Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Richard III: Found at Last

I've been a life long history nut. Although I study American history now I've been obsessed with all sorts of different historical times and subjects off and on through my life.  I don't even remember what got me onto Richard III and the Princes in the Tower, I just remember falling in love sometime in high school.

I loved the mystery of it, not only what happened to the princes but the mystery surrounding Richard himself. In someways that is a tone of stuff on Richard III, not least an entire Shakespeare play, pretty much every Tudor scholar wrote about him, Victorians were obsessed with him. Yet Richard III is a case study for unreliable sources. Richard III was the last king of the line of York and the last true Plantagenet. Henry VII who took the throne after him had barely any actual claim to it, what he did do was invade England with a large army killing Richard off in the process and then subsequently every one else who stood between him and the throne. The Tudor line was powerful and went on to be incredibly memorable but had very little actual blood claim to the throne of England. One of the things they did to remedy that was to re-write history. New history were written solidifying Henry VII's claim, and older histories were destroyed or physically altered. A big part of the Tudor's historical re-write was portraying Richard III as an unfit king, which morphed over time into describing him as an out and out monster. 

Roughly five hundred years later that leaves historians with a problem, we don't know what is true and what is simply legend. We are swimming in descriptions of Richard and his reign but none of them reliable, even paintings have been tampered with, and a huge amount of historical detail lost to the large amount of time which has elapsed since his death. Pretty much everything about Richard is debated by historians.

We don't know what kind of king he was, what his relationship with the other historical figures or factions of his time was like. We don't know for sure what his relationship with his wife was like, she died during his reign but her death too is shrouded in myth. We don't know what is relationship was like with his brother Edward IV. Edward's two sons go missing during Richard's reign, we know they were kidnapped at one point by a rival faction, but after that they disappear completely. Richard is reputed to have killed them, but their bodies have never been found and there is no non-questionable historical evidence either way. Shakespeare and many of his contemporary writers describe Richard as being a hunchback with a withered arm. Historians have debated how much of that is true, did he have some physical impairments? Where they minor or, as the Tudor's wrote it, major, or fabricated after his death wholesale?

Tudor historians generally want to play down the amount of historical re-writing the dynasty did. Richard historians generally just bang their heads against their desks and cry piteously as the authenticity of yet another document or artifact is called into question.    

For me Richard III is fascinating as one of the ultimate historical puzzles. On top of that he's just an amazing character, whether you want to paint him as a cunning villain, a tragic hero or enigmatic politician who lived during one of England's most termulant eras it's all good to me. 

Yesterday an archaeological team at the University of Leicester announced that they have identified human remains found under a car park as Richard III's.

 Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
 (Finally after five hundred years the man himself in the flesh -- as it were)

This is exciting for me because any historical or archaeological evidence from Richard III's reign is scarce and valuable. It will also, I hope, spur on more historical research into him. At the very least we'll be able to figure out which of the portrays of him are the most accurate and lay to rest the controversy around if they were tampered with and how. Also it gets the general population talking and hopefully reading more about him.

If nothing else Richard III trended on Twitter and which makes the Richard III fanboi in me extremely happy.

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