So it’s official. After a lead-in longer than waiting for the release on DVD of the last season of Mad Men it has finally been confirmed that the bones dug up in a car park in Leicester are indeed those of Richard III. The revelation has generated enough press coverage to repaper Buckingham Palace, although that may not be the most likely venue for redecoration given the Palace’s opposition in principle to digging up their royal predecessors for questionable DNA testing.
That the resting place of the last of the Plantagenet line, the supposed hunchback with a withered arm, was one of the first burials to be uncovered by trail trenching was a fluke. Archaeologists hardly ever find what they set out to discover, least of all with their very first trench. The king’s body had been dumped unceremoniously in a grave barely large enough to contain him in the nave of the Church of the Grey Friars. It had suffered a number of indignities that must have been a frequent occurrence at the time but which must surely strike us today as disturbing and gratuitous. Despite his ruthless reputation, as seen by his seizure of the throne and mysterious disappearance of the Princes in the Tower, Richard was undoubtedly a brave man who died heroically on the battlefield fighting for his crown.
In the Channel 4 documentary the cavalcade of grotesques, eccentrics and auto-didacts surrounding Richard included a Joanna Lumley look-alike and apparently a hobbit. The programme told us more about the people fronting the programme than it did the dead king, and featured some melodramatic overreaction to seeing the bones laid out at the University of Leicester that even embarrassed the speaker’s family. The osteologist wisely steered clear of the amateur theatricals of draping the as-yet unidentified remains with Richard’s standard.
Elsewhere you could see the long-cherished beliefs about Richard being demolished wholesale. Confronted with a skeleton with scoliosis – yet to be identified as the dead king – you could see the President of the Richard the Third Society’s horror as she realised that years of passing off Richard’s reputed physical appearance as the product of Tudor propaganda may have been a complete waste of effort.
Medical experts later said that outwardly few people may have known that he suffered from this condition save for noticing that one of Richard’s shoulders was slightly higher than the other. If the king really had been a hunchback as the Tudors said, did it also mean he really was the ruthless monster who had his nephews murdered in the Tower? One should always be wary of judging people in the past according to the standards of one’s own day but the attempts to sanitise Richard’s posthumous reputation began to look like an elaborate academic construct built on sand. By ensuring that a potential threat was neutralised in this way Richard may have been no worse than any other of the hard-headed aristocrats of the time but it was not for nothing that former Yorkists switched their support to Henry Tudor.
The academic reasoning behind the facial reconstruction revealed dramatically at the end of the programme some 90 minutes later – it felt like the viewer had been in the car park for years – derives ultimately from pioneering work carried out at the University of Manchester and the Manchester Museum. Richard the Third joins the cast of well-known historical figures, including Philip II of Macedon, Lindow Man and Croesus of Lydia whose facial features have been reconstructed.
Is this the closest we’ll get to the dead king?