Richard III: what does the find mean for history?

Following the February 2013 confirmation that the Leicester remains were indeed Richard III's, historians and experts shared their views on the discovery – and their opinions on what should happen next

Dr Jo Appleby, a lecturer in bioarchaeology at Leicester University, points to an image of the skull of King Richard III. (Photo by ANDREW COWIE/AFP/Getty Images)

This article first appeared in BBC History Magazine’s ‘Richard III’ bookazine


Professor Lin Foxhall

“This is just the start of the story”

This is only the beginning: there is more research to follow, before re-interment, on the genetics and the bones, including Richard’s health and diet. We will not be able to study them after reburial. And we need to learn more about the awesome Greyfriars precinct: the church, the other buildings and the role of the friars in the life of medieval Leicester. Finally, scholars will need time to consider the impact of this major new body of material evidence for interpreting the literary and historical sources of the period. We’ll need to reread the texts and rethink the history.

Professor Lin Foxhall is head of the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester

Chris Skidmore MP

“A state funeral will allow people to pay their respects”

After scientific tests have been completed on Richard’s body, there is the thorny issue of where and exactly how he should be buried. Leicester seems the logical place, especially since the location of the reburial was agreed before the archaeological investigations began, though I’m sure various cities such as York will continue to fight their corner.

I’ve been campaigning for a form of state funeral for Richard. This need not be an excuse for a public holiday or a Westminster Abbey service, but the opportunity for the body to lie in state for people to pay their respects. As for the funeral service, some form of joint ceremony reflecting his Catholic faith needs to be considered. Then the process of re-assessing Richard really begins.

Chris Skidmore MP is author of Bosworth: The Birth of the Tudors (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2013)

Nigel Jones

“Richard is fit only to be buried in the car park where he was found”

The discovery of Richard’s bones – ironically funded by the Richard III Society – has at least laid one Ricardian myth to rest: that his crooked spine was an invention of Tudor propaganda. I only wish that the strange cult of this murderous little tyrant would also lie down and die.

As for his burial place, as far as I’m concerned he should be returned to the Leicester car park. The idea of a state funeral in a church, abbey, minster or cathedral honouring a serial-killing child murderer is almost obscene. Murder is murder, however ancient.

Nigel Jones is a historian, journalist and broadcaster

Tom Holland

“This find says as much about the British public as it does Richard III”

The discovery of Richard III’s remains is haunted by an obvious irony. A project inspired by the desire to redeem his memory from Tudor propaganda has served to confirm it in much of its details: Richard was indeed a ‘crookback’, and he appears, from the evidence of the stab-wound to his buttock [inflicted after his death], to have been widely hated. Beyond that, even though the discovery of his remains sheds little further light on his reign, it has served to illumine – and to glorious effect – something that many pessimists had doubted: the abiding attachment of the British to their history. Long live King Richard!

Tom Holland is the author of In the Shadow of the Sword (Little, Brown, 2012)

Nigel Saul

“Shakespeare the historian was right all along”

There’s no doubt that the unearthing of Richard III’s bones at Leicester is the most sensational archaeological discovery for many a year. And scientifi-cally it’s come at just the right time, because DNA testing allows us to establish the bones’ authenticity.

As for what we’ve learned, the most important thing is that Richard was deformed after all. Amazingly, Shakespeare was right, not [Scottish mystery novelist] Josephine Tey – which must annoy all the revisionists. Speaking as one who’s always admired Shakespeare the historian, I’m enjoying that. As for what next: why not DNA-test the reputed bones of the princes in the Tower?

Nigel Saul is the author of For Honour and Fame: Chivalry in England, 1066–1500 (Bodley Head, 2011)

Alison Weir

“Richard’s bad press was likely deserved”

The discovery of Richard III’s remains changes our perception of so-called propaganda against him. Confirmation that he was indeed the ‘crouchback’ of legend suggests we should re-evaluate other hostile sources. Might they reflect the truth? Maybe, once Richard was dead, people felt free to speak out against him.

His bad press was probably well deserved, but he died in the Christian faith and should be buried where he wished, in York Minster, without fanfare. What might settle the debate about him is a new examination of the bones, thought to be those of the princes in the Tower, in Westminster Abbey.

Alison Weir is the author of Richard III and The Princes in The Tower (Vintage, 2014)

Dr Phil Stone

“The discovery will hopefully reopen the debate”

Clearly, the finding of the remains of Richard III won’t alter anyone’s perception of his character but it may be that the publicity will open up the debate. This man instituted a system of bail, had the laws written in English and introduced the equivalent of a free press.

Perhaps people will start to read about this monarch who did much for this country, and discover that a lot of their prejudice against him just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny when subjected to the true facts of his life and reign. We in the Richard III Society do hope so.

Dr Phil Stone is chairman of the Richard III Society

Julian Humphrys

“We can now put together the final days of the Yorkist dynasty”

This remarkable discovery, together with the identification of Bosworth battlefield by archaeologists from the Battlefields Trust and Leicester County Council in 2010, means that we can finally piece together the violent last moments of the Yorkist dynasty. I have no strong views on Richard’s reinterment but am mindful of the case of Edward the Martyr, the teenage king murdered at Corfe in AD 978. His remains were discovered at a dig at Shaftesbury in 1931 but arguments over how he should be reburied meant they spent more than 50 years in a Woking bank vault before eventually being reinterred at Brookwood cemetery by the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile.

Julian Humphrys is a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine

David Hipshon

“Leicester’s zeal is a cause for concern”

The history of Richard III will not have to be rewritten in the light of the Leicester findings. The wounds to the body confirm what we know about his death in battle, but the spinal curvature suggests that the Tudor hunchback propaganda probably began when his body was stripped on the battlefield and the deformity was seen for the first time.

The remains themselves should go to York Minster, of course. Leicester’s appropriation of Richard has all the hallmarks of the medieval relic industry touting for the pilgrim trade. Their motivation and zeal may, in due course, cast doubt on the objectivity of the research.

David Hipshon is the author of Richard III (Routledge, 2010)

Sarah Gristwood

“The discovery adds sympathy to Richard’s story”

Finding the king’s remains doesn’t answer the big questions, but it does – with the real scoliosis, to set against the reputed hunchback – suggest there may often be a grain of truth lurking inside the old stories. Also, the catalogue of wounds or posthumous ‘humiliation injuries’ Richard suffered gives what has often been missing: an element of human sympathy to his story. Now we need a bit more excavation, in a different sense – of the stories of the women around Richard, from whom derived this all-important DNA.

Sarah Gristwood is the author of Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses (HarperPress, 2013)

Suzannah Lipscomb

“We still know nothing of the king’s character”

The news that it was indeed Richard III’s body under the tarmac of a council car park caused the Ricardians – loyal members of the Richard III Society – to announce ‘a whole new era for Richard III’. What does that really mean? In practice, the find is something of an own goal for Richard’s supporters. The severely curved spine of the king actually confirms the pronouncements of Tudor writers such as Sir Thomas More, who noted that Richard was “little of stature, ill fetured of limmes, croke backed, his left shoulder much higher then his right”.

Crucially, it tells us nothing new about the character of this much-maligned monarch. Now, if we could compare his DNA to those of the bones found in the Tower, now in Westminster Abbey, and see if they are those of his nephews – the princes – then we might enter ‘a whole new era’.

Suzannah Lipscomb is the author of A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England (Ebury, 2012)

Dominic Sandbrook

“The discovery is only good for history”

It’s a shame that some academic historians have been so snobbish and mean-spirited about the discovery of Richard III’s body, though it isn’t very surprising. To most people, though, this is precisely the kind of thing – mysterious and melodramatic – that gets them interested in history in the first place. Richard’s rise and fall is one of the great dramas of our national past. And though the discovery of his remains may not radically alter our view of his reign, it does change our portrait of the man himself – not least because it turns out that the Tudors weren’t completely lying about his physique.

Above all, this is the kind of high-profile event that will have thousands of schoolchildren eagerly discussing the last Plantagenets and the Wars of the Roses. And that can only be a very good thing for history.


Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author