Archive for February, 2013

Let’s call them Team Villain and Team Saint, the two polar extremes in the Richard III debate. If we drew a venn diagram, there’d be no intersection between these two sets. They have nothing in common. Except dogged persistence; absolute faith in the rightness of their position, an inability to move an inch and a talent for making everything in the record support their point of view. On reflection, they have a lot in common. Which is a little worrying.

We see evidence of it everywhere, not just in arguments about Richard III. How many battles have been fought over the centuries by forces who both knew that God was on their side? I’ve thought long and hard about this (for at least as long as it took the water to boil for the cup of tea that’s sitting on my desk) and have come to a startling conclusion. There is a sub-atomic particle that causes two or more sets of people with mutually exclusive points of view to both (or all) claim a single fact as proof positive that they are right and everyone else is wrong. I call this particle the ergo-on.

The ergo-on doesn’t change facts depending on who’s looking at them. What it does is link two unrelated facts to form a causal relationship. It doesn’t care what those facts are, and can link any two, possibly more. Ergo-ons are particularly fond of children, though they’re happy to hang around adults. Here’s a small example of an ergo-on at work, from the life of my sister. (Whose permission I haven’t sought to tell this story, but hey! she’s my sister.)

She startled our mother once by saying she didn’t want to go on a particular train journey because “the waiters drop chips in your tea”. On further interrogation, our mother discovered that, on her first and (so far) only train journey, a waiter had indeed dropped a chip in my sister’s cup of tea. “Trains” and “Chip dropping waiters” were linked by the ergo-on to form the conclusion: Waiters on trains always drop chips in cups of tea. I don’t want chip flavoured tea, or tea flavoured chips. Ergo, I should avoid trains.

Ergo-ons can link a single idea with two other competing ideas to form two quite separate, and mutually exclusive, conclusions from the same fact. It’s the only way to explain why Richard III’s scoliosis can prove both Team Villain and Team Saint absolutely right. It works like this.

Team Villian: Richard had scoliosis. Sir Thomas More said he had severe spinal deformity and he was right. Ergo: More was right about everything he said concerning Richard.

Team Saint: Richard had scoliosis. Sir Thomas More said he was a hunchback and he was wrong. Ergo: More was wrong about everything he said concerning Richard.

Being a moderate and a member neither of Team Villain or Team Saint (I’m toying with Team Let-Him-Be-What-He-Was, but I’m not sure it’ll catch on), I have no patience with ergo-ons and swat them with rolled up newspapers when they come buzzing around.

This is how I think the scoliosis/what More said should be dealt with.

Team Let-Him-Be-What-He-Was: Richard had scoliosis. Sir Thomas More said he was a hunchback. Now, a hunchback and scoliosis are two different things, so either More’s information was garbled; ‘hunchback’ was less specific than it is now; or the story was deliberately changed to make Richard seem worse. However, it was clearly not (as has been strenuously argued in the past) made up from the whole cloth. Whether it’s garbled, a misunderstanding or deliberate distortion, there is a kernel of truth in it. Richard did have a misshapen spine. (I’m sorry about words like ‘deformed’ and ‘misshapen’ but there really aren’t any other concise alternatives.)

Team LHBWHW goes on: So, clearly we can’t disregard everything More has to say, because some of it does seem to have a nub of historical truth in it. But nor can we accept everything he has to say, because at least this story, nub of historical truth or not, is some distance away from what we now know to be the truth. So maybe what we need to do is approach More with caution, but not be dismissive, examine each thing he says, triangulating it (where possible) with things other people have said and try to work out, on the balance of probabilities and the preponderance of evidence, which bits of More are truth-nubby and which aren’t.

I’ve used More and the scoliosis as an example because the two opposing ergo-on influenced conclusions mentioned above have actually been uttered over the last day or so.

Both Teams might need to give a little ground in order to bring them a little closer to the actual Richard. The as actual as we can hope for Richard, at any rate. Ergo-ons don’t belong in the discussion. Therefore-ons might, but they’re much more circumspect and sensible. They care which facts they link and are agitated by the prospect of linking unrelated facts to form embarrassingly conflicting conclusions. It sets up a cognitive dissonance wave that breaks all the therefore-ons’ bonds, yet leaves the ergo-ons’ bonds intact.

Team LHBWHW is feeling a little squeezed by both sides at the moment, but we’re holding ground. With any luck, and a dedicated ergo-on eradication campaign, we might just push the boundaries back and give the newly unearthed Richard the ‘coming home’ gift he deserves – the chance for him to be who he was, not what those on either extreme want him to be.

1. Clear him of all the crimes laid at his door by Shakespeare, More &c.

Despite the fact that common sense tell us this is impossible, it pops up every now and then, a wan hope, the most wishful of wishful thinking. A good many of the crimes of Shakespeare’s Richard are patent nonsense. Putting those aside, the accusations that this discovery* won’t solve are: 1. did Richard usurp his nephew’s throne? 2. did Richard order the deaths of his nephews? 3. did Richard poison his queen? 4. was Richard planning to marry Elizabeth of York? Nor will it absolve him of the deaths of four men, executed (so far as there’s any evidence) without trial. Assuming the remains are Richard’s, they will tell us nothing about his personality or his personal history. They will certainly tell us nothing about his guilt or innocence.

2. Prove Shakespeare, More &c right.

Tudor Propaganda, we’re told, was the source of the ‘Crookback’ myth. If they were right about that (‘they’ weren’t, there’s a world of difference between kyphosis and scoliosis) then surely the world will leap on this and claim that the TPM** must be right about everything else!

Firstly, as I keep being reminded in other contexts, stories get distorted over time. Clearly, if the skeleton with the curved spine is Richard, then those stories had some basis. More may have been writing satire. If he was, his work isn’t the only satire in history that’s been mistaken for the genuine article. That’s also a possibility with Shakespeare’s Richard III. So, the King with the curved spine becomes a stand in for Robert Cecil who did have some kind of spinal ‘deformity’. And, in the medieval world, physical ‘deformity’ was often equated with evil. That’s not the way we see things now, or I seriously hope it’s not! So, even if the TPM is proved ‘right’ about Richard’s physical imperfection, a connection between that and ‘evil’ isn’t proved.

3. Embarrass the ‘traditionalists’ into changing their views.

Historians who have written that, on the balance of probability, Richard was more likely to have ordered the deaths of the Princes than not (or than anyone else) aren’t going to feel any embarrassment at that. And I wonder why anyone thinks they should. They have researched and read, and interpreted what information is available, and come to a conclusion. Just as the revisionists have. What will change minds (traditionalist or revisionist) is a reappraisal of current sources or a new source. There’s no need for ‘traditionalist’ historians to be embarrassed, so long as their work is sound and can stand up to questioning and challenge. There’s no need for ‘revisionist’ historians to be embarrassed, so long as the same conditions apply.

4. Turn Richard into the world most popular romantic hero.

Like any disparate, loosely connected group of people who share an interest, those of us interested in history live at least part of our lives in a bubble. We are all caught up in the excitement of the discovery, our google alerts keep us supplied with articles, blogs &c about the discovery, we discuss it among ourselves (ad nauseam). The rest of the world (by and large) doesn’t really care. History groups on facebook are awash with discussion about the Leicester dig and the upcoming press conference. My own personal page is a desert by comparison. No-one in my family cares. None of my non-history friends care. There’s no requirement that they should and no expectation that they’ll all rush out and buy Sunne in Splendour in order to join the Ricardian party.

5. Shame Queen Elizabeth II for her illegitimate ancestry.

This is one of the weirder ones. In discussions of where and how Richard should be buried, the idea that the Queen is personally blocking a state funeral to keep attention away from a crackpot theory about the ‘real’ father of Edward IV leaves me baffled. If there’s no funeral, state or otherwise, it’ll be because the person found in Greyfriars has already had a funeral. I hope he is quietly reburied at Leicester Cathedral with no great fuss. Richard’s life ended in great indignity. I hope some of that is restored to him via a quiet, respectful burial. I didn’t personally know Richard and he certainly never knew me. Had I been alive in his time, he’d never have heard of me. I don’t own him, (moderate) Ricardian or not.

6. Clear up the mystery of what happened to the Princes.

Unless an explanation is etched into the bones, we’re no closer now to solving that particular mystery than we were before. I worry that there are some expecting some kind of miracle; for the world to wake up on the morning of the announcement, knowing all that befell during Richard’s reign.

7. Vindicate every revisionist argument. Ever.

There are members of the Richard III Society and staunch Ricardians who should be praised and lauded for the work they’ve done to find the remains in Greyfriars Church. Hard work, research and lobbying all played their part in getting the dig up and running. The archaeologists at Leicester University deserve praise as well. If this was a just world, those Ricardians who worked so hard would be rewarded, not just with finding the remains but by being utterly vindicated in their view of Richard. Sadly, this isn’t a just world. There remains, still, the possibility that some document or other will be unearthed that puts Richard firmly in the frame. (I think we must allow for this possibility in order to maintain our intellectual honesty.) And that would bring a double irony to this story. Richard’s genetic identity (should it prove conclusive) relies on the dna of a young woman whose father Richard executed. If any evidence of his culpability in the deaths of the princes ever turns up, the location of his physical remains will have relied on a dedicated group of people who believed, wholeheartedly, in his innocence. This second irony is one I hope we’ll never have to face, but wishful thinking and history don’t go together. History was what it was.

Now for some things the discovery of Richard’s remains is going to do

1. Bring some kind of closure for a lot of people

When archaeologists are looking at sites of ancient habitation, there are three things they look for in determining whether it’s a human site or pre-human: evidence of bodily adornment; evidence of trade; evidence of deliberate and respectful disposal of the dead. We need to know where the people we love, admire and respect are buried. We need memorials to them, places where their remains lie (or are scattered). It’s why some people are buried in secret locations – to stop others, for good or ill, coming to their grave sites. It’s why the families of missing persons find some relief (but renewed grief) when their bodies are found. It’s why it’s so sad that (among others) we don’t know where Queen Anne Nevill or her uncle. George Archbishop of York, or her father, the earl of Warwick, and his brother, John, are buried. It’s why Warwick and Edward IV both relocated the remains of their fathers and brothers. It’s why we go to funerals; why we have urns on our mantlepieces; why we hire stonemasons to carve headstones; why we build, if we have the means, elaborate tombs; why we must know where the people we love have ended up. It’s such a deep seated part of our humanness. I can’t go to Bisham Priory to pay my respects to the Nevills. Once Richard is reburied (most probably in Leicester Cathedral) I can, if I wish, visit his grave.

2. Get people interested in Richard III, the Wars of the Roses and history

I don’t think they’ll be coming in their hordes, knocking down the doors of the Richard III Society in their rush to join, but the press coverage will surely have sparked some interest. Whether they think Richard a hero or a villain, all are welcome!

3. Put a face to the name

That’s something so many people are looking forward to. We have the NPG portrait, which shows us a fairly unspectacular man, neither of saintly nor villainous visage. The facial reconstruction of the skull will give us a three dimensional view of him. I won’t get to see the Channel 4 documentary (like so many other interested parties), or not unless it’s uploaded to something like youtube, so I’ll be relying on the kindness of strangers. If a reconstructed Richard resembles his portrait, it’ll give us slightly renewed confidence in other portraits from the time.

4. Bring some balance to the discussion

A lot of people come to their interest in history, a particular time or person in history, through reading historical fiction. This is well attested to and particularly applicable to Ricardians. I have no issue with this, it’s how things started for me. What I’m really looking forward to seeing are contributions from people whose interest in history, the Wars of the Roses and Richard III has come from the press coverage, blogs and social media discussion about the dig. These will be people with no (or few) preconceptions, who haven’t bought into this or that author’s view of Richard. They will come with a clean slate. It’s not, for me, a matter of grabbing their hearts and minds before the ‘traditionalists’ do, it’s about making a welcome and giving time and space for them to come to their own view of the man. Three years ago, when my interest in history became more active, I was looking forward to a new synthesis about Richard. We had the thesis – Evil Villain Richard – that had prevailed for centuries; and the relatively new antithesis – Saintly Pious Richard. The most exciting development is yet to come – the new synthesis. It’s a conversation I’m really looking forward to being part of.

* I am presuming, for the sake of this discussion, that the announcement this evening (tomorrow morning for many of you) will confirm the remains as Richard’s.

** The Tudor Propaganda Machine. Yes, propaganda certainly existed at the time but the ‘Tudors’ didn’t invent it. Richard duke of York was using it against Somerset and Margaret of Anjou in the 1450s. Edward IV used it after he became king. Warwick used it, any chance he got. Richard III used it when he became king. And Henry VII certainly did. It wasn’t unique and it wasn’t new. I’m afraid I’ve got to the point where, if I see or hear these words, I want to scream. Anything, it seems, can be written off as ‘Tudor Propaganda’. Some of it isn’t. Related to  #2 above, knowing that the ‘crookback’ myth wasn’t made up by propagandists (distorted and exaggerated, yes, but not made up) might lead us to a reappraisal of some other things that have been labelled ‘Tudor Propaganda’. What that will lead to, as it usually does, is a great deal of difficulty sorting out the myth from the not-myth, and we may be faced with some unpalatable conclusions.

Here’s Susan Higganbotham’s Leicester Dig Countdown, if you’re looking for some (welcome) light relief.