Tuesday 5 February 2013

The face of King Richard III

A fascinating moment in historical discovery has taken place this week. Sadly, it has taken place amid a tidal wave of sugary nonsense - the vast majority of which seems to be tumbling forth from the mouth of members of the Richard III Society, a society which, under normal circumstances, should be the recipients of nothing but praise this week for helping to fund and oversee such a momentous scientific achievement.

The bones found beneath a car park in Leicester have been positively identified by the University of Leicester as being the remains of King Richard III, the last of the three Yorkist kings of England. Richard ruled from 1483, when he seized the throne from his nephew Edward V, until his own death at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485, where he fought with great and noted bravery. His wife and only legitimate son predeceased him and he was replaced on the throne by his enemy in battle, Henry VII.

In the Tudor era, Richard III was roundly attacked for allegedly murdering both his nephews and of plotting, back-stabbing and cheating his way onto the throne. It is not true, as some of Richard's hardier enthusiasts have claimed, that this was a deliberately propagated campaign of defamation from the throne itself, but rather something that seems to have grown from the works of men like Thomas More and William Shakespeare. The Tudors themselves spoke very little about Richard III (since they were no doubt keen to avoid reminding everyone that, like him, they too had seized the throne from a lawfully-enthroned monarch). However, even if the Tudors weren't the ringmasters of the "we hate Richard" club of the 1500s, they undoubtedly would have been more inclined to look favourably on Thomas More's portrait of Richard than any attempt to exculpate their one-time foe.

Richard's body was buried hurriedly in Leicester after the battle, but the church he was buried in was subsequently destroyed during the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation. Since then, it has been lost and there were even stories that the Tudors had ordered his bones to be vindictively hurled into the river. That, too, is untrue and this week's results have confirmed that the body discovered in September 2012 was that of England's "last medieval" monarch. The bones will be re-interred in Leicester Cathedral, near where they originally rested. That is Church of England protocol and any suggestion of a state funeral or re-internment in Westminster Abbey has been nipped in the bud by Her Majesty The Queen, who has apparently discreetly made it clear that she doesn't want Richard buried there. A move supported or at the very least understood by Phil Stone, the Chairman of the Richard III Society.)

Since the seventeenth century, Richard has found himself the subject of a sustained campaign to rehabilitate him and a slightly less vociferous counter-campaign to have him remembered as a repulsive villain. The pro-rehabilitation "Ricardian" movement has produced many fine pieces of research that have greatly increased our understanding of the late medieval monarchy, although none of them have ever managed to definitively prove that he was not complicit in the disappearance of his nephews, despite valiant efforts. However, as this week has shown, the "Ricardian" movement has also been capable of producing over-zealous "fans". The sight of one person involved in the dig breathlessly proclaiming that the facial reconstruction of Richard III showed "just a hint of a smile, which is just lovely... he had a great sense of humour" forced me to wonder if she realised that the smile had been added in by an artist - since the real Richard died with ten wounds to the back of the skull and was therefore presumably not in much of a mood to crack a grin at the time. Documentaries like Channel 4's "The King in the Car park" only added to the frustration, with layer upon layer of saccharin, almost fan-girl-like, excitement glossing over the still-unanswered mysteries in Richard III's story in a relentless torrent of sentimental rubbish. Proclamations like "This will change everything we know about Richard III," raised an eyebrow. How? Is there a note about Edward V buried with him, clearing everything up? I doubt that. All these bones do are give us details on how he died (gruesomely) and what he looked like (genuinely fascinating.)

I was interview by BBC Radio Wales earlier this week, in which I suggested that, like most late medieval monarchs, Richard was driven by paranoia and ruthlessness. Given the time he grew up in, that seems a likely conclusion and it's an assessment that could be applied to most of his contemporaries. Richard's story is a fascinating one, but the study of it is occasionally being stifled by those who see themselves as Richard's champions. History is rarely comprised of heroes and villains and reducing Richard III and Henry VII to one or the other is frankly nothing short of silly. One member of the Richard III Society (a friend, actually) once pointed out to me, "We're not the Richard III Adoration Society, you know." 

"Well, stop acting like it then," I snapped. (I shouldn't have snapped.) "No-one wants to write anything critical of Richard in case they get hit by a torrent of hate mail from angry Ricardians." 

"I know," he (graciously) admitted. "There are whack-jobs in every movement, though."

We then debated whether "movement" was an appropriate term. In any case, the point is that historical debate is a good thing and can go on between friends, but when events like this week's moderate criticism gets swept to one side. A text from the same friend last night during the broadcast of "The King in the Car park," read, "Jesus. If she keeps going on like this, they'll be trying to turn his story into the next Disney movie." I laughed. Maybe even Richard, with that enigmatic waxwork smile of his, would have grinned, too.

I love history and I can therefore only be excited by the tremendous work done in Leicester and the reconstruction of this monarch's face. My congratulations to those involved.

Sinned against or sinning? Like most of his generation, I'd have to say: both. Either way, this long-dead king merited a slightly more measured and less breathlessly-excited defence this week. There are plenty of gifted academics who could, and should, have been interviewed to showcase a more serious, and more convincing, defence of Richard III.

My interview with Jason Mohammad at BBC Radio Wales can be listened to here, by going to 1h:22. 


  1. Thanks for this.It's helped to bring me back to my sense. As I have been revving up to go to battle for the King and the Church "RichardIII must have a Catholic burial." But it just won't happen.Alas.

  2. Absolutely a perfect article for today. The bit about smile and sense of humor had me snort coffee in a most unladylike way. I am thrilled that the discovery of Richard III has garnered so much attention and people are interested in the history of it. If only we could make history more interesting to everyone all the time.

    I thoroughly enjoy your blog but haven't started your books yet despite buying both! I swear I will get to it!

  3. I wonder how much of the problems with "The King in the Car Park" was with the show? (I'm American, so I don't know if British TV shares the tendency to ignore substance). I do think it is sad if Richard III doesn't have a Catholic funeral, though ... people should have the funeral of their own faith, IMO.


  4. Thanks so much, Marie - hope you enjoy them. And yes, Esther, many people think he should be given a Catholic funeral.

  5. Gareth, thx for the article, this is big news for sure! Just a question, maybe I missed something along the way, but when we were at Bosworth I thought we learned that Richard's body was buried somewhere else than where they actually found it. Was that the case or am I confused??

  6. Hi, Laurie. The site of the battle is not where we originally thought it was; that has changed slightly. Richard's body was taken to Leicester quite soon after his death and buried by the friars there. The church was then destroyed during the Reformation and years later, a car park was built over it.

  7. A brilliant article. Your blog really is essential reading.

    I've been saying to someone, who is also a member of the Richard III Society, that they don't do themselves any favours by the way the react to objective criticism or the York v Lancaster/Tudor stuff. The programme was let down by that, as if they didn't want any talk of his bad points, they should have simply stuck to the dig and forensics.

    I think it would be a major shame if he wasn't buried according to the rites of the faith he knew, but I gather this stems a lot from the much desired publicity(?), as opposed to simply burying the man by the rites of Catholic Church.

  8. Of reading interest, here's an article from "Catholic Herald" (UK) about Richard III's burial:

  9. Hi Gareth
    I always love reading what you have to say and understand what you mean about the saccharine element. However, being girly and pink I could override this aspect of the documentary and thought the program absolutely amazing. It was definitely the best architectural dig I've ever seen due to the magnitude of the event....finding a long dead king in a car park! I also thought it was amazing that he really did have a crooked spine and was buried under an 'R'. Yes, there is a lot that can be understood rationally, but I can't help marvelling at the strangeness of it all as well. For me the documentary really balanced these two conflicting aspects.

  10. I agree, Elena! Very much so and it would lovely for you to review "A Thing More Glorious" when it comes out. Thank you.

    Hi, Sarah. Thanks so much. Yes, there were times when I thought it was moving and looked at some fascinating coincidences. I was slightly uncomfortable though with that being held as proof to dismiss the work of historians who didn't agree with them. But it was beautifully shot and the facial reconstruction was astonishing. :)


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