America is blessedly free of history. Outside of a few Civil War battlefields, and perhaps a downtown city district or two, the past has neither a particular physical presence nor emotional resonance for most of us. Aside from the original sin of human slavery, few past ghosts haunt us, the way the past haunts much of the Eurasian continent.
I’ve always had the sense that, in visiting European or Middle Eastern cities, I was constantly stumbling over history. Westminster Abbey, or the Roman Forum, or the Old City in Jerusalem all seem weighted down by history, history that was often as much burden as enlightenment.
This was brought home to me once again by the recent discovery of Richard III’s body under a parking lot in Leicester, England. It’s a great story, if you haven’t heard it. Richard III was the last of the Plantagenet kings, cut down in a dynastic war in 1485 by the Henry VII, the first of the Tudor kings.
Shakespeare’s wonderful history play (“My horse, my horse, my kingdom for a horse!”) vividly painted Richard as a child-murdering physically deformed sociopath who got his just comeuppance on Bosworth Field. Once Will Shakespeare gets his hands on you, forget ever getting a fair shake in the history books.
After the battle, Richard’s body was buried in the choir of a local Franciscan friary called Grey Friars. Henry VIII (son of the victor of Bosworth Field) subsequently tore down the friary (as well as a host of other abbeys and monasteries), and eventually the land became a parking lot for a social services office.
Richard has strong supporters. There is even a Richard III Society, founded in 1924 and working “to secure a more balanced assessment of the king,” to quote the society’s website. Such societies are generally filled with harmless cranks, of the sort who think the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays.
One Ricardian (as they style themselves) is a playwright named Phyllis Langley, who decided to go hunting for Richard’s body. Finding a 1741 map of Leicester that pointed to the possible location of the friary, she and her fellow Ricardians raised money, enlisted local archeologists, and convinced the town council to let them dig up the parking lot.
The excavation began in August of last year, and by September the remains of an adult male with scoliosis had been discovered. The skeleton’s skull appeared to have suffered significant peri-mortem trauma, with 10 separate wounds, consistent with death in battle.
But how to nail down the case for this being Richard’s final resting place? Coincidentally, a search of Richard’s family tree turned up a direct descendant of Richard’s sister, Anne of York, through an all-female line of descent (though the actual comparator DNA came from the son of the now-deceased woman who was last in the line). This allowed geneticists to compare the mitochondrial DNA of Richard with his purported descendant, and the mtDNA matched up nicely. While not a perfect case (the descendant shares mtDNA with about one percent of the modern English population), the story seems a pretty good one. Other DNA sequencing studies are ongoing.
The story impressed me on a number of counts. First, it’s a great detective story, with an inspired amateur driving a major historical find, the sort of tale that gives one hope that we can do something special if we are persistent and smart enough.
Secondly, the story impresses in the way that archeology is becoming affiliated with genomics. You could not have even thought about doing such a study until fairly recently: analyzing the body under the parking lot required modern techniques. Like King Tut’s genomic analysis three years ago, this is simply wonderful, gee-whiz science.
Thirdly, I am amazed that anyone would be able to discover a direct line female descendant of someone who died in 1485. Most of us have would have trouble tracing our family tree that far back. The modern carpenter who supplied the DNA was unaware of his royal origins until told by investigators.
It gives me hope. I am also of English origin, my family having moved to Virginia in the 1680s. Could I be descended from some famous king?
Maybe, maybe not. The summer I graduated from college, my parents took my brother and me to Europe for one of those “If this is Tuesday it must be Belgium” tours. My dad had a lively interest in family genealogy, and knew the Sledges had migrated from England. Perhaps we should pop in to the Royal College of Arms and see if there was a Sledge family coat of arms.
I don’t know how it works now—I imagine an instantaneous computer search—but in those days you plopped down some cash for a search and then returned three days later. My dad and I met with a distinguished looking, gray-haired, elegantly dressed representative to hear the much-anticipated results.
“Mr. Sledge” he said, bowing slightly to my Dad, and then “Mr. Sledge,” again bowing slightly to me, “We have examined the records of the Royal College of Arms back to the year 1348.” Meaningful pause. “NO Sledge has ever received a coat of arms in England or Wales.”
This dire missive was accompanied by a look somewhere between pity and contempt.
I glanced at my Dad, and he at me, and then we both stared laughing out loud. Peasants all the way back. I guess now we knew why our ancestors moved to colonial Virginia. The elderly Brit looked aghast. We apparently were unmindful of the august majesty of the Royal College of Arms. We left, hurriedly, still giggling under our breaths.
Should I re-visit the issue, in light of recent events in Leicester? Maybe the Sledges weren’t just poor Anglo-trash. Maybe, just maybe, I carry the genes of kings and potentates?
So far I’ve resisted the impulse to undergo genetic testing, confident that that distinguished-looking voice of British heraldry got it right the first time.
And when you get right down to it, who really cares? Like most Americans, I consider the future more important than the past. Unless, of course, Richard’s genes predispose me to cancer, Alzheimer’s, or sword-induced battlefield trauma. Companies like 23 and Me, with their instant genealogy, don’t really help me deal with the troubles that walk through my door every day.
Which brings me to my last reason for liking this story. The body under the parking lot is also a fine metaphor for modern existence. We exist, or pretend we do, entirely above the parking lot, in a world dominated by technology. The cars whiz past, unaware of what lies beneath the pavement: the history of our past, written in the human genome. For the moment, I’ll let it lie there.