Historians say if Richard III has indeed been discovered – it will reshape our views of the past.
Richard III : Wiki Commons
The University of Leicester team involved in the Search for Richard III say their discovery of a skeleton with apparent battle wounds and curvature of the spine could rewrite a contentious period of English history – if the remains indeed prove to be those of the slain monarch.
The University of Leicester, in association with Leicester City Council and the Richard III Society, is leading the Search for Richard III. The University announced in September that it had discovered a set of articulated remains which are currently being subjected to rigorous laboratory examination.
For University of Leicester historians Professor Norman Housley and Dr Andrew Hopper, if the remains found by the University of Leicester are Richard III’s, it would rewrite history by bringing closure to the fate of the mysterious king. In addition, by observing that Richard’s deformity may have been a result of scoliosis, the idea of him being a ‘hunchback’ will fade away.
History textbooks often tell children and young students that Richard III was a hated king whose body was cast into a river after the victory of Henry Tudor over the House of York during the War of the Roses. This perspective very much correlates with Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard III in his titular play, where the character of the last Plantagenet king adopts a villainous role.
However, the potential discovery of the ‘real’ Richard III could cast these aspersions into doubt: if Richard III was buried at the Grey Friars dig site in Leicester, then it will change the way in which his mysterious death is viewed.
Based on a proclamation issued by Henry VII, Richard III’s body was displayed in Leicester after the Battle of Bosworth, so that he could be looked upon by the people. A contemporary chronicle suggested that Richard III may have been buried at The Newarke. However, because of The Newarke’s associations with the house of Lancaster, the body was believed to have been moved to a new location, which is where the ‘river myth’ is often used as a conclusion.
Professor Norman Housley and Dr Andrew Hopper of the School of Historical Studies said:
“Little reliable contemporary evidence has survived for the nature of his kingship because his reign proved so short and because his Tudor successors legitimised themselves by encouraging literary works (of which Shakespeare was not the first) that depicted him as a caricature tyrant. So, if it proves possible to nail the Tudor slander of the ‘hunchback king’ with medical evidence of severe scoliosis rather than kyphosis, it will be gilt on the gingerbread because efforts during the last three centuries to restore his reputation have never fully succeeded in undermining this enduring popular image.
“The discovery of the body will be significant because of what is already being indicated about the cause of death. The apparent evidence of battle injuries will stimulate debate about exactly how Richard was killed at Bosworth, and beyond that, about close combat in medieval battles. This is fitting because Richard polarised opinion during his life and from beyond the grave; his reliance on a northern regional powerbase to maintain his rule fostered a north-south divide in allegiance partially reflected in the historiography since.”
Richard III’s life still polarises historical debate today. Professor Housley and Dr Hopper are convinced that the find, if proven to be Richard, will have the advantageous effect of bringing closure to an issue that has been concerning historians for centuries.
“It will bring a pleasing sense of closure to our knowledge of the vicious civil war which ushered in the Tudor dynasty,” they said.
All of this new information will naturally alter how history is taught in schools. Thomas More’s critical biography is the source of a lot of information currently taught about Richard in schools., and it presents the monarch as a monstrous ruler. David Baldwin, a retired University of Leicester historian, discusses in his recent book “Richard III” the importance of reassessing the complex history of the maligned monarch. He said:
“Richard has frequently been portrayed as either a villain or a hero, but he was probably neither. Rather, he was a man of his time whose childhood insecurity determined the course of the rest of his life. He behaved badly on occasion because he thought he had no alternative, and while we cannot excuse him, we can try to understand his mindset and why he acted as he did – to get as close to the ‘real’ Richard as we can.
Philippa Langley, originator of the search from the Richard III Society, said: “The dig in Leicester is exploding many of the myths that surround King Richard. It is also questioning the work of many of our illustrious writers.
“It seems that despite Thomas More, Richard did not have a withered arm, that despite William Shakespeare, Richard did not have a hunchback. And despite John Speede, Richard’s remains were not exhumed and taken to the river Soar.
“If the remains are identified as being those of King Richard these are just some of the myths that have already been busted. And, having watched the exhumation, I believe there may be more myths to follow.”
The University has made it clear that it is not saying it has found Richard III – rather that the skeleton has characteristics that warrant extensive further detailed examination and that the search has moved from an archaeological to a laboratory phase.
The University has added that the outcomes of its investigations are expected in January- and that possible outcomes are:
• The scientific research suggests it is Richard III
• The scientific research suggests it is not Richard III
• The scientific research is inconclusive and therefore conclusions may be drawn from the evidence available.
The Search for Richard III is also the subject of a Channel 4 documentary being made by Darlow Smithson.