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Rewriting history?

Poor old Tony Robinson. For almost two decades, he’s fronted a TV show which has seen him and a handful of archaeologists unearthing various old coins and bits of pottery in trenches dug in a variety of fields throughout the United Kingdom. Then, as soon as said show gets cancelled, a woman with a fixation about Richard III has a premonition about a car park in Leicester and is able to get sufficient funding from some equally-fixated friends to arrange for the University of Leicester to conduct an archaeological dig in said car park. On the first day of the dig, they find human bones which turn out to be the bones of the man they’re looking for. That never happened on Time Team.

Last Monday, the bones were officially confirmed to be the earthly remains of Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet dynasty, the last King of England to be killed in battle and, it’s safe to say, one of this country’s most controversial rulers. For all of the talk about history being about more than the study of famous dead men, there’s nothing like the discovery of the bones of a famous dead man to get people to pay attention. And in the evening, we had a lengthy documentary on Channel Four called Richard III: The King in the Car Park which told the full story behind the dig and the identification process.

The emphasis varied between the serious stuff outlined above, clips of Laurence Olivier with a false nose and a cushion stuffed up the back of his doublet reciting lines from Shakespeare’s Richard III, and the woman who’d had the premonition. In fact, her fixation with Richard III turned out to be a full-blown obsession with clearing his name (such people, it seems, are called ‘Ricardians’).

Although mildly interesting, this did detract from the more serious business of identifying the remains; carbon-dating put them in the right time period, analysis of the skull proved that this was someone who’d met with a violent end and a modern-day descendant who could provide a DNA match was found. Such is modern technology that the experts were even able to identify which wounds had been inflicted posthumously as ‘humiliation wounds’, which goes to show while battlefield technology has undoubtedly changed over the past 500 years, some attitudes have not.

This was presented by a comedian/actor I’d never heard of who tried to liven things up with the occasional attempt at a Shakespearean quote – not a smart move when the viewers have just seen a clip of Olivier doing it properly – and a few choice quotes of his own (‘if that isn’t Richard III, that is one unlucky monk!’). I cannot help thinking that Tony Robinson would’ve done a better job – if only because he’s had plenty of experience of explaining archaeology to the viewers and he has form on this particular time period, what with the first series of Blackadder having a Wars of the Roses setting and his having made a pretty good fist of questioning the legitimacy of Edward IV for a Channel Four documentary back in 2004. Maybe the people at Channel Four didn’t think that filming an archaeological dig in a city-centre car park which was happening thanks to an enthusiastic and eccentric amateur was sufficient reason to wheel him out. I guess they didn’t anticipate that they’d find the actual bones – which just goes to show that you never can tell.

Does this, as has been claimed, change or rewrite history? Not really. It ties up a couple of loose ends – we now know what happened to Richard’s body after the battle, and we know that the Tudor-era propaganda about his physical appearance had some (but not much) basis in fact. It will no doubt re-ignite the historical debate about Richard (probably along the ‘good king or bad king’ lines which mark out the debate on, say, King John), but it doesn’t change what happened.

For example, it does not change the fact that Richard III is still the most likely suspect in the mystery over the disappearance of his two nephews (the Princes in the Tower) in 1483; of the various people who have been suggested as being behind their murder, he definitely had the motive, the means and the opportunity to have them killed.

It doesn’t change the fact that after a reign of just two years, Richard lost his kingdom to a man who would go on to found his own dynasty, and who is (via a daughter who was married off to Scottish royalty) the ancestor of today’s Royal Family. The notion of history being written by the winners is certainly true of the posthumous treatment of Richard (Shakespeare’s play was based on a book by Thomas More), although what the Ricardians do not appear to have realised is that, without Shakespeare, few people would’ve heard of Richard III.

Trying to counter the Shakespearean image of Richard III with a whitewash won’t help. Medieval history wasn’t my particular area of expertise but what I can say is that no historical figure can really be seen in such black-or-white terms – eulogise or demonise if you like, but if you do you’ll never get to see the full person. There are only ever varying shades of grey.

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