Sunday 2 September 2012

Raiders of the Lost King

How are the mighty fallen in the midst of battle…and buried under council car parks.  This, according to recent speculation, was the fate of Richard III, England’s last Plantagenet king, killed at the Battle of Bosworth in August, 1485.  Now archaeologists working in Leicester say that they may be close to finding his remains, under the said municipal car park. 

Actually what they are really saying is that they may have found part of a Franciscan foundation known as Greyfriars – dissolved and destroyed during the Reformation - , where the monarch may have been buried after his naked body had been gawped at for several days after death. 

While I have no desire to criticise the team headed by Professor Richard Buckley of Leicester University (nonsense, I do!) it all seems a tad premature.  Yes, OK, it attracts attention, though not in the best archaeological tradition.  Well, maybe we are playing at Raiders of the Lost King. 

At the risk of being accused of academic snobbishness there seems to me to be a strong element of wishful thinking and pop archaeology here, not really that surprising in that the dig is to be featured in a forthcoming Channel 4 documentary. 

On reflection that might not be that bad – after all Time Team, a Channel 4 show, is pop archaeology at its best – but for the fact the Richard III Society is also involved in this sack him up project. 

Now, the Richard III Society, as you may very well know, has an agenda, not one, I have to say, that is politically or academically disinterested.  No, for them Richard is a much misunderstood man, a black villain only in Tudor propaganda, the wicked hunchback of Shakespeare’s fertile imagination.  Their man, rather, is more sinned against than sinning. 

I’ve never quite understood why Richard, who ruled for only two fairly disastrous years, has excited such fascination.  He was a bad king, a bad politician and an appalling strategist.  But for his miscalculations the Lancastrian cause, comprehensively defeated in the so-called Wars of the Roses (it was the Scot Scott who gave it that title) may itself have been buried forever. 

His fall began with a crime - the murder in the Tower of his young nephews Edward V and Richard, duke of York.  Oh, there is no doubt about that, despite the objections of the Richard III Society, as anyone who has the least knowledge of medieval records like Close Rolls and Pipe Rolls will confirm. 

These documents are an exhaustive account of royal grants and expenditure, mention often being made of the most politically insignificant people.  The Princes are there, at least until the summer of 1483, when they vanish altogether from the record, receiving no further mention.  To save himself, and to completely undercut Henry Tudor in 1485, Richard only had to produce them in public.  He could not.  He was Banquo and they were the ghosts at his feast. 

So, let’s get back to the dig.  I read in the press that the archaeologists and their Richardian allies hope that finding the remains, if they find the remains, will help change the way the king is viewed historically.  Really?  Do bones speak?  How on earth could a few broken fragments change the past? 

The Richard III Society view is that it would end the “enormous disparagement” of his reputation.  Quite frankly that’s just nonsense.  All the dry bones could prove - if there are enough of them - is that he wasn’t a hunchback with a withered arm, but that’s a perception that has long been discarded.  Hunchbacks with withered arms don’t generally ride into battle. 

I welcome archaeology as genuine archaeology and I really do hope that Richard is found, if only to answer a long-standing mystery.  But so far as his reputation is concerned, any remains, no matter how complete, will stay stubbornly silent.  


  1. Bones can tell interesting tales.

  2. There's a nasty stink surrounding violent regime change that just won't go away. Those troublesome tykes in the Tower were as much impediment to Henry T as to Dickie 3 . . . they just had to go. But I would argue that Henry had more need of their absence, than the 'wicked uncle'. After Bosworth, the usurper had plenty of time and a free hand to 'sex up' the records.

    Think of those mysterious Iraqi WMDs from our own recent past. Now you see 'em, now you don't . . . but the sleight of hand is so quick no one even knows who the magician was. Henry 7 also tidied up quite a few potentially annoying human assets, while his son managed to mislay a great many independent records during the charmingly-called "Dissolution of the Monasteries" - the most thoroughly destructive education reform up to the advent of Anthony Crosland and Shirley Williams.

    I was struck, in the article I read, how pains were taken to make Richard III's body vanish, as though the existence of a known interment were a silent rebuke. This is not the action of a righteous victor towards a noble foe. This is how a guilty conscience reveals itself. Henry and his heirs behaved a lot like T. Blair, HWBush, et al, have behaved in our own time: like men haunted by shameful deeds.

    1. Yes, very true, Calvin, and both Henry and his son did as much as they could to uproot all challenges to their dynastic legitimacy. During the reign of Henry VIII it was positively lethal to be in the direct line of Edward III. The Princes still in the Tower would have been a huge embarrassment to the earl of Richmond, fresh from his triumph at Bosworth. He needed them dead just as much as Richard. But there is no evidence that they were still alive.

      Edward Plantagenet, earl of Warwick, the son of George, duke of Clarence, and the nephew of both Edward IV and Richard III, was still alive and in possession of a far superior claim to the throne. He was just as politically awkward for the Tudors as his dead cousins, but suffered no immediate harm. Too dangerous to allow to go free, he was kept imprisoned in the Tower until he was executed on a bogus charge of treason in 1499.