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Greg Jenner

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Richard III - Should We Care?

Posted: 13/09/2012 00:00

As I type this, a press conference is underway to announce something rather special. Archaeologists from the University of Leicester believe that they may have just uncovered the mortal remains of England's last Plantagenet king, Richard III, who was killed in battle in 1485 while trying to defend his crown from Henry Tudor's invasion.

A male skeleton, buried in the choir of the long-since demolished Franciscan church, has been found with sharp-force injuries to the rear of the skull, and an arrow head lodged in the upper back. This individual had a curved spine, was buried with dignity but little pomp, and almost certainly died in battle. While the panel of archaeologists, historians and civic dignitaries are trying their best to appear neutral in judgment, it is pretty obvious that they've spent the morning in a private room screaming 'IT'S THE SODDING KING!! WE'VE FOUND THE SODDING KING!!!'

Regardless of their hunch (sorry...), there are probably 12 weeks of DNA testing and scientific jiggery-pokery required before we can safely proclaim Richard as king for the second time. So, while the physical evidence is hugely promising, the party poppers will have to remain unpopped for the time being.

Yet, this dig reveals something much more immediately verifiable about ourselves. On the face of it, it's just a dead bloke beneath a drab civic car park; another individual who walked this planet along with 100 billion others. However, there is always an incalculable frisson of excitement when stories from our distant history are found to contain more than just a grain of truth. We grow up with so many myths, legends, half-truths, movies and TV shows that it is refreshingly reassuring to know that some things are real, and really did happen as we believed they did. As an historian, admittedly a rather dull one, some of the most thrilling moments of my life have been discoveries made in archives, when the penny drops that you are the only person in the world to know something. I've had this pleasure rather recently, while researching the life of an enigmatic figure from Regency London's history, and I could barely sleep. Of course, my earth-shattering discovery meant sod all to anyone else; so I found myself whispering it at the moon, like a demented scientist in a bad gothic novel.

Yet, the possible discovery of King Richard III is not some minor thing. Here is a man famous the world over, as Shakespeare's monstrous Machiavellian - the cruel and twisted usurper, a hunchback no less, who snatched the throne from his vulnerable younger nephews, whom he was supposed to protect. They ended up dead, in mysterious circumstances, and he ruled in their stead only to be brought down after only two years by a heroic Welshman called Henry Tudor. Huzzah for the Tudors! At least, that's the theatrical version - William Shakespeare had a habit of contorting history to please his royal patrons, and Queen Elizabeth I's granddaddy just happened to be a certain Henry Tudor.

The real Richard III was a much more complex man, a skilled warrior and a strong king, but who had the unfortunate lot of rising to power during the Wars of the Roses, a bloody civil war between the rival factions of York and Lancaster. The rest of the cream of England's nobility had already been slain in more than 25 years of brutal slaughter, and King Richard was not going to escape the trauma simply by virtue of having a shiny hat to wear. Being powerful in the Wars of the Roses was like playing musical chairs in the lions' cage at London zoo... chances are, you're going to be horribly killed whether you're sitting on a chair or not, even if that chair is a throne.

True to form, at the Battle of Bosworth Field, Richard's allies switched sides at the crucial moment. Incensed at their villainous treachery, the King charged headlong at his adversary, hoping to take him on mano-a-mano in the kind of brilliant smackdown you get at the end of Bond movies. Unfortunately, our plucky James Bond wannabe got his caved in with a poleaxe, which is not the nicest way to go, and would be a major disappointment in Skyfall. His mangled head lost its crown, which was found in a nearby bush and placed on Henry Tudor's head, making him King Henry VII. Allegedly, Richard's bloodied corpse was stripped of its armour, publically displayed, and then buried under the choir at the nearby Greyfriars Franciscan church, never to be seen again...

...until now? DUN DUN DER!!!!

Well, maybe. So, should we care that he may have been found? What more does it tell us, other than he maybe had a curved spine but wasn't a hunchback? It's a story with innate glamour - the last king to die in battle, famous from Shakespeare, the final act of the Wars of the Roses, and we DO love the monarchy these days - but it actually adds very little to our understanding of the late 15th century. Much like the physicists at CERN, this discovery would merely confirm what we think we know already, rather than dumbfounding us with a revelatory surprise such as: "Wait, Richard III was actually just an extremely articulate bonobo ape?! Amazing!"

However, confirming what we know is what historians dream of at night; we couldn't give a hoot about Christian Grey and his erotic adventures. Our sexual fantasies involve freshly-discovered documents in archives that unambiguously verify our untestable theories. Oh, and Joan of Arc in a catsuit... phwoar!

So, while this this discovery will garner global headlines, and has already made me jump up and down like a hormonal teen at a Justin Bieber concert, it would not be on a par with finding Tutankhamun's tomb, and nor would it equal the shocking awe of the Ridgeway Viking Massacre site found recently in Dorset. In fact, it falls short of the discovery of Sutton Hoo or the Staffordshire Hoard, in terms of improving our understanding of the past. This would not be new contextual information, but rather fascinating and emotionally fulfilling verification.

They went looking for a dead body with a hole in its head, and they found one. It's not exactly Atlantis, is it? However, it could be a thing of tremendous potency; a reminder that historical and archaeological research does warrant all that effort and diligence. We can, if we're patient, gradually piece together the story of what went before us, and that is of limitless usefulness to us in the future. A society that doesn't know where it's been is a society as amnesiac, destined to get lost and wander round in circles. So here's hoping it really is King Dick III.

And here's hoping he's buried with a confession saying "It woz me what killed them Princes in the Tower, guv." That would save the rest of us a huge amount of futile argument in the future, time we could dedicate to arguing about whether Harold Godwinson was killed with an arrow in the eye, or not. Speaking of which, I'm off to Hastings with a shovel... can't hurt to try, can it?

 

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