I finally wade into the controversy of Richard III…

Well, for a long time now I’ve been resisting having ‘views’ on Richard III, because I’m generally quite equivocal about the whole thing.  But here we go.  With a comment in today’s Guardian I have finally succumbed…

‘Who says the Wars of the Roses are over? Five hundred years since the Battle of Bosworth, the Yorkist side is turning in on itself, and the Richard III Society may have finally met its match in the Plantagenet Alliance.

The former, in association with the University of Leicester, kicked off last year’s stunning exhumation of Richard III’s body from a car park in Leicester, and Leicester is where it wants his final resting place to be. Now the latter, consisting of 15 living relatives of the king, say they are planning to use the law to insist he be buried in York instead. You might wonder what they’re all getting so worked up about – and this Richard III business certainly defies all logical explanation.

In strictly scientific terms, there was no point in digging him up. Archaeologists thought he was under the car park – and indeed he was. Historians thought he had curvature of the spine – and it looks like indeed he did.

It was the sensational and emotional impact of the discovery that mattered, and many professional archaeologists and historians – and indeed journalists – found that uncomfortable. Words like “trivialisation” and “stunt” were bandied about, especially after the Channel 4 documentary that dwelt as much on the players as the results.

The editor of History Today, Paul Lay, blames “the pernicious influence of the solipsistic celebrity genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are?” for a demand for history to which we can “relate”. Indeed, Plantagenet Alliance members are “relatives” of the king, no less. And no more, either. As he had no children, they can’t claim to be his descendants.

It’s easy to mock the people who straightforwardly project their present concerns on to the past. As a curator, I’ve met endless people who feel a “special connection” with Anne Boleyn, or Victorian prostitutes, or various other unlikely candidates.

It’s easy too, if you look back at the past, to draw connections between people’s barmy obsessions and their own age. The Victorians were very taken with the idea that Henry VIII might have had syphilis, a disease that was central to their own health fears. Today the most modish explanation of the king’s maladies is Kell’s disease. If Henry VIII belonged to the rare Kell positive blood group, he would have found difficulty in fathering more than one child with any Kell-negative woman. The theory matches his reproductive history; but it’s also the perfect solution to have arisen in our own age, when genetics appears to have all the answers.

So I do have some sympathy with the professional historians and archaeologists who roll their eyes at the enthusiasts who stomp around fields on Saturdays in unconvincing costumes, complete with modern eyewear, or cry at archaeological digs. But ultimately if you push me, I’m always going to be on the side of the tearful. There seems to me to be something admirable, indeed noble, about the people arguing over Richard III. They’re doers rather than naysayers, romantics rather than realists, people looking for meaning rather than numbness. And I do wonder what professional historians are beavering away for in their ivory towers, if not to have history become part of the common currency of life.

Of course, it’s fun to point out the inaccuracies or sensationalism or elisions of historical drama, or history designed for public consumption. In another sense, though, it’s self-defeating, because if you constantly deride the offerings of this whole industry that produces what the Americans call “public history”, its customers will slip away to football, or Facebook, and leave us all the poorer.

Even if emotion isn’t your thing, look at the money. Whoever gets the final tomb of Richard III will have a new and possibly profitable tourist attraction on their hands. So I’m all in favour of a spot of Plantagenet controversy. There’s only one thing worse for a subject than being talked about. It’s not being talked about.’

6 thoughts on “I finally wade into the controversy of Richard III…

  1. John Ovens

    As a North Easterner I would be quite happy to see Richard III in York. However, York does have an awful lot of attractions already but Leicester…..perhaps not so many. So here is the deal, Leicester can have Richard III but could we have the Lindisfarne Gospels back permanently please? I did ask nicely!

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  2. Lady Plantagenetista

    I may be American, but I’ve been fascinated by English (as well as Scottish and Welsh) history my entire life; to the extent that if I possessed the proper credentials, I could teach the subject at university level.

    The many ridiculous rumours about Richard III, which, while they may not be absolutely proved either way (yet, in a time when most people were illiterate, and the ones who either weren’t or who were wealthy enough to employ a scribe were also likely to have political agendas of their own, so common sense about the history that IS known to be true must be analyzed and conclusions drawn from there, rather than from the biased writings of (or dictated by) nobles who may not have been trustworthy sources of truth) are still being repeated in novels and TV shows written in the present. I won’t even delve too deeply into the idiocy of Richard being blamed and condemned for the murders of the Princes (even though one viewer of The White Queen stated in a blog that she thought he had committed the heinous crime because she read IN A NOVEL that he (King Richard) was the only one with the keys to the Tower of London!!! Does that mean if a kitchen maid is killed in Windsor Castle, Queen Elizabeth is the natural culprit, since as monarch she’s the ONLY PERSON WITH ACCESS to HER castle????)

    However, I’d like to address another centuries-old crime Richard has been convicted of, post-mortem, of course. I refer to the death, or execution of his next older, mentally unstable and overly ambitious brother George, Duke of Clarence. The common accusation has traditionally been that Richard drowned George in a butt (large container) of Malmesley, a type of sweet wine George was known to prefer. Ignoring all the pesky facts of the situation, such as mentally unstable George, who’d turned traitorously against his brother the King before, even accusing their own mother of being unfaithful to their father with a commoner, making Edward illegitimate; joining their first cousin the Duke of Warwick in his rebellion against Edward by agreeing to an alliance with the woman who was ultimately responsible for the deaths of their fathers, uncles, 17-year-old brother and cousin and many loyal retainers during a battle that defied the Church’s injunction on fighting on Christian holy days; and doing so in order that he, married without royal permission to his fist cousin once removed Isabel, in the belief that Warwick meant to place him, George on the throne (and only allowed himself tp be wooed back to his brother’s side with the assurance of full and total pardon), plus all the other various plots he constantly involved himself in, until after taking royal authority into his own hands and executing the midwife who had attended his wife’s last stillborn pregnancy before she died of what sounds like TB, he somehow leaned Edward’s most closely guarded secret, which despite the pleas of his remaining, totally loyal and trusted brother, Richard, as well as their mother and sisters, George was finally arrested. Naturally, Edward’s Queen hated George the most of Edward’s family, due to the role he’d played in the deaths of her father and brother; and she now urged Edward to execute him, to ensure the safety of their children, particularly their son and heir, which ultimately Edward did. And during that entire affair Richard played no part, except to beg his bother to spare their only remaining brother’s life, which is not only a proven fact, but also a difficult transition, from attempted saviour to murderer. But the method of execution, to be drowned in a large barrel of wine was unheard of, and certainly not the quick, painless death Edward would have granted even George, if only to lessen the pain of his mother and siblings, to whom he was always close. I propose a different, more logical meaning of that phrase.

    Since George was admittedly fond of Malmesley wine, and had been imbibing rather too freely since the death of his wife (which is how Edward discovered, by hearing about his brother’s drunken ramblings of his illegitimate marriage, and therefore children), I believe that placing the large keg wine in George’s cell was a kindness, and the phrase “drowning in…” a euphemism for being extremely drunk; used today as “drowning one’s sorrows”. George, Duke of Clarence wasn’t actually killed by drowning in wine! He most likely either drank himself to sleep while he was imprisoned, or possibly used the wine as a sort of anesthesia (the only sort that existed until the early 20th century, and not a very good one, as far as surgery goes, which is likely the reason people died from conditions easily remedied today in out-patient facilities. Then, though, and more than 500 years on, alcohol in the form of beverages were the only type of non-herbal painkiller or anesthesia barring the few healthcare workers who could procure opium and knew how to use it safely and effectively). Either way, Richard had no part in this. If he had, the shock of learning that his nephew, the minor King Edward V, for whom he was appointed Lord Protector of the Realm, would not have come as such a surprise and caused the usually calm and rational man to explode with such uncontrolled wrath, culminating in the summary execution of Lord Hastings, the man who had sent word to Richard despite the Queen’s orders. Richard took his anger at his adored brother’s premature death out on Hastings because he blamed the man for encouraging his brother the King to eat and drink excessively, as well as to whore around like he was still a teenage, rather than treating his body with respect, sleeping sufficiently, and concentrating on governing his kingdom rather than acting like one of today’s fratboys. Of course Henry Tudor and the authors and playwrights of his time and throughout the Tudor dynasty used such ridiculous accusations, twisting them until their original meaning was lost in the carnage of Richard’s true reputation.

    I don’t know if the claim that Elizabeth of York actually loved her uncle, who wasn’t very much older than she was (per the customs of the time), more than the normal niece/uncle affection; or if she actually wanted to marry him after his wife died. No one possibly could know that. I don’t imagine she relished the idea of marriage to Henry Tudor, because, well frankly, who would? There IS evidence that he delayed her coronation, that she was not treated with love or even treated well by him, just as evidence exists that he reneged on promises made to Elizabeth Woodville, her mother. And despite the children Elizabeth of York bore him, though again I don’t know for certain if these two rumours are true, but the first one, that she took very little interest in her children, is borne out by her surviving son, Henry VIII, whose behaviour can be explained easily by the modern psychological concept of separation anxiety and, at least in his first marriage to an older woman, a mother complex. The second rumour, that after the battle of Bosworth Field, where her Uncle Richard was murdered by her new husband’s men, Elizabeth never spoke his name again; regarding that too I have found no irrefutable proof. But somehow, even without proof, that rings true to me. God Save King Richard!

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  3. Lady Plantagentista

    Sorry, this is embarrassing, but I’ve been typng half asleep. My user name should be spelled: PLANTAGANETISTA.

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  4. Will McCrum

    Didn’t Simon Schama write off the Wars of the Roses as ‘two bunches of hooray Henrys knocking seven bells out of each other?’ Old Carl Jung used to say we like donning peacock’s feathers from our projections, and the farther away in space and time the golden era the better, the SAFER it is. All I know is that that bloke in the car-park’s reconstructed head looks SUSPICIOUSLY like Gavin Esler. I’ll say no more.

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  5. Davena Hooson

    I would just like to add that burying a King’s body should be done with due reverence. Leaving him in a car park is not a suggestion we can take seriously! He lived in Yorkshire because that’s where he chose to live. He was ‘buried’ (i.e. unceremoniously shoved into a too-small grave) in Leicestershire because that’s where he was killed. If we left todays soldiers to be buried in the place where they fell, there’s be an outcry. The decent and honourable thing to do would be to allow his remains to return to their home county.

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  6. Andrea Willers

    That should of been the blog lady Plantaganetisa

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