6 things the discovery of Richard III’s remains isn’t going to do

Posted: February 4, 2013 in Richard, Duke of Gloucester/Richard III, Trivialities, rants & other ephemera

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.

  1. Sue says:

    Just wanted to thank you for a well balanced, clear sighted entry. I’ve been intrigued by Richard for all of my adult life but that intrigue has been tempered by pragmatism and the realization that he was neither saint nor devil. I am excited for the results to be revealed, half expect them to be inconclusive but am nonetheless hoping for a positive identification so as to open a new chapter on the discussion of this period. I rather dread the extremities of opinion that will no doubt arise to be addressed, as your blog entry neatly detailed them, but it’s all toward a goal of synthesizing theories and so that’s a noble end! Thank you for sharing your reflections.

  2. anevillfeast says:

    Thank you for your kind words, Sue. Even if the dna tests prove inconclusive, I think there have enough to say it’s more likely Richard than anyone else. I’m quietly excited as well!

  3. Esther says:

    Great article … I think a renewed interest in the period may bring more balance in the views of Richard III. Of course, there is a remote chance that the interest may result in another examination of the bones currently identified as those of his nephews.

  4. Cyril Walker says:

    Nicely put. I have just seen the skull picture. It instantly reminded me of the NG portrait. The angle they used help a bit, but it has a strong likeness.



  5. jaynesmith says:

    Such a good article Karen. I am going to post it on Fb as I hope some of the more fanatical Ricardians will be made to think . I enjoyed reading it and totally agree with it

  6. Karen, good article – I am sitting listening to BBC Radio Leicester awaiting the announcements. Yes it will answer some questions but still leave most of the mystery to be investigated.

  7. 1karla says:

    Well balanced as always, great article, Karin

  8. Thoroughly enjoyable and interesting read. I’ve lived in Leicester for 20 years now and really love the place. This is going to be a huge boost for the City and County.

  9. Kathy Hestand says:

    I am once again glad to have found this blog. It is always an oasis of sanity on this contentious subject. I hope the confirmation of this discovery leads to more rational analysis of Richard and his reign, and not just the “extremities of opinion” that Sue above rightly dreads. Thanks for writing this!

  10. sonetka says:

    It’s a fascinating discovery and I’m looking forward to hearing more about what they’ve learned from the body — granted, very little of it will be out-of-the-blue type of stuff, but just being able to confirm where the legend accretion really began with regard to his appearance is something. (For what it’s worth, my own impression of Richard is closer to Macbeth than to, well, Richard III.)

    • anevillfeast says:

      Hi Sonetka. I’m really looking forward to getting into deeper research on Richard’s life and reign. (I’m still somewhere in the 1450s at the moment.) My own tentative take is that he didn’t have all the talents necessary for kingship. And Edward made it all look so easy! The number of executions in his short reign is quite staggering, it was like he was trying to drive a runaway train. I’ll be interested to see if that, very tentative, idea holds.

  11. Will Glover says:

    What will the discovery do?
    It will provide us with a stirring artifact that precisely marks and commemorates the end of the Wars of the Roses, thirty years of civil war, and the violent deaths of over 100,000 people.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Will, one Richard related forum is full of people crowing and crying with victory and joy. I was totally wrong, it seems, and the discovery and identification of his remains has, in fact, proved everything negative ever said about Richard wrong; everything positive ever said, right; shamed and embarrassed the ‘traditionalists’ and turned him into a piece of sexy beefcake with kind eyes. Oh, and one of the reasons Henry VII launched his Propaganda Machine was his jealousy of Richard’s looks. It’s all getting very very silly.

      • Will Glover says:

        Right, we must avoid silliness.
        And right, the finding has got people thinking about Richard.
        I’m sure that there’s nothing new in my reasons, but after a bit more non-silly thinking I’ll commit to the side that likes Richard.
        – I’m not too bothered by the deaths attributed to him. He lived in a time of civil war when violent death came to most of those who were close to him.
        – He may have kidnapped Anne Neville from her disguise as a scullery maid, but as a result she either became Queen Consort of England and mother of the heir to the throne or wore that as a much more elegant disguise.
        – He aided in and profited by the disinheritance of his mother-in-law Anne (Beauchamp) Neville, but she was thereby saved from death and attainder, the ordinary consequence of conspiracy to commit treason. I look at his mother-in-law’s loss of property as a plea bargain where, in exchange for a form of ‘house arrest for life’ and the loss of her wealth, she was saved from trial, conviction, execution and the loss of her wealth. Also, under the arrangement her estates were to be preserved for the benefit of her grandchildren.
        – But a better clue to Richard comes from his treatment of his wife’s remaining family. He honoured Anne’s half-sister Margaret at his Coronation. He knighted his brother-in-law Richard Huddleston and appointed him to positions of honours.
        – And a more significant clue comes from the Huddlestons’ view of Richard. Their tomb, constructed in the Tudor years circa 1500, is emblazoned with the York Sun in Splendour. During the reign of Henry VII this would have been a most politically incorrect statement of honour to the late King by the late Queen Anne’s nieces and nephew, grandchildren to the Kingmaker.


  12. Kerry says:

    This is a great article. I agree that the discovery doesn’t really provide any massive amounts of new information – the spinal curvature is the most interesting part, but even that doesn’t tell us anything anything about his personality.

    The most exciting thing to me is discovering that a man with probably-scoliosis could be such an accomplished warrior, which everyone agrees Richard was – I hope it gets a lot of historians re-evaluating our view of disability in the historical record.

  13. Celia Parker says:

    Sensible take on the whole thing! You might be interested to know that I’ve just come across the first reference (it had to happen) to ‘troubled’ Richard III – in the British Catholic weekly ‘The Universe’. no less. What next? ‘Troubled war-lord Genghis Khan’? And oh dear, can’t you just see that slew of new novels detailing the effects on a sensitive young lad of becoming increasingly deformed (there’s probably a pc word I should use here – disabled and handicapped don’t seem to do it as he was clearly neither)) in his teens and a new role for Anne Neville as masseuse?

    The information from the skeleton and the dig is interesting and as ever raises more questions, most of which probably can’t be answered. The development of scoliosis, which no-one would have understood or been able to deal with must have been painful and confusing for him (does this perhaps lie behind the story of his accusing Elizabeth W..of withering his arm? ). Did he just like fish a lot or was his consumption of a higher than average amount of fish a result of penitential practices?

    As you and others have rightly said, it doesn’t tell us anything about Richard as a person or solve any of the controversies surrounding him apart from making it clear what his deformity was. It might, however be useful in making people wary of believing entertaining stories from 17th and 18th century books and assuming that because they wrote nearer the events than us they have sources of information lost to us. So please, no more references to Plantagenet masons reading .Latin in their lunch-hour or ex-Lord Chamberlains carelessly walled up in their own living-rooms!

  14. Louise says:

    I’m confused by this comment – Richard’s genetic identity (should it prove conclusive) relies on the dna of a young woman whose father Richard executed.

    The DNA they have tested comes from Anne of York, Richard’s sister, daughter of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, who died in the Battle of Wakefield in 1460.
    Otherwise this is a well thought out article surrounding the continuing mystery and legacy of Richard III.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Sorry about the confusion, Louise. The DNA that was tested does come from a descendant of Anne of York, Richard III’s sister, and her daughter, Anne St Leger. The younger Anne’s father, Thomas St Leger (Anne of York’s long time lover and later husband) was executed by Richard III after his part in the Buckingham rebellion.

  15. Dawn Likha says:

    Reblogged this on A Passion for History and commented:
    Well-said and I more or less agree with your points! 😀
    P.S. I like to think of myself as a ‘fan’ of Richard III (meaning someone who quite likes him, sympathizes with him, and defend him *if* it seems necessary) and now I generally tend to look on the bright side of things and be more optimistic about Richard (I for one think he didn’t murder his nephews, though he does have motives) but I will never in a hundred years justify and condone his worse deeds/actions, especially as an adult) and I try my best to be more open-minded about certain things even when ATM I don’t stand with those views/opinions/speculations, etc. So there you go 🙂

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