You can hear them shouting it in the horrible mobile-phone footage of the mob killing the wounded, befuddled Muammar Gaddafi: “Not the face, don’t touch the face.” They weren’t feeling sorry for the dying dictator of Libya. They just wanted to make sure that his corpse was recognisable. A lot of people would not feel safe, and some other people would not give up fighting for him, until they were sure he was really dead.
They probably yelled the same thing while they were killing King Richard III on a battlefield near Leicester in 1485. He had only been on the English throne for two years when Henry Tudor came back from exile and overthrew him in the Battle of Bosworth, but it was essential that many witnesses saw and recognised his corpse. Otherwise there would be endless rebels claiming to be Richard and trying to overthrow the new king.
In fact, we can be pretty certain that the men who killed Richard III were indeed ordered to spare his face, because they have now found Richard’s remains under a car-park in the centre of Leicester. His face is pretty much intact, even though the rest of his skull is a mess. You have to be sure that the old dictator is dead before you give your allegiance to the new dictator.
They initially suspected it was Richard III because they were digging up the car-park to examine the foundations of the medieval Church of the Greyfriars, which is where he was buried. They were further persuaded because the skeleton’s spine was twisted by scoliosis in a way that would have made him look hunch-backed, as every account says that the last of the Plantagenet kings did.
Then they did a computer reconstruction of what the skull would have looked like with flesh on it, and used 3-D printing to built up a plastic model that closely resembles near-contemporary portraits of the king. And finally they matched up his mitochondrial DNA with that of Canadian Michael Ibsen, who is descended from Richard’s sister, Anne of York. Yup, it’s Richard III—and here’s how he died.
There is a fist-sized chunk gone from the base of the skull where a heavy, sharp-bladed weapon, most likely a halberd (basically, an axe at the end of a pike) had sliced right through the bone and into the brain. Just below it is a smaller hole, probably made by a sword, that penetrated the bone and entered the brain. Either wound would have killed him in less than a minute.
There are about a dozen other wounds, most probably inflicted after he died, but only two small ones on his face. A mob of foot-soldiers—the people who killed him were using infantry weapons—enthusiastically took part in the slaughter, but they left him recognisable.
It all fits with the accounts that he was unhorsed in a cavalry melee and then surrounded and killed by Tudor infantry. “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” William Shakespeare has him cry as they close in, and that has the ring of truth.
So Henry Tudor became Henry VII, to be succeeded by Henry VIII, the closest that English history has ever come to a Stalin figure, and then by “Bloody Mary”, and then Queen Elizabeth I (“Good Queen Bess”), while Richard III became Shakespeare’s most monstrous villain, plotting and murdering his way across three of the Bard’s best-known plays.
It was all pro-Tudor propaganda: Shakespeare, who wrote his plays during Elizabeth’s reign, was not fool enough to question the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty, or to praise its enemies. We don’t know whether Richard III was really as bad as Shakespeare painted him, but he was undoubtedly pretty bad, because they all were: medieval politics was ruthless and bloody.
The temptation is to say that nothing much has changed. Gaddafi was also a monster and a killer, and he died in about the same way (except for the horse). History just repeats itself in different clothing, and things are as bad as they ever were.
The temptation should be resisted. Violence still works the same way it always did, but there is far less of it around. Even allowing for the great wars of the last century, the proportion of the population that dies violently now is ten times lower than it was in medieval times.
Tyrants still get overthrown violently, but more of them are removed by non-violent means, and there are fewer of them around anyway. Nor are they just succeeded by other tyrants. After Gaddafi’s death, Libya held free elections, and it now has a normal civilian government. One that has a lot of work to do to restore order in the country after 42 years of Gaddafi’s tyranny and incompetence, to be sure, but it is making progress.
There’s that dirty word again: “progress”. We’re not supposed to believe in that any more. What about terrorism? What about the “structural violence” of capitalism? “Progress” smacks of cultural imperialism, and even worse, it’s naive.
Okay. You go and live in the 15th century. I’ll just stay here and hold your horse.