Digging for Richard

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When the University of Leicester held a press conference last Wednesday morning to announce a new phase in the archaeological dig for Richard III, I experienced an unexpected thrill when it transpired that the remains of an adult male had been discovered in what would have been the choir of Greyfriars Church in my hometown, Leicester.

A view of the trench

 

My delight was even more profound when preliminary examinations of the remains showed signs of spinal abnormality but, crucially, no indication of a hunched back; much to the joy of the Richard III Society, no doubt.

While I am fully aware that my excitement is premature, I can’t help feeling a little closer to old Dick. After all, his body has potentially been forgotten about for centuries and, with it, his true character.

When I played the Horrible Histories’ pseudo pop tribute to Richard III for a visiting group from the University of Bonn as a post-lecture treat, as well as storms of giggles, there was an overwhelming consciousness of the unreliability of historical record.

Click here to watch the Horrible Histories video

The point is that we can’t help but feel a little curious about Richard III; and with the curiosity comes a degree of embarrassment. For, after all, it is no conscience-friendly matter to destroy a man’s posthumous reputation. So is the dig a way of clearing some kind of collective conscience?

At the press conference, medieval scholars and archaeologists were discussing the importance of the find and the possibility of discovering a DNA match between the remains and the blood descendants of the ill-fated king. If there is a match and it transpires that Richard had a pretty decent bone structure, no palpable deformity and took a nasty blow to the skull before his death at Bosworth, then what exactly will that mean? As one of the scholars at the press conference pointed out, archaeology cannot reveal the character of the person to whom the remains belong, all it can do is, potentially, tell us about the physical condition of that person, and perhaps provide more information about the cause of death and the kind of burial he received.

The dig for Richard is attracting much worthy attention. Over a series of blogs I’ll be considering the impact of this revived interest in and possible discovery of the last Plantagenet king on the general response to Richard III, as well as the potential implications this may have on Shakespeare’s play.

Are you excited about the dig and the new discovery? Do you think that Richard III’s reputation has been unjustly maligned? Please join the debate by leaving your comments below.

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Author:Anjna Chouhan

Anjna is Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
  • Roy Wm. Shakespeare

    As someone with the name Shakespeare married to a woman named Tudor, with a son-in-law named Stanley, I should not be expected to empathise with Richard III. It’s strange therefore that I do and thus find myself quite excited about the discovery of the Leicester bones. If they are declared those of R3 then the spectacle of a state funeral for him is positively mouth watering. The almost daily articles in the press have given rise to fresh discussions about the king and whether he really was a villain or not. Most people I talk to think he has, over the years, been given a raw deal by historians and the general public alike. Not forgetting the negative image portrayed by the Bard in his play The Tragedy of Richard the Third. If these are indeed the bones of King Richard III they will at least give us a more accurate idea of his physical appearance, although his character and personality will continue to be essentially a matter of opinion. A recent visit to the Bosworth Battlefield Centre has virtually convinced me that Thomas More, Wm. Shakespeare et al got him all wrong. He was no saint but he was no worse than any other monarch of the time.

  • Unjustly maligned?
    Certainly – but that’s true of lots of people who’ve ended up on the
    wrong side of history. I think it’s more
    that he’s been caught between two polarised extremes – adoration and
    abomination. The possible discovery of
    his remains might lead to a more nuanced reading of a very interesting
    character who was arguably the right man in the right place at completely the
    wrong time.

    I don’t think there’ll be any serious impact on
    our reading of the Shakespeare play. It’s
    been blatantly obvious for years that the theatrical Richard III bears no
    relation to the historical personage. Of course, the scoliosis will close down
    debate about the extent of the myth-making with regard to one specific aspect
    of his life – his appearance. But no serious historian pushes the full
    Olivier/Spacey look, kyphosis, which the osteoarchaeologist took pains to rule
    out. Many have speculated as to the degree to which one of his shoulders may
    have been slightly higher than the other and suggested likely causes, but
    that’s as far as it goes.

    The word coming out from Leicester is that when
    clothed – and, especially, richly clothed – any asymmetry would have been
    almost imperceptible, and one suggestion is that the physical quirk of a curve
    in the spine only entered popular currency when the body was stripped and
    displayed for three days after Bosworth.
    It was then exaggerated by propagandists as an outward signifier of
    inner monstrosity.

    (And on that subject, one thing I’m bothered about
    is the easy use of the term “deformity” in the media at the moment.
    My day-job is working for a disability charity, and whenever I see it I feel
    like I’ve slipped back into the 1480s myself. Scoliosis is actually a comparatively
    common complaint. My mother has it. As, apparently, does Usain Bolt. And, as
    far as I know, neither has yet made a bid for the throne in consequence.)

    One of the problems with discussing Richard – and a
    problem exacerbated by Shakespeare – is that everything is reduced to a debate
    about what happened to the Princes in the Tower. The trouble is, there’s very little evidence
    of anything and it’s virtually impossible to put together a coherent and
    plausible narrative, no matter who you accuse. The whole thing degenerates into
    a game of celebrity cluedo in which people seem compelled to nominate suspects
    in opposition to each other: Richard, Buckingham, Henry Tudor, Margaret
    Beaufort etc. It all seems too neat and tidy if you believe more in the cock-up
    than conspiracy theory of history.

    Regarding Richard, all you can say is that it
    would be an out of character act for him, but people do out of character things
    in extremis. Yet, *if* he was the instigator, he did it in the manner that
    would be of least use in securing his own position (and his subsequent reconciliation with the boys’ mother makes the scenario even odder). I’m not convinced Henry VII
    knew what had happened to the Princes – the supposed Tyrell confession, never
    published, came years after Bosworth and was probably a put-up job to prevent
    further Pretenders, such as Perkin Warbeck, who had posed real danger. And,
    speaking of Warbeck, Sir William Stanley, the man whose actions had given Henry
    his crown at Bosworth, said if Warbeck were Edward IV’s son, he’d not fight
    against him. So there’s a huge void of information – even to the principal
    players of the time, let alone 500 years later – and you end up going round in
    circles.

    The popular imprint of Richard comes from
    Shakespeare. This portrait was, in turn,
    derived from Thomas More. More’s canonisation
    gives a spurious authenticity to his writings, bathing them in the saintly glow
    of Paul Schofield in ‘A Man for All Seasons’.
    But the historical More was a skilled manipulator, happy to distort the
    truth in a “good” cause, and a ferocious persecutor of heretics. His history is not first-hand observation (he
    was a child when Richard died) but was probably influenced by Cardinal John
    Morton, a political cleric and an ardent supporter of Henry Tudor.

    And “history” may not even have been More’s real
    intent. His work is riddled with errors
    (some of which are so glaring that you wonder if they’re deliberate), highly
    theatrical inventions, and vague allusions to gossip. It’s been argued that it was conceived as a
    humanist tract or satire for private circulation among friends, and it was neither
    finished nor published.

    Nevertheless, traditionalist historians have used
    More as a touchstone, projecting back from his conclusions. This is most apparent with the use of his
    history to validate the bones discovered in 1674 as belonging to the
    Princes. That’s a whole other debate,
    but their provenance is very dubious.
    Their discovery corresponds only in the vaguest terms with what More
    wrote and it can’t be said with certainty what sex they are, what age or even
    what period of time they date from. A
    new investigation could answer some of these questions but, for some reason,
    the Westminster Abbey authorities have consistently refused permission.

  • Anjna Chouhan

    As do I Lynette, although I suspect he’ll have a second burial in the cathedral. Have you taken a look at the dig yet?

  • The victors do tend to get the say over history, or at least they did, but it is a shame that we may never know this. I agree that if we know more about his physical condition it may help to understand him a little more, even if we never can get a full picture of the man himself.

    Also, I think that former kings should not end up being buried in what later become car parks, a burial with a monument is rather more fitting.

    I wait with baited breath for the results, whichever way they go…

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