Lessons from history from landmark dig for Richard III
Historians at the University of Leicester have highlighted how the landmark Search for King Richard III could help to reshape understanding of the past.
Professor Norman Housley and Dr Andrew Hopper, of the School of Historical Studies, describe the potential significance of the find. The Leicester academics state: “If, as we all hope, the skeleton found in the Leicester dig is shown within a reasonable margin of doubt to be that of Richard III, this discovery’s historical significance will be threefold.
“Firstly, we will have found the remains of the last English monarch killed in battle. This will be particularly exciting for the thousands of members of the Richard III Society, for whom establishing the truth about his personality and reign has always been clouded by the disappearance of his corpse after Bosworth.
“Intellectually and emotionally, this will mark a new chapter in their work on behalf of Richard’s memory. 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.
“Secondly, irrespective of the Richard myth, the discovery of the body will be significant because of what is already being indicated about the cause of death. The evidence of an injury to the back of the skull and the discovery of the arrowhead between vertebrae of the upper back 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.
“Thirdly, it will bring a pleasing sense of closure to our knowledge of the vicious civil war which Bosworth itself brought to an end. The rather whimsical name, ‘The Wars of the Roses’, has had the unfortunate effect of disguising the sheer bloodiness of this conflict. Historians have often commented on the high frequency of battles that characterized this war at a time when commanders usually avoided battles because they were so risky.”
Dr Sarah Knight and Dr Mary Ann Lund, scholars of C16 & C17 English literature and academics in the University’s School of English added: “The Tudor historians Thomas More, Polydore Vergil, Edward Hall and Raphael Holinshed wrote highly critical accounts of Richard III: for More, he was ‘ill fetured of limmes, croke backed, his left shoulder much higher then his right’, and Holinshed also mentions that he was ‘of a readie, pregnant, and quicke wit’. Shakespeare wove these sources into his charismatic anti-hero who plots, seduces and murders his way to the crown, boasting that 'I am determined to prove a villain'. This find could make us re-assess the Richard III bequeathed to us by Tudor historians and dramatists and look again at their narratives in the light of the material remains.”
The University of Leicester has led the archaeological search for the burial place of King Richard III with Leicester City Council, in association with the Richard III Society. On Wednesday 12 September, historic findings of human remains- including a man with apparent battle wounds and curvature of the spine - were revealed by an archaeological team from the University of Leicester.
The Search for Richard III has entered a new phase – the focus is shifting from the archaeological excavation to laboratory analysis.
• The University of Leicester’s Search for King Richard III, in association with Leicester City Council and the Richard III Society, will be the subject of a forthcoming documentary being made by Darlow Smithson Productions for Channel 4.
- The Dig for Richard III was led by the University of Leicester, working with Leicester City Council and in association with the Richard III Society. The originator of the Search project was Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society
NOTE TO NEWSDESK: For interviews contact:
· Norman Housley, historian, 0116 252 2801, firstname.lastname@example.org
· Andrew Hopper, historian of the post 1485 period, 0116 252 3979, email@example.com
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