You may notice it has taken me a few days to analyse my feelings about the recent dig at Leicester. Those of you who read my last post know that it was, and is, a hugely significant day for me. It has taken me this long to be able to don my objective historian head and present my feelings with some degree of detachment.
In my pre-dig blog I shared how exciting it was to be able at last to sift some of the truth from rumour in Richard III’s story, how awesome I felt at being able to look on his face for the first time.
As always at such times I still feel very uneasy about his bones being disturbed but, since the deed is done, as a historian I could not but be interested in the outcome and, in the morning I watched the university announcement confirming that the bones were indeed Richard’s. It was a very well presented, interesting broadcast and hinted that the programme following in the evening would be in the same vein.
If there was one part of Richard’s story that I wanted to be false, it was the reported posthumous indignities heaped upon his corpse after the battle. I cannot really analyse why this was so important to me – probably simply because I don’t believe any man's corpse should be treated in such a way, let alone that of an anointed king. It was the unusual nature of such an attack that led it to be recorded in the first place. I hoped it was another fable.
When they examined the bones, pointing out the severity of the injuries, it was hard to look at the cleaved skull marking the death wound, the posthumous wounds that can only be described as spiteful. So, once I had come to terms with that, I thought I was prepared and began to look forward to what promised to be Channel four’s objective study of the exhumation and investigation into the bones.
I was sincerely disappointed.
It seems that an intelligent, detached examination of the events surrounding Richard’s reign will never happen. The presenter was Simon Farnaby, a buffoon, better placed in children’s television was not the proper person to conduct what, for many people, was a serious and rather sombre investigation. His self-indulgent aping of Shakespeare’s character of Richard was both inappropriate and poorly done. Without his input a lot more time could have been devoted to providing more balanced and scholarly views from the vast spectrum of historians available.
It would be refreshing to watch a programme or read an article on the subject that doesn’t include Shakespeare but, since I am discussing him too, perhaps that isn’t possible. Perhaps Shakespeare can no longer be detached from Richard’s historiography. But, please, Shakespeare was a playwright, he did a fantastic job of presenting a study of a twisted, evil king but he wasn’t representing the real Richard. He was writing to entertain - both the public and his Tudor queen.
A look at Shakespeare’s sources shows that he based his play on the findings of Thomas More – ‘a contemporary of Richard’s’ some say, ‘He should know.’
But Thomas More was around the age of seven at the time of Bosworth, he was writing under the reign of Richard’s greatest enemy, Henry Tudor. And then, if you look at the life of Thomas More himself, you find a man whose crimes against humanity vastly outweigh anything that he accuses Richard of. You find a religious bigot who flailed, tortured and burned men alive – and was given a sainthood for it, whereas Richard received only notoriety.
Back to the programme. The King in the Car park. The historian they interviewed supported the view that Richard did have his nephews murdered. He made some fair points and is, as are we all, entitled to his opinions. But his opinion should have been balanced with one who rejected the idea. That is the way to good, educational television, balance and objectivity – television shouldn’t lead the public to a conclusion but, rather like a court of law, should present ALL the facts and let the viewer come to their own decision.
I found no problem with the scientific parts of the broadcast but, where I respect Philippa Langley for her tireless energy in putting the dig together and, badgering people to listen to the theory that Richard would be located at Grey Friars, she should never have appeared on the programme. I don’t think her emotional approach has done the Richard III society any favours.
The society is often derided as over-emotional, over the top lovers of a child killing king and, although I have been a member of the society for many years, I have to admit that there are those who lack of detachment does damage the society’s reputation. Too many novels, either written by or to appease members, feature a Richard whose saintliness is almost as off-putting as Shakespeare’s villain.
As to the facial reconstruction, well, maybe I expected too much but I have seen some excellent work carried out in this area. While his muscle structure and the shape of his features may be precise, the cosmetic ‘top dressing’ (for want of a better phrase) is dreadful. I heard one detractor comment that the head resembles the diminutive Lord Farquard from Shrek and, reluctantly, I have to agree. Where I was expecting a revelation, I found Disney.
Richard was a hardened warrior, he would have been scarred, battle worn, lined. A thirty two year old in 1483-5 would not look like a man of the same age today. He would have appeared older, sterner and, I am sure, that during his years as king he never smiled in that odd whimsical manner. Remember he was dealing with the loss of his son and queen in quick succession, as well as the enormous pressures of kingship.
The main point I wanted to make is that since the dig, since the TV programme, the subject of Richard III has become a three ring circus. Everyone who has read a couple of books or seen a few videos or, worst of all, read a bit of Shakespeare, now think they are experts. I’ve been studying the man since 1973 and I’m not anywhere near becoming an expert.
Why does the subject evoke so much passion, be it for or against? And it isn’t just the amateurs throwing objectivity out of the window; the big shots are at it too.
The first thing I was taught as a historian was the importance of detachment, you should never allow your personal feelings or ‘hunches’ to impinge on your findings, yet, we have David Starkey, with his I LOVE HENRY slogan emblazoned on his chest, presenting mere supposition as facts. And he is not alone.
There is no proof that Richard murdered his nephews. There is no proof that Henry did either. There is only speculation. There is, as yet, no concrete evidence that the princes died in the tower at all. It doesn’t matter what side you fall on, all I ask is that people remember that.
Below, I have compiled a list of what we definitely know about Richard and what we suspect. The things we know are the ONLY things that can be presented as historical fact. I have compiled a similar list for Henry.
What we KNOW and SUSPECT about Richard III.
We know that until 1483 he was loyal, courageous in battle, pious, with strong family values.
We suspect that, on the orders of his brother the king, he may have been implicit in the death of Henry VI.
We know that, for whatever reason, he manoeuvred to become first protector and then king.
We know that his claim to the throne was solid.
We know that he intercepted the boy Edward on his way to London and took control from the Woodvilles.
We know that he ordered the beheading of William Hastings without trial.
We know that he showed unwise leniency toward other of his enemies, giving them the opportunity to turn against him later.
We know that he showed promise of being a good and just ruler.
We know that the princes were interred in the tower prior to the coronation (as was tradition)
We know that he was betrayed on the battle field.
We know that he died bravely.
We know that he was loved, particularly by the north. See the response of the residents of York at news of his death.
We suspect he had the princes put to death.
We suspect that he hastened his wife’s death with a view to marrying his niece, Elizabeth of York, to put her out of Henry’s reach and weaken his claim.
What we KNOW and SUSPECT about Henry Tudor.
We know that he lived his life in exile, putting in place a network of intrigue and espionage to undermine Richard’s rule.
We know that he challenged an anointed King.
We know that he subjected the corpse of that anointed king to unprecedented indignities.
We know that he dated his reign from the day before the battle so that Richard’s followers could be attainted for treason, executed and their lands forfeit to the crown.
We know that he ordered all copies of the Titulus Regius to be destroyed (the document that explained why the offspring of Edward IV's claim to the throne was invalid, and made Richard king).
We know that to strengthen his weak claim to the throne he married Elizabeth of York. In order to marry her he needed to legitimise her and in doing so also legitimised her brothers the princes (dead already or not).
We know that Henry and his successors carried out a campaign against remaining Plantagenets.
We know that he imposed crippling taxes.