Richard III found? – why it matters


It’s all over the news today – the claim that the 500 year old body found by archaeologists under a parking lot in Leicester UK is that of Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England who fell at Bosworth Field in 1485, losing his throne to Henry Tudor.

For much of the popular press in the US this is another great story of the royals!

BBC [Link]

The Guardian – as it happened today – [Link].

The Guardian – the controversy – [Link]

Is it really Richard of York? The academics at Leicester who have studied the remains say “yes – beyond all reasonable doubt”.

Is that because of genetic proof? The genetic evidence is actually quite shaky. It is the combination of evidence, including injuries and what is known of the circumstances of the disposal of the body, that warrant the notion that this may indeed be Richard.

Is the discovery historically important? Does this change our understanding of history? A good number of academic historians are critical of the attention the discovery is getting (Mary Beard, the infamous TV historian tweets – “Gt fun & a mystery solved that we’ve found Richard 3. But does it have any HISTORICAL significance? (Uni of Leics overpromoting itself?)”

It is extremely rare for archaeologists to be able to attempt identification of an individual. So this is quite an occasion.

But have Leicester University treated this as the media opportunity of a lifetime? Completely.

So goes the controversy – the business of academics.

Does it matter? Genetics? Forensic science? Historical significance? A University touting its wares on a world stage? No.

All the reporting and discussion I’ve read, though I haven’t strayed far from the mainstream media, misses the point.

Here’s why it matters.

This could be that figure so well known from literature and history. Even if it isn’t, and we should all have our doubts, the physical remains, and from a spot so deliciously ordinary as a car park, connect us intimately to great events in a story of back-then which still resonates now. It happened here, and there is what remains in the ruin of history. This is the electro-cultural attraction of the body. Witnessing the remains, even at that existential distance of digital media, connects the anonymity and mundanity of our everyday lives today with possible escape into what might be talked about, into what is enduring – material presences, and how we just might make a difference to others that matters.

This is my old argument that archaeology is really less about the past than it is about our fascinating relationships with haunting pasts-that-somehow-endure, pasts-in-the-present, projected into the future.

Add to this the royal connection and you have a story that goes global.


Image above – the body in situ.

Image at top – Laurence Olivier as Richard III in 1955

Great video clips – exactly the right treatment – [Link]

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2 thoughts on “Richard III found? – why it matters

  1. The importance of the face – lots of pictures of the skull, mentions of setting up a project to attempt facial reconstruction;

    The religious respect accorded the remains at the press conference;

    The competing claims over where the remains will be reburied (Leicester, Westminster Abbey in London, York?);

    all point to the primacy of this emotive and personal link with the past.

  2. Here’s why it matters – 2

    Let’s not underestimate the scope of the “haunting” past!

    Channel 4 in the UK got it right last night in their documentary called “The King in the Car Park” – [Link]

    Setting – a car park that used to be Greyfriars Church in Leicester UK.

    Presenter – mop haired Simon Farnaby – “comedian actor” as he described himself, and best known, if at all, from The Mighty Boosh and the TV version of Horrible Histories. Comment on the body, its bent spine and bashed in head – “If that isn’t Richard III, that is one unlucky monk.”

    The star was not an academic or historian, archaeologist or Church official, but Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society – devoted, quite literally, to putting the record straight about her hero, proving that he wasn’t Shakespeare’s monster, but a good King. Have a scout round their Facebook page – [Link]. The society bankrolled this whole affair, and not least through Philippa’s energies.

    She felt the vibes as she walked through the car park, even before any excavation – “And there, painted on the tarmac was a letter R!” – “It’s like Richard III wanted to be found” she said to UK’s Daily Mail – [Link] – “I absolutely knew I was walking on his grave”.

    She was so certain of this that she insisted, against the protests of the embarrassed archaeologists that it was somewhat premature, given that no scientific tests had been performed, that the cardboard box containing the excavated remains be draped in his royal colors, before it was whisked off to the local CT scanner in a somewhat modest Vauxhall Astra.

    Several times she broke down in tears, so moved was she by the presence of … well, Royalty, I suppose.

    There you have it – another familiar aspect of personal connection – fascinations with fame, celebrity and royalty, especially when there’s the twist of this being a decent royal (and handsome too, according to the facial reconstruction) misjudged and unfairly maligned by the media, albeit that being Shakespeare.

    PS Paddy Power the Bookmakers are offering odds of 4/1 that Philippa Langley will front a new Channel 4 archaeology series, after the scrapping of “Time Team”, the world’s most popular TV archaeology program.

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