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:

YouTube Preview Image

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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About Thomas L. McDonald

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.

  • victor

    I personally would love to see a production of Peasant Farmer the First, by Elizabethan Playwright #4.

  • Manny

    Great blog. You out did yourself on this one.

  • Alice

    I’m not sure what I should think about the middle paragraphs of this post. I’m a medievalist, and I thought the find was pretty exciting, but then I do French theological and philosophical texts in the twelfth century– which is pretty old-fashioned medieval studies, akin to the histories of great Kings and Queens. Nevertheless (and perhaps I’ve been in academia too long), I don’t see why we shouldn’t study the portrayal of people with disabilities in the Middle Ages. Perhaps what I’m trying to say is: I’m not sure linking to postmedieval is the most fair representation of that particular field of inquiry, as– how do I put this?– they have more zest than most for bringing postmodern envelope-pushing into the field.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    I certainly hope I didn’t leave the impression that disabilities were unworthy of consideration by the historian. My point was more one of the hyperspecialization that’s increasingly defining not just history, but many fields of study, including my own (theology). Certainly a dissertation or paper has to be on a focused subject, but I think there’s a pronounced tendency to silliness in some quarters as grad students gallop off in search of trendy race/sex/class theories to please their advisers.

    The academy can’t just talk to itself. At some point, they need to bring the fruit of their labor back to the agora to benefit more than merely the closed loop of teacher/grad student.

  • Alice

    Oh, most certainly, and I took your point. I suppose in the end I just wanted to put in a “caveat lector” for that particular theory group.
    I’m happy to talk to the agora about medieval traditions on Genesis 1-3 (or the medieval period more broadly) at any time. (I must admit, sometimes I wish I hadn’t chosen a topic that was such a… polarizing talking point, actually.)
    Anyway, I always enjoy reading what you have to say, so carry on!

  • Clare Krishan

    Notable also this snippet of trivia re: the denouement of Olivier’s eponymous movie (which has been memorably riffed by numerous others, see here:
    In the closing moments of the Battle of Bosworth field (at 2:31:00 and after) “A horse. A horse. My kingdom for a horse” the camera pans to Richard’s spurs and garter as his corpse is trussed to the pommel of a riderless steed. The text embossed thereon reads: honi soi qui mal y pense
    a Teutonic-flavored (modern German ‘hohn’ means “scorn” “derision” or “shame”) French aphorism meaning Shame on him who thinks ill of it the chivalrous motto of the Order of the Garter. Why such cinematographic highlight to a detail not featured in the play (the garter and its being dishonored in the person of the King is mentioned elsewhere in Act IV but to such dramatic effect)?
    “Asked about Olivier’s views on Richard, Frances Clark is adamant that Olivier was at heart a revisionist. “He told us so at dinner,” she maintains. “In fact, he talked about that scene in the end, when they’re bringing Richard’s body back from Bosworth and the camera focuses on the Garter with its honi soit qui mal y pense (“evil to him who evil thinks”) motto. ‘Did you see that?’ he told me; ‘I put that in especially for you people.” And later, in the broadcast, Olivier made the flat statement,”There’s no reason to suppose that he killed those babies in the Tower.”
    Neat, eh?

  • Clare Krishan

    And Doctor Who geeks, of course, will recognize who played the purported child-murderer Tyrell?
    Patrick Troughton!

  • Darren

    A pox! A pox!

  • Richard M

    It’s not just specialization in history that’s the problem; it’s the dominance very egalitarian historiographies over the last few generations – which is not only an overreaction to the Great-Men-of-History thinking that dominated conventional histories of old, but also various neo-Marxist schools of thought.

    And yes, it seems like a teaching moment wasted.

    I do hope that King Richard gets a Catholic burial. He was not a saint; he may even have killed the Princes in the Tower. But he doesn’t seem appreciably worse than most kings or nobles of medieval England.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Good find. The Guardian’s coverage on this has been quite good, actually.

    I love Olivier’s work just for that reason. Sometimes he made spectacular mistakes, as when he called Hamlet a play about a man who could not “make up his mind.” No, no, no! But Richard III–Peter Sellers notwithstanding–was a triumph. Even his bizarre blackface Othello was bold and fascinating, if cringe-worthy.

  • Phil Cartwright

    Do you realise it will cost a Kings Ransom to pay the parking ticket after 528 years.

  • Brad

    When I saw the bones I felt a wave of great pity for the vessel of any man, made in the image and likeness of God, to be found under tawdry pavement. God did not make the order of creation to be this way; O woe to the fallen world, fallen ebcause of original sin and our own sins! May the Blood of Christ save this soul, as all of our souls. May this body be glorified one day, just as our Good Shepherd’s was. From the Friday and Saturday tomb the Voice of the Son echoing through the Psalms:
    “For Thou dost not leave my soul to Sheol, Nor givest thy saintly one to see corruption.”
    He alone was the “saintly One”, we know, but we rely on His charity to bring us with Him, we who do not deserve it. Laudetur Iesus Christus!

  • Nathaniel M. Campbell

    I’m going to add the voice of another medievalist specializing in twelfth-century theology (but on the Empire’s side of the Alsace, home to the last bastions of monastic theology against those ever-so-dry scholastics :-), to say that the new perspectives that “theory” brings can be helpful. Heck, I even read “postmedieval”, and a recent issue from last year on the application of developments in cognitive neurosciences to the study of the Middle Ages still has me buzzing with new insights into the visionary experiences of women like Hildegard of Bingen or Julian of Norwich. Gender studies can also provide wonderful new ways of looking at the truly dynamic (and different!) perspectives of men and women in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, we should all be wary of allowing “theory” to replace the realities that should be at the heart of our studies–for example, no amount of gender theory can change the fact that Hildegard of Bingen did NOT advocate for the ordination of women. An awareness of the ways in which discourses privilege some forms of knowledge over others is one thing; allowing that awareness to become its own form of privileged blindness is quite another.

  • bearing

    Ha ha!

  • Mary

    Why do some historians dislike “Kings and Queens”?
    Greed, jealousy and envy.
    As in
    “I am really smart, I am an academic. Why are these people more famous than I am?”

  • nancyo

    Thanks for this; your points are well taken. I’ve been following this story for months, and the part that has continued to bother me is that he will not be buried in a Catholic church. But then again, there are lots of tombs in England, and indeed throughout Europe, in churches that were Catholic but are now not. I’ll be linking to this post on my own blog on Friday.

  • Brian Sullivan

    I’m waiting for Dr. Temperance Brennan to weigh in on this.

  • Phil Cartwright

    There’s a lot of talk about what to do with the remains. Notice that the Queen is staying out of it. Not surprising really, think about it; Royals from one lineage dont care about those from other extinct lineages. Ask Henry Tudor, did he show the Last Plantagenet Heir to the Throne any respect. Did Elizabeth the 1st show any respect to Mary Stewart when the Tudor line was under threat. It’s not in their nature to care about other families who theoretically can take all that they own due to succession. For the last few decades the Windsors have been breeding like rabbits to ensure that they have enough successors for the next centuries. To ask the Queen what to do with the bones.. Her answer would probably be… ‘Frankly my dear, I dont give a damn’.

  • Clare Krishan

    … tried replying Re: regicide legend yesterday but Patheos’ spambot rejected my contribution for having typed too quickly ; – ( !! (or cited URLs too frequently, perhaps?)
    … repost attempted failed again so perhaps the problem is using a wiki author tagline?

    St Thomas More it appears — not Shakespeare — can be credited with some of the deformation/defamation of Richard’s character, for example ‘a shrivelled withered arm and small’ in [ idem R3 URL above ...[slash] bookcase[slash]more[slash]moremyth.html and from “The so-called History of King Richard III … What has immortalised the work is the legendary tale of the death of the princes in the Tower.” [ idem ....princes.html ]

    Is it not peculiar that this same week a US hospital bearing his name has been associated with the disputed legal personhood of two deceased infants…
    and found morally wanting?

    Some coincidences aren’t that coincidental methinks!

  • Clare Krishan

    on saintly ones, consider the dripping irony in St Thomas More’s reflections Of saintuaries placed in the mouth of the “Archebishoppe of Yorke” on the Protector’s sister-in-law seeking sanctuary in London’s St. Peter’s with the 12-yr King Edward V:
    “For if she caste such fonde doubtes, that shee feare his hurte: then wyll she feare that hee shall bee fette thence. For she will soone thinke, that if menne were sette (whiche Godde forbydde) vppon so greate a mischeife, the saintuarye woulde litle let them.” in
    in a Kingdom that venerated as saint an Archbishop martyred in his cathedral at Canterbury – duh!
    No wonder she was worried!