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Digging Up the Past: The Enduring Legacy of Richard III

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Spending a night in a north London church watching a local theatre group perform a one man about the historical reputation of Richard III probably isn't everyone's cup of tea. I certainly didn't think that it would be mine. If there are two words that I've always thought should never sit together they are historiography and entertainment, yet on this occasion they blended perfectly.

The play, R-3 by Centre Five Productions, is a small production with a big ambition. The performance, told through one continuous monologue, challenges to us to re-evaluate the life and legacy of one of Britain's great historical villains. The play was very good and the timing itself couldn't be much better, as I write this there are a team of historians in Leicester who suspect that they've found the former king buried below a car park.

The reputation of our most dastardly of kings has been disputed for years. Old lore once told us that he was a deranged devious hunchback who killed for fun. The little that we knew of him came from Shakespeare's play and Thomas More's portrait of a deformed king with a deformed mind. Over time this view has been challenged to the point that we now can't say for sure that he even had a hunchback. For many the real interest lies in the mystery rather than any feeling of great reputational injustice. Part of what makes an interesting monarch is the mystery that goes with them. If our Royals ever seem particularly transparent or dull then it's because they are, well at least compared to their murderous Machiavellian ancestors.

If the comings and goings of our Royals can be considered as an area of historical contention then it's far from being the most controversial. All societies have their own histories but also their own accepted narratives of how that history is presented and told. One of the obvious problems that this can lead to is when evaluating great wars, for example you can find yourself being locked in Turkey up for acknowledging the same Armenian genocide which you would be locked up for denying in Sweden. Conflicting historical narratives can be found at the root of almost all major conflicts and are abused to every global tyranny, and that is because, as Orwell said, "who controls the past controls the future."

The fusion of history and entertainment has had a long and uneasy history, although there have been some beautiful and compelling works, such as Lawrence of Arabia and Schindler's List. Of course on the other hand there are so many examples of books, films and plays that are so bad that they have managed to cheapen, demean and undermine great historical eras by promoting total fabrication, such as The Patriot. On the point of poor historiography, the impact of the Australian studded American funded, Irish shot, Braveheart was so big that Ipsos MORI have subsequently labelled my generation of Scots as the 'Braveheart generation', with the teenagers of today now being referred to as the 'post Bravheart generation.'

So what of Richard? Is he the monster that we have all been told about, or is he merely a misunderstood king who has fallen victim to decades of unfair character assassination? In reality the truth is probably somewhere in between. One of the big limitations of our knowledge of the era is that so few people could read or write, which is one of the reasons why More's account is so well known, because there were no others. One of the key points of the play was that due to these constraints, and to the context of the time, characters like Richard can never be fully and properly evaluated. This is not necessarily a bad thing; after the play my friend Rachel, who I spent my night at the theatre with, told me that one of the reasons that she got into history was because of the great mysteries and the exciting feeling of pursuing the unknown.

There are certain historical events, such as genocides and crimes, which we should aim to know everything about in order to allow justice for the victims and to prevent repetition. However, the life of Richard III can hardly be seen in these terms, especially when considering that his story has now morphed into one of Britain great folk stories. Mysteries and mythology have an important role to play in attracting future generations to history and characterising our own, so if the body in Leicester is found to be his then I'll be slightly disappointed. On one hand it would prove whether or not he had a hunchback, but far more than that it would remove so much of the appeal and curiosity, and that would seem like something of a shame.