'Richard III' by William Shakespeare

‘Richard III’ by William Shakespeare (Photo credit: Huntington Theatre Company)

Do you want to know a secret?,
Do you promise not to tell?, whoa oh, oh.”

–John Lennon-Paul McCartney

We all have secrets. They can be wonderful, horrible, or something in-between.  They can be big—the WWII invasion of Normandy, or small–a friend’s surprise party.  Sometimes a secret makes us so happy that we want to hold it close to our hearts for a while before sharing it; for example, a new love, a desired pregnancy, or some career success. A secret can also be something so awful that we’re too afraid to share it—sexual abuse, war crimes, and other horrors.

As a historian, I am a professional reader of secrets. I have read the words of people long dead, the private words they wrote to their loved ones in letters, and the thoughts they confided in their diaries.  “I love you.” “I have become resigned to my fate.” “Tell me what to do.”

Two recent news stories have made me think about secrets and history.  First, the death of 87-year-old Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the daughter that former South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond never publicly acknowledged. It was long rumored that the champion of segregation had a “mixed-race” child.  Washington-Williams was the daughter of Thurmond and the teenaged black maid who worked for his family.  It was only after he died that she finally stated for the record that Thurmond was her father.  For most of her life, she and others, kept this secret.  I can’t imagine not being able to say aloud the name of my father. Thurmond gave Washington-Williams financial support, and perhaps he cared for her—but not enough to risk his career.

The second news story is the finding and positive identification of the bones of Richard III. Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. By this time, most everybody has probably heard how the monarch’s bones were discovered beneath a car park.  The striking curvature of his spine was evident, and scientific inspection has revealed both the death wound and the “humiliation” wounds inflicted on his body after death.  Further analysis of the bones indicates that the 32-year-old king ate a high protein diet of meat and fish, consistent with what a member of the royal family of that period would eat. Additional proof of identify came from a match of DNA taken from the bones with a sample taken from a descendant of the king’s sister, Anne of York. It is fascinating.

Richard III was the last Plantagenet king of England. The victor at Bosworth became Henry VII, the first Tudor king. The Tudors and their supporters portrayed Richard as an evil, deformed tyrant. The most notable depiction, of course, is in William Shakespeare’s famous play, “The Tragedy of King Richard the Third.” Richard has long been accused of murdering his nephews who he held prisoner in the Tower of London, but despite the best analyses of bones and dirt, the secret of what really happened to the princes will probably never be known.

It is impossible to really know what secrets are held in the heads and hearts of those around us, whether they are famous politicians, kings, or ordinary people. There are those whose lives—and the lives of others—depend on their ability to keep secrets. I mean, for example, spies and those in resistance movements. Then there is that person we thought we knew well who suddenly acts in a way so radically different that we wonder if we ever truly knew him or her.  “I never thought he [or she] could act that way,” we say. We all have secrets. Come closer, I’ll tell you mine. Do you promise not to tell?

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