Some Thoughts on Richard III, History, and Catholicism

Everyone by now has heard the big news: the bones of King Richard III–last king of the House of York, villain of one of Shakespeare’s most masterful historical plays, and a man long long regarded as a psychopath twisted in both body and mind–have been found under a parking lot in Leicester, England. DNA testing has confirmed it. Here they are:

And, yep: that spine sure does curve like a snake.

And here’s a reconstruction of his face:

Olivier really wasn’t too far off:

Naturally, this reignites the debate about whether Richard really was a murderous villain who ordered the deaths of the princes in the tower, or just a victim of Tudor propaganda.

I’m not sure why we have to make a choice between the two. The Richard of Shakespeare is one of the great characters in all literature. Shakespeare’s historical accuracy or inaccuracy is secondary to his art, and the fact that he got some things right (whaddaya know, Richard really was a crookback!) and some things wrong doesn’t matter from a literary standpoint. To believe it does shows a misunderstanding of the proper function of both history and literature.

As for the real Richard, was he a victim of a campaign to blacken his name in order to legitimize the cancerous growth that was the Tudor dynasty? Well of course he was. As a man clawing his way to power in an unsettled time, he was neither better nor worse than a great many others. Given how much the historical record was distorted by the rise of Henry VII and his vile offspring, even the matter of Richard’s “unpopularity” with the people is suspect. The reality is probably somewhere in the middle: he was better than legend portrays him but not as good as apologists would have us believe.


The details of the discovery and identification are indeed fascinating and well-covered elsewhere.
I recommend the University of Leicester’s own video series about the excavation, which is quite thorough.

This was archaeology in the service of history. Some people don’t realize that historians and archaeologists are different disciplines. Archaeology is a sub-discipline of anthropology, and deals with the material culture left behind by people. History is a much broader discipline that draws on the work of the archaeologist, but also upon documentary and other evidence to interpret and tell the story of events, people, objects, and locations through time.

It was this story in the Guardian that had me facepalming about the cluelessness of some historians about the role of archaeology in the study of history. Classicist Mary Beard led the charge by wondering on Twitter if the discovery had “any HISTORICAL significance.” It continued:

Neville Morley, professor of ancient history at the University of Bristol, muttered on his Bristol Classics blog: “Whoop-de-doo … Why is it that a skeleton is interesting only if it’s that of a famous person?”

On her History Matters blog, Catherine Fletcher, lecturer in public history at Sheffield University, wrote: “Imagine that the Leicester archaeologists had uncovered not a royal grave, but a grave of some peasant farmers, results from which completely changed the picture of what we know about human nutrition in the 15th century. Not so glamorous, but just as important in understanding the past – perhaps more so. They wouldn’t have the media pull of ‘England’s lost king’. Traditional ‘kings and queens’ history, so criticised over the decades by historians, still plays very well on TV.”

Oh for the love of…  People! Get a grip! Memo to Mary Beard: yeah, it has historical significance. Here:

There was another sword slash to the skull, which would also have penetrated to the brain and proved fatal in moments, but the others came after death, and were described – in an image still resonant from many battlegrounds today – as “humiliation injuries”. They could not have happened to a man protected by armour, and are consistent with the accounts of his body being stripped on the battlefield, and brought back to Leicester naked, slung over the pommel of a horse. That, almost certainly, was when the thrusting injury through the right buttock and into the pelvis happened.

Professor Lin Foxhall, head of the university’s archaeology department, and Bob Savage, an expert on medieval weapons from the Royal Armouries, pointed out that Richard’s face was relatively undamaged.

“They’d killed the king and they needed to keep him recognisable,” Savage said. “To me, the injuries are fully consistent with the accounts of his dying in a melee, and [being] unhorsed – I believe he was dead within minutes of coming off his horse. But they took care not to bash the face about too much.”

So, is it “significant” that we now have a more precise portrait of the end of Richard, a tale told in great works of art, film, and literature, and which was immensely consequently to the history of a nation; about how the people of the time deliberately left his face undamaged to allow identification; and about what the man looked like ?

And then you have the extreme tedium of the historians sniffing at these bien-pensants interested in “famous people” rather than the dietary habits of medieval peasants. Shock and horror! People are interested in the large movements and movers of history! The great drama of great people is sooooo predictably interesting that no historian worth her salt could possible be drawn to “traditional ‘kings and queens’ history.”
Some historians remind me of teenagers who really loved that band before they got all popular and stuff.

The large contours of history have been thoroughly examined over the years, which left subsequent generations of historians and academics focusing on smaller and smaller slices of the subject matter, resulting in absurd specialties like the study of disabled people in the middle ages. The grand narratives and stories of people became passe, and if you weren’t training your academic gaze at some obscure corner or “disenfranchised” group, then you just weren’t cutting it in the view of too many academics.

Of course the life of the common person is of interest to the historian and the anthropologist. It tells us how our ancestors lived and died, and is an important counterpoint to the big events and marquee names, the kings and battles and constitutions. But the historian must also be a teacher, or his discipline has no purpose. And a teacher must know how to bring the fruit of his learning to as many people as possible. It can’t just be academics talking to other academics. Unless it filters out the masses, history has no purpose.

Our interest in kings and queens isn’t the product of late 20th century television. Shakespeare wasn’t writing Peasant Farmer the First. History is a story, with all humanity as the characters, and a few larger-than-life personalities as the leads. If people are going to learn to love and study history, more historians need to realize that it’s not a matter of either/or, but both/and.

If historians look at a moment in which all the world is transfixed on their discipline, and view it as anything other than a net positive and a teaching moment, then they’ve forgotten why they got into history in the first place. The wonder and joy has been trained right out of them.

There’s also a Catholic angle to the story. Richard III was, of course, a Catholic, as was every English monarch prior to Henry VIII (a pox upon his name).

Anglicans like to pretend they’re still Catholics. It’s just so cute when they say, “We’re Catholic, just not Roman.”  Sorry, no: Anglicans are protestants.

And Catholics have a right to a Catholic funeral. Here’s what The Tablet has to say:

Historians argue endlessly about whether Richard III was a hero or a villain, but what can be said with confidence is that he was a Catholic.

If it is established that the remains recently disinterred from a Leicester car park are indeed those of the last Plantagenet king, then a final resting-place should be in a Catholic church.

Given that Richard was first buried at the church of the Greyfriars in Leicester it would make perfect sense to place his tomb in the nearest Franciscan friary. This turns out to be the Franciscan parish of Our Lady and St Edward in Nottingham, a small modern friary with a brick church built in the 1950s. It’s the last place once might expect to find a royal tomb but then, maybe that’s a good reason for Richard to be there.

Another thought is Westminster Cathedral, which has plenty of cardinals’ tombs, but no monarchs. Richard’s tomb would be a great tourist attraction and it would be conveniently close to Westminster Abbey – and the final resting-place of the man who deposed him, Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII.

The chance of this happening is nil, since, as noted, Anglicans consider themselves catholic in some weird way I can’t quite figure out. The Tablet, however, is correct. Since he was originally buried at Greyfriars, which was destroyed upon the dissolution of the monasteries, he should be reinterred in Catholic ground.

People who want to sign a petition urging his burial at a Catholic site can do so here.

One final link that’s worthwhile: actors on the find. It’s interesting to see that some actors dug deep into the history, and some didn’t touch at all. Here’s the excellent Simon Russell Beale:

I think it’s rather sad news. My first reaction was: that poor man. He didn’t have a very happy life, and he ended up under a car park. What I feel sad about it is that it doesn’t change anything, not really.

I didn’t do any historical research when I played the part, for obvious reasons: it’s a fiction. You leave all that well alone. In Richard, Shakespeare created a monster – but he is a monster in a world that is equally monstrous.

And, of course and always:

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H/T: Thanks to reader Clare Krishan for some of these links.

UPDATE: Chesterton on Richard, courtesy of Gilbert editor Sean Dailey.

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Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.


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