The historical arguments that surround Richard’s reign of two years and two months will go on.
Note: This article is from the Guardian.
Leopold von Ranke, the father of modern history, described his discipline as “an endless argument”. Never was this more so than in the case of Richard III. While the science appears conclusive – it is the skeleton of the last Plantagenet king, claims Leicester University’s team of archaeologists – the historical arguments that surround Richard’s reign of two years and two months will go on, not least the immortal question of who killed the princes in the Tower.
Was it Richard? Probably. The Duke of Buckingham? Possibly. Henry Tudor? Almost certainly not. Scepticism remains the mark of the historian and so the claim that the discovery will “rewrite the history books” is unconvincing. Even so, the Middle Ages got their day in the sun. The press conference, watched by a global audience, was expertly paced, like a cerebral X Factor, and it told us something of the tactile brutalities of 15th-century warfare: eight wounds to Richard’s head, two to his body and the postmortem humiliation of a knife to the buttocks, giving new meaning to the expression “gettin’ medieval on your ass”. If such drama excites people to explore history and archaeology still further, then all to the good.
The less-than-impartial Richard III Society, arm-in-arm with Leicester University during the entire project, sees this as its best chance yet to restore the reputation of the “rudely stamp’d … deform’d, unfinish’d” villain of Shakespeare’s boundless imagination, though what opportunity this discovery presents for such revision is unclear. That Tudor accounts of the reign of Richard III – including Shakespeare’s – are propaganda is hardly surprising. It is a commonplace that victors rewrite history, though how far they deviated from the truth remains an open question.
The idea of Richard as villain began almost as soon as his reign came to an end in the writings of John Rous, the first to describe his “unequal shoulders”. Polydore Vergil, an Italian at the court of Henry VII, picked up the theme to please his monarch, and Thomas More developed it still further in his History of King Richard III, imagining Richard, on the latest evidence at least, as “little of stature and ill fetured of limmes”.
The myth was made immortal in Shakespeare’s history play, though the skeleton’s scoliosis suggests that the “crookback” jibe picked up by the Bard – damning in a more enchanted age – was more exaggeration than invention. Whatever side we take, we must admit that Richard would be all but lost to the public if not for Shakespeare.
If this episode tells us little new about the past, it does shed light on the future of history in this country. The University of Leicester, while rightly proud of the forensic skills of its archaeological team, has milked this for all it’s worth, abandoning impartiality with its embrace of the Ricardians, aware of the need to make the widest public splash in these days of impact. Leicester city council’s involvement, too, smacks of the imperatives of urban regeneration and ignores the fact that Richard found only death in the city where he will now be buried. He would have preferred Richmond. We can at least say that with certainty.
One mystery remains. Why does such an unsuccessful monarch inspire so fierce a loyalty among his 21st-century followers, surpassing even that of the Society of Charles the Martyr, who strode Whitehall last week in remembrance of their similarly flawed sovereign, Charles I?
The website of the Richard III Society has been revamped in anticipation of new members who think that Josephine Tey’s vivid work of historical fiction, A Daughter of Time, is historical fact. Richard’s loyal followers will now proclaim victory.
Paul Lay is editor of History Today
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