Ahead of today’s announcement of the results of the project to identify remains unearthed in a Leicester car park, BBC History Magazine spoke to leading historians and experts about the impact of the discovery – and what it means to them
Tracy Borman: The discovery will bring us face to face with history
“The announcement towards the end of last year that skeletal remains found beneath a car park in Leicester might be those of Richard III caused great excitement amongst the historical fraternity. And justifiably so: Richard III is one of the most controversial figures in history. Demonised by the Tudors (and Shakespeare in particular) as a crookbacked murderer, he has since been at least partially rehabilitated by the likes of the Richard III Society. But the debate continues to rage amongst historians today.
All of the contemporary sources have been picked over many times in an attempt to solve the mystery of Richard’s character and career. The discovery of a major new piece of the jigsaw is therefore immensely exciting.
If it proves to be Richard’s skeleton, then it might not answer all of the questions (notably that of the part he played – if any – in the murder of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower), but it will give us hugely significant new details about his appearance and how he died.
For me, though, the real significance of the find will be in bringing us face to face with history. Somehow, the more legendary (or notorious) a figure becomes, the less human they seem. Great historical icons such as Henry VIII can sometimes seem no more real than the characters of a fairy tale. We have their portraits, their letters, and a host of other proofs that they existed, but they remain tantalisingly out of reach.
The unearthing of some bones beneath a car park in Leicester – hardly a fitting resting place for a king, no matter how vilified – could change all of that.”
Tracy Borman is the author of Matilda: Wife of the Conqueror, First Queen of England (Jonathan Cape, 2011)
Dr Phil Stone: The find offers the chance to dispel 500 years of innuendo
“What will it mean to me and to the Richard III Society if the remains found under the Leicester car park truly are those of Richard III? It will mean that an anointed king of England, who was treated most shamefully by his successors, can, at long last, be laid to rest in an appropriate manner. It will be one of the greatest events in over 500 years of Ricardian history.
Richard’s reputation has been badly traduced since his death. The evidence against him for the so-called crimes just does not stand up, as has been shown many times in recent years. Even the death of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower, cannot be proved. They were no longer seen in public after August 1483 but that doesn’t mean that they were killed.
I think the behaviour of Henry VII after Bosworth suggests that he knew the boys were alive at the time of Richard’s death. The finding of Richard III will give us the incentive to seek the truth with renewed vigour. It would be so good to clear his name.
The people of England at the time of Bosworth wouldn’t have recognised the picture painted by Shakespeare. To them, Richard III was a good king who had the welfare of his people at heart, seeking fair dealing for all, not just the powerful.
What will it mean to me? It means we have an opportunity to clear away 500 years of myth and innuendo whilst giving a dignified reinterment to the physical remains of ‘Good King Dickon’.”
Phil Stone is chairman of the Richard III Society
Suzannah Lipscomb: These results may reveal more about Richard’s condition
“If these bones are those of Richard III, then we’ll discover whether a whole dynasty of Tudor writers – from Sir Thomas More to William Shakespeare – blackened the name of the king, as the Ricardians have always claimed.
Most importantly, we’ll find out just how bad Richard III’s spinal condition was and learn whether he had kyphosis – the hunchback that Shakespeare gives him – or scoliosis – a type of spinal curvature that, arguably, might not have impaired his physical abilities or appearance at all (the fastest man on the planet – Usain Bolt has it). Then we’ll only have the small matter of whether Richard’s character, rather than his body, was crooked, to argue about for decades to come.”
Suzannah Lipscomb is the author of A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England (Ebury Press, 2012). Read more of her thoughts here
Dr Paulina Kewes: The issue remains of where Richard’s body ends up
“What, if anything, did Elizabethan plays have to say about King Richard’s final resting place? The anonymous True Tragedy of Richard III (1590-1), a source for Shakespeare’s version of the story, shows the eponymous king dejected as the Battle of Bosworth is about to begin. If he loses, he knows ‘this ground must be my grave’.
In the event, the victorious Richmond orders the body of ‘traytrous Richard …drawne through the streets of Lester, / Starke naked on a Colliers horse’ That’s the last it’s heard of, so we are left no wiser as to where the desecrated corpse will end up.
Shakespeare’s more decorous Richmond eschews such grim antics – for which, incidentally, there is warrant in the chronicle that graphically describes the gruesome spectacle of Richard’s body being paraded ‘naked and dyspoiled to the skin,’ with ‘nothing left about him, not so much as a clowte to cover hys privie members’.
Rather, Shakespeare’s victor takes care that those who died in his cause should be given proper burial. ‘Inter their bodies as become their births,’ he commands, before turning attention to his upcoming nuptials. Again, there is no clue about the whereabouts of the tyrant’s carcass. For all we know, now that the crown has been plucked ‘From the dead temples of this bloudie wretch,’ the corpse may be rotting on the battlefield.
Certainly, in Titus Andronicus (1593-4), an even bloodier tragedy than Richard III (1593) and composed at roughly the same time, Shakespeare has one villain buried alive and his lover-queen denied burial altogether, her body thrown ‘forth to beasts and birds’.
Productions of Richard III are unlikely to be affected if the bones unearthed in the Leicester car park prove to be Richard’s, though given the ingenuity of modern directors one can never be sure. And there will be some extra information here for the programme notes.
So what if the real man turns out to have been less of a hunchback than Shakespeare made him? Already some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries quietly reported that the loser-king had in fact been comely enough, though rather small. But we shall no doubt see an almighty squabble about where to inter the recently certified royal remains. Leicester Cathedral? York Minster? Westminster Abbey? Stratford-upon-Avon would seem as good a place as any and perhaps a nice compromise!”
Paulina Kewes is fellow and tutor in English Literature at Jesus College, University of Oxford
David Hipshon: the results offer new insight into Tudor propaganda
“Do the findings at Leicester materially change the historian’s view of Richard III? Despite the media hype, the answer is probably no. What they do is confirm the historical consensus in a number of important ways and they open up the intriguing possibility that Tudor propaganda demonising Richard may have been fabricated from some known physical characteristics.
Tudor propagandists created the image of Richard III as an evil hunchback: the physical deformity signifying to the Tudor mind a character defect. Shakespeare’s ‘bunch-backed’ Richard III is derived from accounts hostile to Richard. Thomas More described him as ‘crookbacked…the left shoulder much higher than the right.’ This in turn probably derived from John Rous, writing in 1486, who described him as having ‘unequal shoulders’.
While the fabrications are all too obvious, it may well be that the spinal deformity evident in the skeleton shows that the hunchback accusations were more exaggeration than lies. A court case in York in 1491, just six years after Richard’s death at Bosworth, related to a brawl in the city which had broken out when a man had shouted that Richard had been a ‘crouchback’.
The archaeologists have confirmed that the disability would have been caused by scoliosis, rather than kyphosis. In other words, the physical appearance of Richard may not have been out of the ordinary. He would have suffered back pain and possibly have had one shoulder slightly raised, but he would not have been bent forward or have had a hunchback.
As for the arrow in the spine, there are two possibilities. The first is that Stanley’s men fired at Richard as he passed them and an arrow struck the king. This would suggest that Stanley intervened immediately Richard made his move and that the blow was decisive. This might also account for why Richard came off his horse and the attack failed.
The other possibility is that the arrow was fired into the body after Richard was killed. An arrow fired at a moving target wearing armour is more difficult to envisage than a shot at an already fallen, fatally wounded adversary. In either case, the arrow is a new element to the story and will occasion more debate.
Finally, historians might be cautious about accepting the fact that the body is indeed that of Richard III. When some bones in Westminster Abbey were examined in 1933 to determine whether they belonged to the long lost Princes in the Tower, the team of experts found that they were. We now know that their research was seriously flawed and that they merely found what they were looking for.
It is to be hoped that the science of mitochondrial DNA, with the possibility of mutation and contamination over seventeen generations, is sufficiently robust to withstand the withering scrutiny of tomorrow’s scientists and historians.”
David Hipshon is the author of Richard III (Routlege, 2011)
Images, from top to bottom: Richard III as depicted in what is thought to be the earliest surviving portrait of the monarch; the skull, the identity of which is set to be revealed today; the plaque of the Richard III Society; the archaeological dig in progress; a fragment of a 14th-century tile uncovered during the project. All images credit the University of Leicester