Richard III: Gone but certainly not forgotten

National Portrait Gallery

National Portrait Gallery


Being a historian with a side interest in archaeology, who particularly favours the medieval, I’ve watched the uncovering of Richard III in Leicester with fascination. So I was very excited to find out about the lecture being given by the university about it. I would have liked a little more detail perhaps, but I suppose I just have to wait for the various articles and reports to be published. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to hear the story from some of the team firsthand. How the main goal from the university’s point of view was to find evidence of the Greyfriars Friary, and if they could identify which part they were in, or even find the church, so much the better. The fact that they found Richard at all, let alone so quickly, was so astounding because it was so unlikely. And yet there he was, his knees a mere 90mm below the floor level of a demolished modern building. Had those builders dug a fraction deeper, the remains of one of the more (in)famous English monarchs really would have been lost forever. Despite that, in one of those quirks of fate, somehow his oddly-positioned head also escaped damage. Photographs show his head and shoulders to be propped up, as if he’s leaning against the end of his grave. Although it was cut in a much less regular and tidy fashion than the others around him, it was still long enough for him to be laid flat had they taken the time to straighten him out. But given this was some days after his death, the monks can perhaps be forgiven for not spending too long on perfecting the presentation. We also heard about the practical aspects of such a project that never would have occurred to me. While transporting a bone sample to France for DNA analysis, a letter to customs officials was carried to explain that this was a member of the project team carrying a bone fragment, which was securely packaged to avoid contamination and please do not open it! And on the return journey, another to say that the white powder being carried was a ground archaeological specimen and please do not open it! All in all, well worth the two-hour journey down from Leeds.

I think what has struck me most about the whole thing though, is the scale of the reaction. Naturally enough the media has had a field day, particularly the local news broadcasters. Also obviously there have been comments from several historians, some of whom seem to be suffering from a severe case of sour grapes that they or their fields aren’t the ones who’ve caught the public’s imagination.  Bewailing the fact that it’s kings and queens again and what about learning about ‘ordinary’ people is missing the point. Apart from the fact that in general Brits like to hear about kings and queens, there has to be a hook to interest a casual observer, and obviously that’s going to be easier with someone with a recognisable face and name. I’m not going to get into where he should be re-interred, because to be honest I’m not bothered one way or another. But somehow it’s become almost the biggest part of the story, rather than the more important things like whether we can corroborate or disprove anything we thought we knew about him. Was he dug up and thrown in a river? No. Are his injuries consistent with being killed in the thick of battle? Yes. Was Shakespeare lying about him having a physical deformity for dramatic effect? No, although he could have been exaggerating. Did he have a withered arm? No, although he did have slender bones for a man. Did he murder the Princes in the Tower? Well that’s the question that everyone wants answered and which probably never will be. And it’s also the one that’s ensured that this king of only two years is so well known, why opinion is so sharply divided, and consequently why so many preposterous things have been said over the last few months. Like Leicester don’t deserve to have him now because they lost him for 500 years, that because he happened to have a car park laid over him that they’ve mistreated him. Well it’s not like that was the intention in 1485 was it. That the facial reconstruction shows he looks nothing like a tyrant – and what does a tyrant look like, pray tell? (And actually I can more easily imagine a tyrant in the reconstructed face that I can in the medieval portrait.) There also seems to be some debate about whether he should be (re)laid to rest in an Anglican church when he would have been Catholic. Let’s not forget though that he was originally buried in a friary church, and you can’t get much more Catholic than that. And I can’t say I’ve ever heard anyone suggest that we should exhume, say, Mary I or any other medieval monarch and move them from their now Anglican church to a Catholic one.

But I like the fact that history, and proper history at that, not 20th century Europe for the umpteenth time, is making headlines for a change. And this is at a time when there are concerns about decreasing numbers of history students in narrowing areas of study. Yet many people seem to have at least taken enough of an interest in the story to have some sort of opinion on it. Hopefully it will encourage a greater interest in history in general, and medieval history in particular. And maybe even some more medieval history on TV!

For starters, let’s not forget the other aspect of this project – the knowledge we have gained about Greyfriars. Beforehand, very little was known about it, but now we have information about, amongst other things, the layout, the floor tiles, the other people buried there and the fact that the church may have been faced with brick. Hopefully one day the archaeologists will be able to go back and find out even more.


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