Saturday, 2 March 2013

Probing another King Richard: The Heart of a Lion

February was an interesting month to be a long-dead English monarch answering to the name of Richard. In early February came the startling news that the remains of Richard III, a controversial King (perhaps) libelled by Shakespeare, were identified under a car park in Leicester - turning into a rich historical saga known to historians on twitter as #kinginacarpark. (Our sister blog's story about the Canadian lineage connection.)

Now, out of the blue, we have this story about researchers probing the remains of the heart of Richard I, the Crusading King most commonly known as The Lionhearted. (Video story here) There is, naturally, a limited amount of information that even the most sophisticated scientific processes can discover from a dessicated heart - even that of a King. Yet researchers were able to determine that the king had not perished from a poisoned-tip arrow to the heart. They did, however, find embalming spices that demonstrate piety or a symbolic imitation of the materials used to embalm the body of Christ. From the BBC:

"Mark Ormrod, professor in history from the University of York, said the research was extremely interesting.
'That consciousness of using very high-quality herbs and spices and other materials that are much sought after and rare does add to that sense of it being Christ-like in its quality,' he said.
'Medieval kings were thought to represent the divine on Earth - they were set apart from other lay people and regarded as special and different. So that treatment of the heart strikes me as being absolutely credible.'

[Richard I's tomb at Rouen]


The research into the fates of both Kings Richard, separated in time by some hundreds of years, demonstrates how the clinical aspects of forensic science can provide answers, or at least probable suggestions, to historical mysteries and questions. The most fascinating possibility is that we may find confirmations of myth and legend, such as the depictions of Richard III's curved spine. It also appears that a Welsh poem describing his facial wound is remarkably accurate. As for the questions of character (the suggestions that Richard I was a cruel and despotic ruler, and the controversy over the extent of Richard III's misdeeds) and historical interpretation, the debates still continue unabated. 

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils

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