Servetus on Richard Plantagenet’s remains

d2e1K__dvy57SwgkRi5WMelk8Hw9mp_KsyHr5szE6qc,zE3nAz3Mo_0R_4kTmaFuhOc0UR6ehPUK8WUrfCWAzdA[Left: Photo of skull identified by scholars as that of Richard III. Courtesy of University of Leicester, 2013. His teeth were in better shape than mine, probably because he ate way less sugar. Source.]


Jas tells us that Richard III is trending on Twitter!

Today’s press reports from the University of Leicester confirm what’s been rumored for weeks — that multiple types of evidence definitively link the remains found in their excavation during the summer of 2012 to Richard III. This find is certainly significant for archaeologists, Ricardians and others with emotional ties to the Richard story, those among the Richard Armitage fan community who support Armitage’s ambitions, and, of course, for royalists everywhere. Congratulations to Philippa Langley et al. for their perseverance in pursuing their goals — and a special thanks to those fellow Armitage fans and all the others who donated their own money for the excavation when a big donor pulled out at the last second this summer.

Speaking as a person, I do have one reaction I’m clear on — I hope they bury him quickly and without too much fuss. Even though I recognize the scholarly value of excavations, Richard III was certainly a Catholic, by all indications at least as or more devout than the average man of his period, and he would have believed in a resurrection (et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum) in the physical body, as would the monks who buried him near the altar of their church — considered an prestigious position as it was further east, toward Jerusalem, whence contemporaries believed the Last Judgment and resurrection would come. Press reports indicate that the scholars had a priest present as journalists visited the remains to guarantee their dignity. Let’s hope.

Speaking as a historian, as far as the extent to which Richard III’s reputation will be completely revolutionized, as people involved with the dig and others are claiming, I personally find that hugely doubtful. And not because professional historians are anti-Ricardian meanies who’ve fallen into the Tudor trap. First of all, what historians today actually think about Richard is significantly different than what Ricardians regularly say historians think about Richard. Pace people who are not historians but got quoted on anyway, these results will not force or even allow scholars to rewrite history. They do not address the biggest “blot” that marred his reputation in the popular mind — the disappearance or murder of his nephews, Edward IV’s sons — a crime for which no modern historian calumniates him (which, incidentally, is not the same thing as assigning responsibility). Nor do they provide any new sources about the burning questions that have tortured Ricardians, with the exception of the “hunchback” matter, which has, perhaps perversely, been explained by the findings from this excavation. Finally, they will do nothing to minimize the significance or impact of what William Shakespeare wrote about Richard III — because Shakespeare, too, is a significant cultural and literary figure.

In short: today’s historians don’t think Richard was an evil villain, and certainly not because of any physical condition from which he might have suffered! Guess what: we already don’t believe Shakespeare was writing as a historical scholar! Professional historians are interested neither in making heroes nor finding villains; we are looking to explain significance. Having Richard’s actual body in our hands today makes him no more nor less significant a historical figure than he was yesterday. Moreover, this discovery is not going to change the documentary evidence of Richard’s political maneuvers, or of his land- and fortune-grabbing in the years before he became king. Nor does it provide additional evidence as to his motives for seizing the crown from his nephew, nor does it add to the picture of the sort of government he was trying to establish in England and so and and so forth.

What we need for a better understanding of Richard III, in the absence of new sources, is better contextualization of his actions in the atmosphere of his time. This means both more research into the documentary sources of the English fifteenth century — and more popular writing that takes such research seriously and uses it to make ongoing encouragement to popular readers not to judge the man according to the anachronistic standards of our own age.

The position that Richard’s reputation needs redressing actually addresses the vision of the monarch in the popular mind. But that isn’t going to happen because of an archaeological discovery, I’m afraid.

What we need is a gripping story that captures the popular imagination — that emphasizes all the tensions, questions and ambiguities. Historians aren’t going to do this. So this event is primarily significant as something that could capture the attention of someone who’d make a great film, which would have the potential to achieve what history writing won’t do.

Screen shot 2013-01-14 at 3.36.17 PM

We all know who should make this film, already.

Support Richard Armitage’s ambitions to realize a Richard III film project here.

And come to the group read tonight at Twitter, at 9 p.m. U.S. East Coast time to enthuse about the possibilities. The chatroom is here. There are already people chatting! My usual weekly TSIS post will follow later today.


Fellow Armitage bloggers react: FedoraLady; White Rose Writings; RAFrenzy; mulubinba;


~ by Servetus on February 4, 2013.

18 Responses to “Servetus on Richard Plantagenet’s remains”

  1. I agree with much of what you say.
    Hopefully this will lead to more interest in Richard and his time and lead to more research. . At this time we have more questions than answers thats for sure!

    Read yesterday that RA will star in Phillipa Langly’s RIII miniseries. Do you know when they are going to start fliming? Or if it is happening at all?


    • Thanks for the comment.

      However — although Langley was quoted in the Scottish Herald saying Armitage had agreed to do so, Armitage has not said he would, and Armitage’s agent was quoted in yesterday’s Sunday Times as saying they would need financial backing first. Armitage was supposed to be interviewed on BBC Radio Leicester yesterday, but excused himself via email. It’s not clear that any miniseries or film is planned yet.


  2. Well said…as an archaeologist, I can appreciate the importance of the find, but I agree that it will change little in terms of prevailing opinions – I find it somehow poetic that it may well take a piece of contemporary popular culture to balance out a piece of 16th century popular culture that was instrumental casting a lasting shadow on Richard III. We can talk all day about what historical facts surrounding an event are, but it only takes one erroneous feature film (or play in this case) to re-direct public perception of the event (I say *Gladiator*, you say?)


  3. Like the Egyptians do when a royal mummy is returned to Egypt, the English should afford King Richard III a dignified royal burial, as contemporary to his time as possible. Other than current political reasons, or simply convenience or prestige of location, why isn’t there a plan to bury him in a consecrated Catholic location rather than in a cathedral devoted to the religion created by the Tudors many years after his death? I find that a bit insulting as it doesn’t reflect what the man or his family would have wanted, since Catholicism was the religion of English monarchs at the time, and Catholic burial rights would have been observed. I’m glad there is a priest attending the remains, but perhaps his final resting place should be reconsidered.


    • Well, we could quibble about whether the Anglican Church is or isn’t the same church he was buried in: people would divide over that issue, probably. In fact, however, all of the cathedrals, including Westminster Abbey, where many Catholic monarchs are buried, are now Church of England.

      But I haven’t followed the debates very closely. There’s more information on the King Richard Armitage fan initiative pages.


  4. The Guardian agrees with me on the historical point, and points out the pecuniary motivations in Leicester:


    • I think the interesting point about the “villainization” of Richard III is that it demonstrates the power of popular culture and public communication. Let’s assume RIII did away with the two princes-it is not an unusual move for a monarch to rid himself of political rivals. (And let’s face it, the Tudors did away with plenty of their own rivals, too. ) Among royalty, the ages of the children were inconsequential as to whether they were viewed as threats, but Shakespeare used the burgeoning middle class’ view of children as being in their “tender years” to vilify RIII. He uses a similar tool in Henry IV, showing the English surge upon the French as fueled at least in part by the slaughter of the boys in service behind the front line. While trying to figure out historical accuracy is interesting, I think the spin placed on the facts–whether those facts presented were true or not– is utterly fascinating. For “spin” to make the populace forget some of the basic civil rights championed by RIII, such as the presumption of innocence, is mind-boggling. (It is ironic that RIII was deprived of that presumption in Shakespeare’s work.) I don’t think anyone will ever know the full truth about RIII, but isn’t it interesting that an artist’s image of him is how he is best remembered? (And yes, I’m aware that Thomas Moore was no fan of RIII either, but I wonder if his opinion changed as he awaited his execution by his good friend Henry?)


      • Northern girl, you got it right. How popular culture modifies our opinion and views are really interesting. Not to get political but under republican propaganda people( idiotic ones) did start to believe Obama was an Arab and a Muslim. If this can happen in the 21st century, imagine what could have happened in the 15 th century when people could not read or write and all the info they got were through channels which could manipulate information to serve their own purpose……


        • Servetus: Hasn’t this been a technique used throughout history, i.e. the winner vilifies the loser in order to justify the winner’s politics/ideology/reasons for going to war with the intent of influencing the remaining adversaries and/or those conquered.


          • Yes. Although the *ways* in which that is accomplished are historically specific, and the stories sometimes change. Athens, for example, was never seen as the power to emulate until the seventeenth century — earlier authors preferred to praise Sparta.


      • Whoops, meant to refer to the play Henry V. Long day!


      • OK, I feel compelled to note — while it’s correct to say that later perspectives used changing notions of childhood to contribute to negative perceptions of Richard, the villification of Richard because of his behavior toward his nephews is also found in at least one source contemporary to Richard that precedes Shakespeare; Mancini, e.g., who’s writing in the fifteenth century and shortly after Richard’s death, is critical of him on the basis of his treatment of his nephews. In the end, my own position on this ends up being that Richard was frequently used as a political pawn during his own childhood; this was the policy for minor children of related families all through the Edward IV / Woodville years; and so the fact that he did it with his own nephews is hardly surprising or worth calumniating (unless you want to point out the way that his other nephews and half nephews were treated. This is a point that Penman seems to be making implicitly).

        I am hesitant to address the “Obama is a Muslim” propaganda because it’s a political topic and I try to stay away from politics here, but: I don’t think that everyone who says “Obama is a Muslim” actually believes that. I think that a lot of people say that as a way of expressing their opposition to something or other (administration politics, the fact that a Yankee media is polling a Southern population like they’re a bunch of apes, the need to shock, etc.).


  5. Ooh:
    He does look a lot like RA!!!


  6. tudor tenure tainted by plantagenet platelets


  7. […] – Me&RichardArmitage: Servetus on Richard Plantagenet’s remains – A historian’s perpective and analysis of the ‘rewriting of history’ […]


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