The reaction to the discovery of Richard III’s remains has been quite remarkable, with everyone with the remotest interest in history, and quite a few with none, having their say. It would be remiss of me to miss out.
My wife Lisa will attest that I am a little prone to spluttering rants at the television. Politics, history programmes and the tendency for television news to treat us like imbeciles being my most common topics. The documentary on Channel 4 had me regularly in full splutter.
The frustration was that the story of the discovery and forensic investigation into Richard’s remains was so superb. Had it been presented in the traditional format by middle-aged, whiskered man in a polyester sweater in a nasal drone,let alone with the aplomb which modern history programmes are often produced, it wouldn’t matter. The narrative of the investigation was good enough to stand on its own. But, instead, it was presented by a floppy haired comedy actor as a human interest story about Phillipa Langley of the Richard III Society (“The Ricardians”) and her personal journey through the investigation.
The Ricardians are an odd bunch. They are dedicated to research into Richard III, but with the avowed agenda to “make the case for ‘Good King Richard‘” and “reclaiming the reputation” of the King. They claim that balance needs to be restored as his reputation was tarnished by the Tudors, and this reputation popularised by Shakespeare. Now there may be some truth in this, but forming a hypothesis and searching for historical evidence to support it risks producing some very poor history. Perhaps we are all guilty of it to a lesser or greater degree, but to embrace it as a core value seems misguided. If your investigations prove that Richard was a new Charlemagne or that did in fact kill the princes in the towers, whilst torturing puppies with the other hand, so be it.
The Ricardians have been perhaps considered as mildly eccentric and at the fringes of respectable history in the past, and it is easy to dismiss them. But, and this is a very large “but”, on this occasion they got something very right. For all the cleverness shown by the University of Leicester and others in the excavation and research into the skeleton, the Ricardians’ research determined the probable location of the burial and their fundraising financed the initial excavation. The archaeologists were quite happy to have a dig financed and the chance to excavate a lost friary, but they didn’t expect to find anything. Easy to dismiss they might be, but without the Ricardians, the discovery wouldn’t have happened.
So when the curve-spined skeleton is discovered, the camera focuses on Langley’s face and we are voyeurs to her conflicted emotions- the deformed skeleton conforms to one of the historical accounts of Richard, that he was crook-backed, but it is one of the beliefs of the Ricardians that this was retrospective propaganda. She is torn as this discovery both holds great promise that this skeleton is in fact Richard, whilst destroying a Ricardian article of faith. We are forced to watch each tic in close up. We hear the arguments over whether Richard’s standard should be draped over his remains as they are removed from the site, and are treated to the rather pathetic spectacle of the flag being draped over a cardboard box as it is loaded into a rather full Renault van. We hear of her nausea and we see her tears, we see her stare mystically into the distance as she relates that the box was found under space “R” of the social services carpark and maybe saddest of all, we hear her exclaim in a hushed voice when the reproduction head is revealed to her “that is not the face of a tyrant”. It was rather grotesque.
My criticism isn’t really aimed at Langley here. Her reactions were entirely natural considering the personal investment she had in the project. The producers however have done both the viewers and her a disservice. It is rather insulting that they assumed that we couldn’t digest and hour and a half of archaeology without this cheap voyeurism but I think they were slightly disdainful of Langley and despite the Ricardians indispensable contribution to the discovery of Richard, she will be seen as rather silly and emotional.
Which is all such a shame, as there was so much good stuff in there. The excavation, post mortem, medical analysis, carbon dating building up a picture of the life and death of the man , and piecing them together with historical sources was splendid and all that was needed. The “reveal” of the DNA test comparison with the Plantaganet joiner had drama aplenty without lingering facial close ups. Despite my annoyance, it was one of the most interesting pieces of historical TV I’ve seen in a long time. I do wonder if someone could take the footage, re-edit it and give a thoughtful grown up commentary (perhaps John Snow or Andrew Sachs might be persuaded) and release it to critical acclaim
Of course in many ways, the discovery has told us very little about the important events of Richard’s reign (as Paul Lay puts it typically well). The details of his death, post mortem arse-stabbing and burial are fascinating, but it sheds no light on whether he was guilty of all he is accused of, whether he was a good king or bad. That the spinal deformation wasn’t a later fabrication doesn’t necessarily suggest one way or the other whether the other stories were calumnies or not. The discovery might have gained some cache for the Ricardians amongst the general public, but this has probably been squandered. An interesting debate about medieval history, Tudor propaganda and Shakespeare’s influence on our perceptions of history has been opened and despite the implications of the documentary, much of the public is intelligent and engaged enough to have it