Book Reviews | Gordon Campbell | News Flashes | Scoop Features | Scoop Video | Strange & Bizarre | Search

 


Found in a Car Park: Richard III in History

Found in a Car Park: Richard III in History

Nothing was glorious about his bloody demise, and one can’t help but think that he understood the implications of what would happen even before the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485). Certainly, William Shakespeare understood Richard III better than most. The genius of the Bard has been precisely in using artifice in drama as a means of finding certainty, or at the very least, an account as accurate as any historian ever could.

What exactly does the discovery of Richard III’s remains in a parking lot in Leicester mean for the reviled monarch? For dramatists, the last Plantagenet king is a source of immense excitement, doing very well when it comes to orders and rentals from costumers. After that other great psychological wreck Hamlet, Richard makes a good fist of it in second place, the subject of orders for drama societies to state theatre companies every week.

The fate of his body is like that of any character of history who straddles the myths of power and death. The most recent mania with finding a historically significant body was, of course, Osama bin Laden. The quest to do so was a peculiar American fixation, one that combined elements of cinematic morality with speculative fantasy. The fate of the notable body in history has a long currency of discussion.

The dark image of Richard was that version crafted by Thomas More in his History of King Richard III (1520). Then came the unabashedly partisan chronicles of Raphael Holinshed, published in two editions, 1577 and 1587. This was the Tudor refit, the victor’s bashing narrative written for the service of a useful history. For More, the ruler was nothing short of sinister, and furthermore, lacked legitimacy. Yet, in terms of human failing and the misfortunes of power, More would pay with his life at the hands of Henry VIII. The Tudors certainly knew a thing or two about bloodletting.

It took another discovery to challenge aspects of this crude assertion of Richard III’s legitimacy – the parliamentary Act of Settlement (1484) found by William Camden of the Society of Antiquaries. Because the Act of Settlement suggested a good deal of power and involvement by Parliament vis-à-vis royal rule, Richard III found himself being revised and re-kitted by various historians. This has been a point of debate in much Jacobean historiography.

The Richard III Society is punch drunk with the discovery, desperate to clear the monarch’s name on the historical tablets. Rather than being an ugly hunchbacked misanthrope who made the pathway to the triumph of Henry Tudor easier, he was a scoliosis suffering, attractive, enlightened sort who balanced the ledger of merit for England’s good. Well, sort of.

Suspicious, bitter Richard, it has been pointed out, made the presumption of innocence fundamental to the British common law system. He set the building blocks for a unitary state. But viciousness has chips, edges, and surfaces – it is never flat. History, or at the very least its consumers, demands its virtuous criminals with various pathologies. “What is certain,” claims a convinced Wayne K. Spear (National Post, Feb 7), “is that Richard lived at a time in which a degree of ruthlessness was a royal aspirant’s prerequisite, and the elimination of one’s rivals, both real and potential as well as past and present, a matter to be taken for granted.” Even historian Andrew Roberts suggests that the Plantagenet dynasty, as a whole, be taken more seriously as durable state builders rather than oafish fools of office (The Daily Beast, Feb 6).

The discovery of Richard’s remains also taps into a consumer obsession with criminal culture, the forensic specialist as history maker. American crime novellas and mini-series have paved the way for that, making the discovery of corpses through such characters as Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan sparklingly sexy. A visiting centre in Leicester is already being planned after the discovery. The University of Leicester is eager for increased publicity – as the press conference showed all too vividly: “The University of Leicester confirms the discovery of Richard III.” The City of York, however, will have none of this chest beating nonsense, and demands the royal bones in what has become a Plantagenet dispute in modern dress.

This point is entirely missed on an overly enthusiastic Lemont Dobson of the School of Public Service and Global Citizenship at Central Michigan University. “This is one of those things where people are talking about archaeology and real science, not pseudoscience on television” (Christian Science Monitor, Feb 4). Expect, it would seem, an exhumation craze in due course, something the Church of England, the Queen and her ministers have been fearful of entertaining. Legitimacy might be lost in an instant.

The entire episode has troubled a few scientists, who have shaken heads at the release of the results before further tests were done to rule out DNA contamination (The Atlantic, Feb 7). Maria Avila, a computational biologist at the Centre for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum of Denmark was sceptical. “The DNA results presented today are too weak, as they stand, to support the claim that DNA is actually from Richard III.”

But it remains the dramatisation of the figure which survives any DNA efforts. As the Cambridge classicist Mary Beard tweeted with resounding common sense, “Does it have any HISTORICAL significance?” Other than causing a spike in commercial interest and a popularisation of archaeology, probably not. Shakespeare will remain, as he has been for centuries, the true interpreter of Richard’s legacy.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

ENDS

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
 
 
Top Scoops Headlines

 

Don Franks: Thwarting National's Tea-Break Busting Bill

National's tea break busting bill will pass through parliament this week. What will this mean? The Government's Employment Relations Amendment Bill makes several changes, including removal of guaranteed tea breaks and meal breaks. More>>

Jim Miles: Canada’s Heart Of Darkness

Once upon a time, Canada was able to create the illusion that it was the “peaceable kingdom”, an illusion accepted domestically and arguably by most of the rest of the world. This history has been well discredited with newer historical research outlining how Canada’s position as a “peacekeeper,” generally under UN auspices, remained effectively within the realm of U.S. foreign policy... More>>

ALSO:

Michael Collins: Jet Fighter Shoot Down Of MH 17 Still On Table

A senior prosecutor investigating the MH17 shoot down for the Dutch Prosecutors office, Fred Westerbeke, offered up as many questions as he did answers in an interview with SpiegelOnline yesterday. More>>

Jonathan Cook: How Israel Is Turning Gaza Into A Super-Max Prison

It is astonishing that the reconstruction of Gaza, bombed into the Stone Age according to the explicit goals of an Israeli military doctrine known as Dahiya, has tentatively only just begun two months after the end of the fighting. More>>

Binoy Kampmark: Dysfunctional Hagiography: Australia & Gough Whitlam's Death

Hagiography is the curse of the Australian Labor movement. It is a movement that searches for, and craves, mythical figures and myths. Such a phenomenon might be termed mummification, and detracts from closer examination. More>>

David Swanson: On Killing Trayvons

This Wednesday is a day of action that some are calling a national day of action against police brutality, with others adding 'and mass incarceration,' and I'd like to add 'and war' and make it global rather than national. More>>

Uri Avnery: Israel Ignoring “Tectonic Change” In Public Opinion

If the British parliament had adopted a resolution in favour of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the reaction of our media would have been like this: More>>

ALSO:

| UK MPs blow a “raspberry” at Netanyahu and his serfs

Byron Clark: Fiji Election: Crooks In Suits

On September 17 Fiji held its first election since Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama seized power in a 2006 coup. With his Fiji First party receiving 59.2% of the vote, Bainimarama will remain in power. More>>

Get More From Scoop

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Top Scoops
Search Scoop  
 
 
Powered by Vodafone
NZ independent news