This article was first published in the March 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
The discovery of Richard III’s remains under a Leicester car park has been one of the greatest archaeological breakthroughs of our age. It has revealed the remarkable extent of public interest in England’s most controversial medieval king, and the truly global reach of his life and legend. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of Richard. But some commentators have already begun to question whether anything has really changed. Are we all the victims of hype? Or has the dig really helped reveal that ultimate conundrum, the character of Richard III?
First, let’s think about the physical appearance of the king. There was a great dramatic moment in the press conference on 4 February, with the revelation that Richard suffered from a severe curvature of the spine. Without this condition, he might have stood at 5ft 8ins; with it, he was significantly shorter, and walked with a pronounced stoop. For some time, historians have been reluctant to accept the near-contemporary descriptions of Richard as a ‘crouchback’, on the grounds that they were part of the Tudors’ strenuous efforts to defame the last Plantagenet king. The skeleton certainly proves that some of the other physical deformities that Richard was later alleged to have suffered, including a withered arm, are entirely fictitious. But the revelation that he suffered from severe scoliosis raises really important questions about the challenges that he faced in presenting and proving himself as prince and king.
Medieval society was not always kind to physical abnormality, which was often seen as the mark of the Devil. In theory, for example, Richard’s hunchback debarred him from admission to the clergy – a career that might, under other circumstances, have been a real option for him. It was also a major impediment to his destiny as a knight. We now know that the condition developed in his early teens, during the first years of the reign of his brother, Edward IV. By the time Richard emerged onto the political stage during the anti-Yorkist rebellions of 1469–70, he had evidently undergone an arduous and painful training to compensate for his physical problems. His subsequent military career – and his very presence on the battlefield at Bosworth – can now be seen as remarkable triumphs over disability, and testimony to a steely will.
Next, we might consider what this discovery might do for our knowledge of other medieval kings and princes. The greatest and continuing controversy about Richard revolves around the allegation that he was responsible for the deaths of his nephews, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York – the so-called ‘princes in the Tower’. The historical sources have never yielded definitive evidence to resolve this debate. But the Leicester dig has shown us that modern scientific analysis can compensate, in remarkable ways, for the absence of written records. If we could disinter the remains of two youths discovered in the Tower of London in the 17th century, which lie buried at Westminster Abbey, we could compare their DNA with that of the alleged wicked uncle and know, one way or another, whether the children were indeed boys of royal birth.
The precedent is also of importance for other royal mysteries. DNA testing could, for example, resolve the modern debate as to whether Edward II was actually buried in the tomb at Gloucester Cathedral that bears his effigy – or whether the king, deposed in 1327, actually escaped the wrath of his enemies by fleeing the realm. Antiquaries in the 18th and 19th centuries did a lot of damage by opening up the tombs of medieval kings, nobles and bishops. Their ghoulish interventions fell out of fashion in Victorian and later times, and today there is a strong reluctance on the part of the crown, the church and the law to allow the exhumation of royal remains buried in consecrated ground. It therefore remains to be seen whether the careful protocols observed at Leicester will allow a new age of exploration in the monuments of monarchs.
The Leicester dig provides a cautionary tale about believing received opinion. The local legend that Richard’s body was disinterred at the Dissolution of the Monasteries and dumped ignominiously in the nearby river has had far too many people convinced, for generations, that no tomb – and no body – could ever be found. Sometimes it is the persistence of the enthusiast, against all the odds, that really can break the barriers of disbelief.
Finally, it is worth contemplating what the discovery of Richard III’s remains has done for modern British identities. Richard’s marriage into the great northern family of the Nevilles, and his success in ruling the north of England during the reign of his brother, led many – both in his own time and later – to see him as a kind of adopted northerner or honorary Yorkshireman. Richard’s own vaunting political ambition, which led him to take the throne in 1483, suggests that he was never so provincially minded, and had a genuinely national and international outlook. Nevertheless, the very problems he faced as king may well have led him to sentimentalise his relationship with the north, and with the city of York in particular. He showed such favour to the great Gothic church of York Minster as strongly to suggest that he intended to break with royal tradition and be buried there. That, as any York taxi driver will tell you, is certainly what the north expects now.
Richard III lived at a time when the mortal remains of kings were often dug up and reinterred in far-distant locations thought more fitting to their own, or their successors’, sense of majesty. Westminster Abbey, St George’s Chapel, Windsor and Fotheringhay Church all have as good a claim as York Minster to provide a natural resting place for the bones of the last Yorkist king. If Richard does indeed end up spending eternity at Leicester Cathedral, then we can be certain of one thing at least: it will not be by his choice.
So: whither Richard III? The worldwide interest in the discoveries at Leicester and the ensuing battle of the bones will no doubt generate a rush of biographies that claim, on the basis of the new facial reconstruction, to reveal something new about the true personality of a man unjustly vilified by Shakespeare. But it is through the horrific injuries that leave their mark on the skull and limbs of the royal skeleton that we can surely develop important new understandings about the extraordinary brutality of medieval warfare and the vengeful humiliation that Henry Tudor’s soldiers and spin-doctors inscribed upon the body and memory of our last medieval king.
Mark Ormrod is professor of history at the University of York