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Reaching Lifelong Goals

Nontraditional Grad Student's Journey in Public History

X Rated Shakespeare?

Posted by Redfokker On June - 11 - 2010

My final research paper for my ENG203 class was a look at the Elizabethan sexual references made by Shakespeare.   Today’s audiences miss some of these juicy, sexy and downright bawdy jokes.   Censorship was rampant during Shakespeare’s times but he still had to entertain his groundling and penny stinkards at the Globe Theater.  This paper only looks at a few of the bawdy jokes from the plays we studied this last Spring Term 2010.   All of his plays are full of raunchy sex jokes that were the X rated movies of the Elizabethan era.   As a Non Traditional Student, I wanted to write my final paper for my instructor on a subject that he so vividly illustrated in his lectures.   Only Shakespearean Scholars (geeks) usually get these jokes today, but during Shakespeare’s lifetime, the Bard kept them rolling in the aisles with a steady stream of sexual double entendres.  Even though I have completed this series of English Literature classes, I will continue to research and write posts on this topic here on Reaching Lifelong Goals.com just for fun!!    I hope you enjoy this research paper.

X Rated Shakespeare

William Shakespeare knew what his audiences wanted.   He produced plays that were topical, controversial, and also quite risqué!   Ask any advertiser in the 21st century and they will tell you, “sex sells!”   It seems that some things never change.   Similar to Shakespeare’s use of topical references, many of the more bawdy lines go unappreciated by modern audiences.   Shakespeare used bawdy humor in his dialogue to entertain theater-goers in the same way that current day stand up comedians and PG rated films does.

Gordon Williams published a rather detailed dictionary of sexual  language in 1994 in which he states, “On the whole, and certainly in discursive writings of Shakespeare’s day, the blunt monosyllable gets into print chiefly by way of punning allusion”  (Williams.10).   It is well established that William Shakespeare was the master of the pun in all of his works.   It is interesting that this skill was also used to weave into plays some of the most outrageous sexual references right under the censor’s noses.

Pauline Kiernan, in her book Filthy Shakespeare, makes an interesting point about the Elizabethan audience, “Shakespeare’s audiences were fine-tuned to hearing what we now call subtext in a way that we can hardly begin to imagine.  When they talked of going to the theater, they called is going to hear a play, not to see one” (Kiernan.12).

Enough with the tease, shall we take a closer look at the bawdy references in the plays studied this Spring term 2010; Twelfth Night, Othello and The Tempest. There are several examples in each of these plays of how Shakespeare kept things lively in the Globe, regrettably have space for only a sample in this format.

Perhaps the wildest lines that made it past the censors were in Twelfth Night, where the Puritan Malvolio says, “By my life, this is my lady’s hand.  These be her very C’s, her U’s aNd her T’s and thus makes her great P’s” (12thN.2.5.72-74).  Shakespeare has great fun in presenting Malvolio, a Puritan as a fool, with his aspirations to social climbing and class envy.   The groundlings would have been rolling in the isles over this one.  This line is often cut from productions.   It would seem that the Puritans had their way with this passage, even to modern times.

In Act 1, scene 3, Sir Toby Belch has an exchange with Sir Andrew where he makes fun of “hair”.   “Excellent, it hangs like flax on a distaff, and I hope to see a housewife take thee between her legs and spin it off” (12thN.1.3.84-85).   A fairly tame sounding line, to today’s audience.   The references are to a penis (distaff) and a woman (whore) masturbating (spin it off) Sir Andrew.  Again, this line is also over the heads of modern audiences, who laugh without really getting the joke.

There are many sexual references in the play, Othello, the Moore of Venice. Perhaps one of the lines that a modern audience would get the meaning of is given by Iago in Act I.   “I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs (O.I.1.115).   This is an Elizabethan slang term that was documented by Eric Partridge in his book Shakespeare’s Bawdy. This book was written in the early 1950s and was quite controversial for the times.   The sensibilities of the era are reflected in his definition of Iago’s obscenity, “A man and a woman in coitu obviously resemble a two-headed animal with two backs, four arms, and four legs”. (Partridge.144).   This definition was a polite way of saying “doggie style” today.

Another famous quote from Iago is both racial and sexual.   “Even now, now, very now, and old black ram is tupping your white ewe” (O.I.1.89-90).  This reference is fairly easy to understand, in any culture, and any era.   Both of the texts make reference to “tup” as a term for sex.  Other references are found in this play which revolves around the sexual puns exchanged between Iago and Desdemona.  In Act V, Scene 1 there is a reference to the sexual double standard that allowed men to be unfaithful while women who did so were considered whores.   Emilia says, “I do think it is their husband’s faults if wives do fall.   Say that they slack their duties and pour our treasures in foreign laps…And have not we affections, desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?” (O.5.1)   This would be defined as what is good for the goose is also good for the gander.

The final play studied was The Tempest, which is fairly “clean” as far as sex goes.   Prospero warns Ferdinand in Act 4, Scene 1 that “If thou dost break her virgin-knot before all sanctimonious ceremonies …be ministered” (T.4.1.15-17).   Here the reference to virginity is illustrated with a period term that is fairly straight-forward.   An interesting reference in regard to the late Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen.   Kiernan tells of a quote by Ben Johnson where he said “that she had a membrane on her so thick that no man could penetrate her, though for her delight, she tried many” (Kiernan.283).   Johnson went on to publish this story in Conversations with Drummond in 1618-19.

The topic of bawdy language in Shakespeare’s works is a discipline all on its own to research.   There are more references and puns in his works that it is an area that a Shakespearean scholar could spend a lifetime researching.   Perhaps Pauline Kiernan states it best, “His plays and poems are stuffed with the kind of double entendres and obscene wordplay that would make our most risqué stand-up comics blush” (Kiernan, 12).

Works Cited

Kiernan, Pauline.  Filthy Shakespeare. New York:  Gotham Books. 2006.

Partridge, Eric.  Shakespeare’s Bawdy.  London: Routledge.  1968

Williams, Gordon.  Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and

Stuart Literature. New Jersey:  Athalone Press. 1994

Shakespeare’s Sources for The Tempest Research Paper

Posted by Redfokker On June - 10 - 2010

I have two more research papers to post from my Shakespeare English Studies classes.   The play this paper was written about was The Tempest.   I have gotten A+ grades on all of these papers.   Being a History Major, I have taken my study of the works of Shakespeare and looked at them from a historical perspective.   As a Non Traditional Student, I put in that extra Non Trad effort on all of these papers.   Each paper I have posted was supposed to be a short 2 page paper, my papers are about 4-6 pages each.  I have one more to post, probably in the next couple of days.   This was my last term at Linn Benton Community College, and starting in a couple of weeks I’ll be full time at Oregon State University.   I will try to keep posting my college papers here on the Reaching Lifelong Goals.com blog so they can float around in cyberspace forever.   Hope you enjoy this paper.   I address the Shakespeare Authorship debate as it relates to sources used for the writing of The Tempest (1611).

Shakespeare’s Sources for The Tempest – Reflections of a “Born Again” Stratfordian

The evidence of William Strachey’s 1610 True Reportory being a major influence in Shakespeare’s The Tempest is profound, or is it?   Again and again in my research of the works of William Shakespeare, anti-Stratfordian arguments seem to wash up like flotsam on a Bermuda beach.  The parallels of the experiences of William Strachey and the wreck of the Sea Venture with the plot and details of The Tempest seem overwhelmingly obvious to me.  To the Oxfordian author Nina Green, somehow there are none to be found.

In a 1996 article, David Kathman lays out a detailed comparison of the events of the 1609 wreck of the Sea Venture and the subsequent narration sent back to England by the expedition’s chronicler, William Strachey.  He lists over 50 connections to the play from the events from the voyage to the new world.  Kathman states, “William Shakespeare had multiple connections to both the Virginia Company and William Strachey, and it is not at all surprising that he would have had access to Strachey’s letter. As I will also show, this letter saturates The Tempest, providing the basic scenario, many themes and images, and many details of plot and language. The first recorded performance of The Tempest was at Court on November 1, 1611, allowing us to date the play’s composition with remarkable accuracy to the roughly one-year period between the fall of 1610 and the fall of 1611″ (Kathman 1).  With close examination of this comparison, Kathman gets into minute detail with phrases found in the Strachey letter and their use in The Tempest. I agree with most of his findings, but feel he may have been trying a little too hard to find some of the links.   Overall, his arguments are sound, historically factual, and logical.

The rebuttal from Nina Green tries to disprove each of the 50+ parallels, and to put forth the idea that Edward DeVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, somehow wrote the play under the pen name of Shakespeare.   The fact that DeVere died on the 24th of June, 1604, seven years before the documented first performance of The Tempest, is not mentioned in her attack on Kathman’s work.  The 94 page refutation paper begins with the tone, “When subjected to analysis, David Kathman’s false parallels all melt into thin air. They are insubstantial and baseless. They dissolve and fade, leaving ‘not a rack behind’ “(Green 1).  It goes downhill from there.   The attacks on Kathman’s parallels are, at best, nitpicking, taking each entry and coming up with an explanation that seems to be correct on the surface, but missing the main point that Shakespeare used the accounts as inspiration for a work of fiction, not a travelogue or a documentary.

One example that I found indicative of Nina Green’s overall arguments is about the actual geography known to the Elizabethans of the islands around Bermuda.  She questions, “Would Shakespeare have used a tract mentioning a group of five hundred islands as a source for a play about a single isolated island”(Green 2)?  The simple answer is, why not?   The Kathman paper proposes that Shakespeare used the accounts of William Strachey as a source, not as an actual template of the events that were somehow required to write the play.

Along the same vein of reasoning, Green further writes, “Similarly, the flora and fauna in Bermuda as described by Strachey and Jourdain are markedly different from the flora and fauna mentioned by Shakespeare in The Tempest” (Green 3).  The island described in the play is only loosely based on Bermuda, and perhaps Shakespeare felt no need to include “…stingrays, whales and sharks” (Green 3) as set pieces on the Globe Stage.

Only three pages into this diatribe that tries to disprove Shakespeare’s use of sources that were very definitely available to him, we begin to see the desperation of many of the Oxfordian arguments.   Carefully reading all 94 pages of this rebuttal only reinforces my status as a “born again” Stratfordian.   Seeking arguments that are considered to be peer-reviewed, I researched articles published in the Shakespeare Quarterly as an effort to make some sense out of Shakespeare’s sources for The Tempest.

Alden T. Vaughn published an article in the Fall 2008 issue of the quarterly, titled William Strachey’s “True Reportory” and Shakespeare: A Closer Look at the Evidence. In this work, the author explores some of the attacks on Strachey’s True Reportory, both as it was probably available to Shakespeare in 1610, and the published version of 1625.  The author gives a very detailed account of the challenges to Strachey’s letter as a source, and refutes each of them.

The main issue surrounding the debate on William Strachey’s chronicles seems to boil down to what access Shakespeare had to it as a source in 1610.   Strachey’s ties with the Elizabethan theaters before the voyage, and his probable connections to both Burbage and Shakespeare, are documented in Vaughn’s dissection of the previous work on the issue.   The author cites the works of Edmund Malone (1808) and Morton Luce (1901) as being important early articles linking Bermuda and William Strachey to the writing of the play (Vaughn 245).

Finding credible arguments about the sources for The Tempest in peer-reviewed articles further reinforces my conclusions about the historical events involved.   I feel that Alden Vaughn was correct in stating, “The virtual certainty that Strachey’s letter reached London in September 1610 and the overwhelming probability that at least two copies circulated widely among Company officials and their friends establish that ‘True Reportory’ was available for Shakespeare to use in The Tempest. The abundant thematic and verbal parallels between the play and ‘True Reportory’ have persuaded generations of readers that Shakespeare borrowed liberally from Strachey’s dramatic narrative in telling his island tale” (Vaughn 273).

Total immersion in all things Shakespeare over the past three terms has given this old history geek a new-found appreciation of the works of the Bard.  Looking at the plays from my historical perspective has been a journey into 16th century Elizabethan England, and how Shakespeare dovetails into its history.  The authorship debate is often a side-trip that diverts my research path, but I remain steadfast, a “born again” Stratfordian.  And yes, the government faked the Apollo moon landings on a sound stage in Burbank!

Works Cited

Green, Nina. “False Parallels in David Kathman’s Dating The Tempest.”  Oxford-Shakespeare.com. 2005. 22 May 2010. Web.

Kathman, David. “Dating The Tempest.” Shakespeareauthorship.com. 1996. 22 May 2010.web.

Vaughn, Alden. “William Strachey’s ‘True Reporatory’ and Shakespeare: A Closer Look At the Evidence.” Shakespeare Quarterly . Volume 59, Number 3, Fall 2008, pp. 245-273. 22 May 2010. Web.

Today, I continue to add one of my older Shakespeare research papers from my first term in Mr. Jensen’s class.  By the end of the term, I was feeling quite good about my success in the course.   This paper was a little indulgent on my part, but it still received another A+.  This paper was the first one that came in at the required 2 pages/double spaced (most of my papers have been in the 5-6 page range). Now that I have completed the entire ENG201-203 series, I still feel the same as my first term paper reflected.   I will be spending this weekend writing my last research paper for this instructor.   I have every confidence that I will end up with a perfect record of all 12 papers for this class earning A+ grades.  I’ll be posting the last couple of papers later this week (after final exams!  I have 3 this term…)   This journey as a Non Traditional Student returning to college after 35 years is really becoming one of the big successes of my life!

Reflections on Early Shakespeare  “The Bard through New Eyes”

I feel compelled to look back on my studies of the early works of William Shakespeare with a new-found understanding and appreciation of his plays for what they truly are, literary genius.  As a “theater person”, mostly in the technical realm, I was never able to read a play for pure pleasure.   How would I get my actors to exit stage left?    How will the sound effect be cued?   How many flats would I need to build an Elizabethan tavern for The Merry Wives of Windsor? Every script was more of an exercise in logistics and design versus the wonderful stories and dialogue.

What I have learned over the past ten weeks has allowed me to see the Bard’s plays through new eyes.   As a History Major, I was drawn to the historical tidbits in lectures about 16th century England.   The study of these works became more than reading a play.   Richard III led me down a path of discovery about two young princes, lost in the Tower of London.   Shakespeare’s histories came to life in the study of how King Richard manipulates and schemes his way into the crown.   Having the background of how Shakespeare was able to fit history onto the stage was a highlight in my enjoyment of the play.

Information about Shakespeare’s poems involving his dedications to Henry Wriothesley sparked my interest as I read the words.   Who was the Bard referring to here?    How does this possibly relate to the “dark lady”?   I was reading a poem for both pleasure and clues at the same time.   This is what is so exhilarating about seeing this literature through my new eyes.    The theories about the symbols of Venus and Adonis and various codes that were popular in Renaissance England will be a theme I will follow throughout my study of Shakespeare.

I cannot possibly convey how wonderful it is to enjoy Shakespeare’s comedies on a literary and historical basis.    It really helps when you get the jokes!   The use of various mythological characters mixed into one story is fascinating when you learn how they were weaved together so artfully.   Again, my love of all things Historical allowed me to learn about medieval herbalists and the use of many botanical references all through Shakespeare’s works.    Further study of these references and Will’s country upbringing will be forthcoming.

Love and Hate, romance and war, the juxtaposition in the Tragedy Romeo and Juliet is another joy to behold.   And to think, only a few years ago, all I could think of was how to build that crazy balcony!    I originally planned to write this paper comparing West Side Story with this play.   As I watched, furiously taking notes, I finally realized that I was seeing something through this wonderful filter of literary awareness.    It did give me pause.   Where will these “new eyes” of mine lead me next? I hope that you will allow me this one indulgent paper.   I liken it to the catharsis of the climax of a Greek tragedy.   Not since I played the role of Banquo in the 4th grade (with rave revenues on the playground I should add) have I been able to really enjoy my studies of William Shakespeare.   For this gift, I must thank you.

As an effort to catch up with posting all of my research papers for my Shakespeare English Literature class, here is one more for you today.   While studying Mid Summer Nights Dream, I noticed the use of botanical references to flowers and their medicinal properties.   This led to a wonderful research journey into Shakespeare’s early life in rural England and his exposure to flora and fauna.   I found references to many different flowers and animals throughout his works.   In MSND, (Shakespeare speak for the play)  there is reference to “Love in Idleness” flowers having magical properties.   This flower is what we consider as a Viola now, but as you can see in the research paper, many other names have been associated with this plant.   This was another Non Traditional Student effort, going way out of the box for a topic.   Truly a unique paper in the class, and it received an A+ grade.  I hope you enjoy it.

Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound, and maidens call it “Love in Idleness”     (Oberon, Mid Summers Night Dream, Act II, Scene 1)

It is evident that William Shakespeare was fluent in the folklore and history of the flora and fauna of his homeland.   You can find references to different species of plants and their related superstitions and histories in all of his published works.   Many Shakespearean scholars have devoted entire works to his botanical and folklore references.   Here we will deal with only one species, Heartsease (Viola tricolor) otherwise known as the Love in Idleness Pansy.  A common wild flower of the day, it was well-known to the Elizabethan herbalists.

Research of the name “love in Idleness” yields a treasure trove of information based on science as well as folklore.   M. Grieve, in The Modern Herbal, lists some of the many names this plant has been known as over the past 400 years: Wild Pansy, Love-Lies-Bleeding, Love-in-Idleness, Live-in-Idleness, Loving Idol, Love Idol, Cull Me, Cuddle Me, Call-me-to-you, Jackjump-up-and-kiss-me, Meet-me-in-the-Entry, Kiss-her-in-the-Buttery, Three-Faces-under-a-Hood, Kit-run-in-the-Fields, Pink-o’-the-Eye, Kit-run-about, Stepmother, Herb Trinitatis, Herb Constancy, Pink-eyed-John, Bouncing Bet, Flower o’luce, Bird’s Eye and Bullweed.[i] Many of these synonyms come from the plant being introduced into the new world by English settlers in the early 17th century.     This wild flower is common all over the British Isles and was long associated with love potions or love philtres for casting spells over people.     Love in Idleness is also mentioned by Shakespeare in the Taming of the Shrew, where in Act I, Scene I, Luciento claims he feels the effects of Love in Idleness, alluding to its qualities to stimulate love.  The theme of “love at first sight” is associated with this flower again in this later play.

Shakespeare was probably aware of one of the well-known herbalists of the period, John Gerard (1545-1612).

In his The Herbal or Generall  Historie of Plantes [ii],  which was published in 1596, he listed the medicinal properties of many of the plants and herbs known at the time.   Elizabethan herbalists relied on a number of herbs and flowers to cure all kinds of ailments and conditions.   There was a strong relationship between physicians and herbalists in Elizabethan England.    Another famous herbalist, Nicholas Culpepper published The Complete Herbal in 1653.     He specifically lists the qualities of the Heartsease (Love in Idleness).   “Government and virtues: The herb is really saturnine, something cold, viscous, and slimy. A strong decoction of the herbs and flowers (if you will, you may make it into syrup) is an excellent cure for the French pox, the herb being a gallant antivenereal: and that antivenereals are the best cure for that disease, far better and safer than to torment them with the flux, divers foreign physicians have confessed. The spirit of it is excellently good for the convulsions in children, as also for the falling sickness, and a gallant remedy for the inflammation of the lungs and breasts, pleurisy, scabs, itch, &c. It is under the celestial sign Cancer.” [iii] As an aside, it was entertaining to note the use of Heartsease for “an excellent cure of the French Pox”, a rather pointed English term for Syphilis.

In his book, Folk-Lore of Shakespeare, Rev. T. F. Dyer states: “Midsummer Eve appears to have been regarded as a period when the imagination ran riot, and many a curious superstition was associated with this season.  Thus people gathered on this night the rose, St. John’s Wort, vervian, trefoil and rue, all of which were supposed to have magical properties.” [iv] Shakespeare could not have selected a better night to set his mystical and comedic characters in.    Folk-lore had a major influence on the plot of the story.

Herbal medicine was also strongly linked with astrology and was an art taken up by many herbalists.  Culpepper made special note of the astrological signs that ruled each species of plant.   This was to insure that the plants could be harvested at their peak of potency.    This concept of astrology leads to Shakespeare’s folklore reference to midsummer’s eve, or the summer solstice.

The juices of the Love in Idleness flower alone were all that was needed for the desired effect in the play.  However, modern-day scientists feel that the love potion was more of a metaphor than an effective aphrodisiac.  Dr Charles Sell, the head of organic chemistry at Quest and a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said: “Wild pansies were noted in herbal folklore medicine. It was attributed with many properties but falling in love was probably the invention of Shakespeare.” [v] Dr Sell described the potion as having “a nice fragrance”, but said it had not triggered any amorous behavior.

Shakespeare uses references to many species of plants throughout his works.   His rural upbringing led to an advanced knowledge of the plants used in herbal medicine of the era.  He made more than one reference to the pansy, “Love in Idleness” in his plays.  What the significance of this particular plant was to him one can only ponder.


[i] M. Grieve, A modern Herbal, New York, Harcourt, Brace & Company,  1931, www.botanical.com

[ii]Gerard, John, The Herbal or The General History of Plants, c. 1596, web, http://dewey.library.upenn.edu

[iii]Culpepper, Nicholas, The Complete Herbal, c.1653, web, http://www.bibliomania.com

[iv] Rev. Dyer, T.F, Folk-Lore of Shakespeare, New York, Dover Pub,  1966, Reprinted from c. 1883

[v] Derbyshire,David, Midsummer Nights Love Potion Proves a Work of Fiction, London Telegraph, www.telegraph.co.uk, 14 Feb 2002

Shakespeare’s Richard III and the Two Princes in the Tower

Posted by Redfokker On May - 29 - 2010

As a Non Traditional Student and a History Major, I have been enjoying my assignments for research papers in my Shakespeare series of classes.  I have been posting my papers on the Reaching Lifelong Goals blog as a archive online of my Non Trad journey.   I have created a special category on my blog to post these papers, and this is one of my first efforts that I had missed posting.   An interesting comparison to my latest works as I have been learning about how to present these papers in proper formats, citations and content.   So far, my instructor, Peter Jensen seems to like what I have to say as I have a perfect record of A+ papers over the past three terms in ENG201-203.   I post these papers for the fun of it, but if they provide any ideas for my fellow Non Traditional Students on their research papers, I am OK with it.  I’ll be posting a couple more that are missing from this category over the next few days.   Please feel free to comment or post any rebuttals you may have, I have a thick skin!   Thank you for your time.

The Two Princes in the Tower of London:  What Could Today’s Forensic Anthropology tell us About the Mystery?

The story of the two princes in the tower is one of the great mysteries of the English monarchy.   The historical background of the two princes and their fates closely follows Shakespeare’s portrayal in Richard III.   Shakespeare uses Sir James Tyrrel’s soliloquy in Act IV, Scene 3 to illustrate the murders of Edward V and his brother Richard, 1st Duke of York, in great detail.   He further places guilt on Richard with him saying “Kind Tyrrell am I happy in thy news?”   Historical records do show that the princes were never seen again after the summer of 1483. Their fate remains unknown, and it is presumed that they either died or were killed there. There is no record of a funeral.

.   The remains of the two princes were left untouched from 1674 until being studied in 1933.   With the Permission of King George V, the bones were opened and studied.   This investigation, conducted by Drs. Wright and Tanner in 1933, was done under constraints that could have affected the accuracy of their findings. There is a possibility of bias on their part because they knew in advance the ages of Edward and Richard in 1483. Since 1933, there have been those who have made credible challenges to their findings.  Finally, even without the constraints, Wright and Tanner did not have the technology at their disposal to end speculation. They could not DNA-test the remains and thus end all arguments. Through the dental remains there appeared to be some kind of blood relation between the two skeletons, but this could not be proved. [2] At the time, the dental problems with the two skulls only linked them circumstantially to the written records.   A later archeological find 30 years later of another skeleton of the same period could have offered some comparisons.

In January of 1965, the London Museum announced that the remains of Anne Mowbray, the child wife of Richard, 1st Duke of York had been discovered.   Her skeletal remains were found by workers in a lead coffin.   The condition of the skull and teeth was very good, lending them to possible DNA testing at some point.    An observation from the Richard III Society website about the scientific information and its usefulness is noteworthy: “Further, scientific methods of dating bones have advanced much since 1933 and the differences in development between mediaeval and modern children may, in principle, be addressed because of the discovery in 1964 of the coffin and remains of Anne Mowbray, child wife of Richard of York, whose age and date of death are known. This gives a direct contemporary parallel by which to judge the age and development of the controversial skeletons.”[3]

This brings us to the question at hand. With the advances in forensic anthropology since the original investigation in 1933, will it be possible to identify the bones as belonging to Edward V and Richard 1st Duke of York?

Through the use of radio carbon dating of the bones, the age of the bones could only determined within a window of years.   There is a great deal of controversy around the accuracy of C-14 carbon dating[4].   The accuracy of this type of dating is not exact.  Radio Carbon dating of the bones through this method might not yield a definitive identification to the exact date in 1483.   It could however, show that the bones are from the correct general time period and not “leftovers” from a Roman burial centuries before.  Also, as noted above, there could be comparisons made with the remains of Anne Mowbray where the actual dates are known.

Perhaps the most promising new scientific tool that could be used is Mitochondrial DNA testing.   The science here is far more reliably accurate.   It was noted in the 1933 investigation that one of the skulls had teeth that viable DNA could be extracted from.   If this DNA could be tested against bloodlines existing today through a matriarchal connection, an accurate determination one way or the other could be made.   Also, the DNA from Anne Mowbray could also be utilized, as she was a cousin to the Princes.

The use of new scientific methods and forensics on the two skeletons might offer the cause of death.   The 1933 study made mention of blood stains around the mouth of the older skull, but no definitive findings could be made at that time.   Today’s forensic science and the use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging could give us a more accurate picture of the damage to the skull.

King Richard III

Even if the two skeletons were identified as Henry V and his younger brother Richard 1st Duke of York, would this put an end to the controversy?   It only would solve one part of the mystery, identification of the remains.   Would this prove Richard III’s guilt or innocence?    I think not.   The battle between the current day “Ricardians” and the “Yorkists” seems to be one of the most heated debates in historical circles.   Until more definitive evidence about the motives and actions of Richard III can be found, I feel no resolution is possible.

However, at the present time all of this is moot, as the remains are not available for study.   Queen Elizabeth has not given her permission for the study of the Princes’ remains.   They remain in the urn in Westminster Abbey.   The last request for study was rejected by the queen in 2002.  For the use of the current forensic science, it would be necessary to have access to the remains.   Prince Charles, next in line to the throne, has indicated interest in reopening this study. Until he becomes King, he does not have any power in this matter.  Will this change open up opportunities for further study of the princes’ bones?   This is a scenario that only time will reveal.    I am often reminded that Winston Churchill was right, “history is written by the victor.”


[1] Bones in the Tower: A Discussion of Time, Place and Circumstance

Maurer, Helen The Ricardian Vol. 8, No. 111 December 1990

[2] www.fifteenthcentury.net/skeletons

[3] To Prove a Villain, The real Richard III, Exhibition at the Royal National Theater, London, 1991
http://www.r3.org/rnt1991/deadbones.html

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