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Richard III in History


Nothing was glorious about his bloody demise, and one can’t help but think that he understood the implications of what would happen even before the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485).  Certainly, William Shakespeare understood Richard III better than most.  The genius of the Bard has been precisely in using artifice in drama as a means of finding certainty, or at the very least, an account as accurate as any historian ever could.

What exactly does the discovery of Richard III’s remains in a parking lot in Leicester mean for the reviled monarch?  For dramatists, the last Plantagenet king is a source of immense excitement, doing very well when it comes to orders and rentals from costumers.  After that other great psychological wreck Hamlet, Richard makes a good fist of it in second place, the subject of orders for drama societies to state theatre companies every week.

The fate of his body is like that of any character of history who straddles the myths of power and death.  The most recent mania with finding a historically significant body was, of course, Osama bin Laden.  The quest to do so was a peculiar American fixation, one that combined elements of cinematic morality with speculative fantasy.  The fate of the notable body in history has a long currency of discussion.

The dark image of Richard was that version crafted by Thomas More in his History of King Richard III (1520).  Then came the unabashedly partisan chronicles of Raphael Holinshed, published in two editions, 1577 and 1587.  This was the Tudor refit, the victor’s bashing narrative written for the service of a useful history.  For More, the ruler was nothing short of sinister, and furthermore, lacked legitimacy.  Yet, in terms of human failing and the misfortunes of power, More would pay with his life at the hands of Henry VIII. The Tudors certainly knew a thing or two about bloodletting.

It took another discovery to challenge aspects of this crude assertion of Richard III’s legitimacy – the parliamentary Act of Settlement (1484) found by William Camden of the Society of Antiquaries.  Because the Act of Settlement suggested a good deal of power and involvement by Parliament vis-à-vis royal rule, Richard III found himself being revised and re-kitted by various historians.  This has been a point of debate in much Jacobean historiography.

The Richard III Society is punch drunk with the discovery, desperate to clear the monarch’s name on the historical tablets.  Rather than being an ugly hunchbacked misanthrope who made the pathway to the triumph of Henry Tudor easier, he was a scoliosis suffering, attractive, enlightened sort who balanced the ledger of merit for England’s good.  Well, sort of.

Suspicious, bitter Richard, it has been pointed out, made the presumption of innocence fundamental to the British common law system.  He set the building blocks for a unitary state.  But viciousness has chips, edges, and surfaces – it is never flat.  History, or at the very least its consumers, demands its virtuous criminals with various pathologies.  “What is certain,” claims a convinced Wayne K. Spear (National Post, Feb 7), “is that Richard lived at a time in which a degree of ruthlessness was a royal aspirant’s prerequisite, and the elimination of one’s rivals, both real and potential as well as past and present, a matter to be taken for granted.”  Even historian Andrew Roberts suggests that the Plantagenet dynasty, as a whole, be taken more seriously as durable state builders rather than oafish fools of office (The Daily Beast, Feb 6).

The discovery of Richard’s remains also taps into a consumer obsession with criminal culture, the forensic specialist as history maker.  American crime novellas and mini-series have paved the way for that, making the discovery of corpses through such characters as Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan sparklingly sexy.  A visiting centre in Leicester is already being planned after the discovery.  The University of Leicester is eager for increased publicity – as the press conference showed all too vividly: “The University of Leicester confirms the discovery of Richard III.”  The City of York, however, will have none of this chest beating nonsense, and demands the royal bones in what has become a Plantagenet dispute in modern dress.

This point is entirely missed on an overly enthusiastic Lemont Dobson of the School of Public Service and Global Citizenship at Central Michigan University.  “This is one of those things where people are talking about archaeology and real science, not pseudoscience on television” (Christian Science Monitor, Feb 4). Expect, it would seem, an exhumation craze in due course, something the Church of England, the Queen and her ministers have been fearful of entertaining.  Legitimacy might be lost in an instant.

The entire episode has troubled a few scientists, who have shaken heads at the release of the results before further tests were done to rule out DNA contamination (The Atlantic, Feb 7).  Maria Avila, a computational biologist at the Centre for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum of Denmark was sceptical.  “The DNA results presented today are too weak, as they stand, to support the claim that DNA is actually from Richard III.”

But it remains the dramatisation of the figure which survives any DNA efforts.  As the Cambridge classicist Mary Beard tweeted with resounding common sense, “Does it have any HISTORICAL significance?”  Other than causing a spike in commercial interest and a popularisation of archaeology, probably not.  Shakespeare will remain, as he has been for centuries, the true interpreter of Richard’s legacy.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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