking in the soft ground, feels the beginning of the end. Ranks of them close in on the king from whose helm the crown has ominously fallen. Defying everything and everyone, the king swings and flails, is engulfed, and a halberd slices through his helmet and into his brain. He sinks and folds and it is over. It is always finished when the leader of an army loses his life, for these thousands of men, knights and hardened men at arms, archers and gunners (for there were both cannon and harquebuses on Bosworth Field) are not fighting for an idea or a country, but for the person of the king who, in some way they don’t ask themselves, is England.
The chronicles of the late 15th and early 16th centuries have told us this, but those histories were written either by, or to please, the victors. But now we have Richard III’s story as written on his bones: a forensic romance. Not just the deep cleft in his skull where the halberd penetrated the helmet, but the marks of the subsequent indignities and mutilations inflicted on his corpse. It was always known that the new king, Henry Tudor, made sure to expose Richard’s body for either two or three days (sources differ) in Greyfriars Abbey where it was deposited, and it may have been, as one of the histories describes, half-naked, its lower half covered merely by “a poor black cloth”—the ultimate humiliation for a king who had reveled in royal costume. The skeleton shows signs of lunging stab wounds through the right buttock, another targeted indignity and, more mysteriously, the body’s feet are missing. Most dramatically of all, the backbone is curved like the blade of a scythe: the sign of “idiopathic” scoliosis, a condition that would have come upon the prince, Richard, as a boy and which would have thrust one shoulder up high enough for critics during and after his life to jeer at the deformity. Thomas More, whose unfinished biography is the first thrilling work of historical narrative—more a novel than a true history—and Shakespeare, who drew on More, may have been unjust in making Richard a monster, and there is no sign of the withered arm at the center of one of More’s most dramatic and fanciful scenes. But the bones tell us they were right to picture Richard III as deformed, and entirely of their time to imagine what effect this might have on the self-consciousness of a noble steeped in the chivalric literature of manly perfection, and on those many who feared and hated him.