Gwynne Dyer: Richard III and the death of tyrants

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      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.                   




      Feb 7, 2013 at 7:39pm

      A neat if obvious analogy between Richard III and Gaddafi but Dyer swallows the bait on both. Richard II was apparently rather good in advancing English law progressively, and in Libya, literacy had gone from 10% to 90% during Gaddafi's reign--not to mention the fact that the country had the highest standard of living in Africa... at least they did until NATO came in to grab their oil (yes that is really what it was about). Apart from that you have to be smoking something to argue any sort of real democracy has replaced Gaddafi's despotism, or that things are in any way "normal." This is all mainstream press propaganda. Shame on you Gwynne, we had come to expect more from you.

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      Feb 8, 2013 at 10:09am

      Gadaffi's overthrow was a good thing, imo.

      Having the West choose a side and actively help the rebels was, imo, a bad thing...undoubtedly, most would disagree.

      Outside of offering humanitarian aid, stopping major genocide (major - every war has some genocide) or forcing peace and then enforcing that peace; other countries should stay out of a particular countries civil wars.

      All it usually does is result in far more civilian deaths then otherwise would have occurred, encourage other rebel groups in other countries to try and start bloody civil wars and often leads to generations of anger, resentment and revenge thanks to all the death and brutality.

      It was wrong for the West to 'butt in' in Libya and Mali the way they did and it is wrong in Syria to send arms to the rebels.

      Bloody civil wars must be discouraged not encouraged.

      There are far better ways to depose tyrants.

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      Feb 8, 2013 at 3:07pm

      Love the parallels. Gadaffi tried to flee the fall of Misrata in a motorized convoy when it was strafed by a French fighter. Thus 'unhorsed' he was also caught by the infantry.

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      Feb 8, 2013 at 5:33pm

      Nicely said - Mr. Dyer. Richard the Plantagenet's legacy was capitalised quickly by the propagandists, as it has happened with "The Colonel." However, I'm pretty sure history will show us that Gadaffi killed more than the Two Princes in his lifetime . . . Now, where is Gadaffi's skeleton?

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      Feb 8, 2013 at 11:29pm

      "restore order in the country after 42 years of Gaddafi’s tyranny and incompetence"

      The Great Man-Made River Project supplied fresh water to Libyan cities. It would be nice if our tyrants could be as incompetent.The 2012 documentary Last Call at the Oasis describes some problems people have with toxic water suplies.

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      Feb 19, 2013 at 5:42am

      Has any one else noticed that Dyer's comments have become decidedly more mainstream since the reports that Bin Laden had sent letters to him and others to connect more with the media?

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      Feb 28, 2013 at 3:41pm

      Gwynne Dyer: Gadhafi was also a monster and a killer,
      Jct: What a foul-mouth bull-shit liar. Gathafi came to power in a bloodless coup and killed nobody.
      GD: After Gadhafi’s death, Libya held free elections, and it now has a civilian government. One that has a lot of work to do to restore order in the country after 42 years of Gadhafi’s tyranny and incompetence, to be sure, but it is making progress.
      Jct: NATO propagandist tries to re-write history as if we'd forget Libya got a UN Human Rights Award, had the highest standard of living on the African continent, better civil rights than in Gulag Amerika, shared the oil wealth:
      Obama, Harper, Cameron, Sarkozy if they can,
      Will kill Gathafi's bad example, kill the honest man.
      Unlike dictators West supports who steal from all with stealth.
      No thief is Muammar, he's loved for sharing oily wealth.
      He made them own homes, cars, and tools, free-market to the test,
      Mixed in with public services, at socialism's best.
      He built a lot of hospitals with health care given free,
      With schools for education, home and foreign, pay no fee.
      Though Man-Made River Great he built, no tax to worry heads,
      No interest on loans and $50 Grand to newly-weds.
      He financed satellite for Africa with boon so big:
      It let M-Pesa cell-phone credits nix the banks their vig.
      He gave up power to the People's Conferences new.
      "here all could speak their minds; a chance, here, only for the few.
      With UN Human Rights the best, what are complaints about?
      Paid malcontents by CIA are only ones who shout.
      "Protect civilians from attack" United Nations said,
      A "No-fly zone" turned to bombardment making many dead.
      By showing up our leaders as the failures that they are,
      To blow his earthly heaven up is reason why they war.
      Youtube for "Gathafi's Green Book" for his ideas on
      direct democracy and sharing the wealth from the hero
      we're trying to kill. Africa's very own Gandhi.

      Gwynne Dyer is an apologists for the Butchers of Libya and Saint Muammar, my hero. A political leader who didn't steal and died resisting invaders.

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