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 in the centre of the country 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 documentary on Channel 4, one of our terrestrial TV broadcasters.
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, for those unfamiliar with the organisation, 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 will confirm.
The existing documents contain 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 Macbeth 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.