What was I watching on a Monday night at 9pm? Not Stephen Poliakoff’s Dancing on the Edge nor my guilty pleasure (though not as much of a pleasure in its second season) of Revenge on E4. No, I was watching a programme about some archaeologists digging up a body from a Leicester car park. Yes, that’s right – the exciting recovery of the Richard III from a grave under a friary now under a car park for Leicester’s Council Services.
So I recently read Philippa Gregory’s book The Kingmaker’s Daughter which is part of her series about the women of the War of the Roses. This latest book looks at Anne Neville, daughter of Warwick the Kingmaker, who eventually marries Richard – the future Richard III. He’s portrayed in fairly sympathetic light, certainly loyal to his brother King Edward IV but wary of the power of Elizabeth Woodville and her family. There’s no mention of hunchbacks, withered arms or ‘winters of discontents’, but he does get afflicted in his shoulder during the course of the novel. The BBC are currently filming an adaptation of the series – they’ve got Anuerin Barnard playing Richard – last seen as David Bailey in the BBC4 drama We’ll Take Manhattan. I’m sure, now, there will be even more interest in the drama than there already would have been for the popular Gregory stories.
I also recently saw a Granada TV programme that’s an extra on the DVD for the Laurence Olivier version of Richard III. From the 1980s, it’s a mock trial, replete with real life judge and barristers, into whether Richard III killed the Princes in the Tower. It’s far too long, but is interesting for a view of a young David Starkey who picks a fight with the Barrister for the Defence who dares to criticise ‘Tudor Propaganda’.
So despite having recently read and watched things about Richard III, I have no particular interest in the War of the Roses, or the Ricardian Society. I wasn’t even aware that the skeleton had been discovered in Leicester last year – I must have been away at the time. Nor was I even aware that Richard III’s body was ‘missing’. It was only yesterday (4 Feb) when I saw the Guardian liveblog and BBC live news feed of the University of Leicester’s announcement that I realised what had been going on. I then decided to watch the Channel 4 programme about it all, presented by Simon Farnaby. Now Simon Farnaby didn’t explain who he was, but it soon became clear by his constant allusions to his attempts to make history ‘funny’ that he is one of the people from that Horrible Histories and he seemed like quite an appropriate presenter for the show. Better than a David Starkey or Dan Snow and better than someone with no perceivable interest in history.
The programme followed the story through Philippa Langley, from the Richard III Society, who had spearheaded the drive to find the body of Richard III and excavate a car park in Leicester which was identified as the site of a former priory where it was said that Richard might have been buried. The programme highlighted the coincidences – Philippa felt ‘something’ over a car park spaced painted ‘R’ for reserved (she felt for Richard) and the digger started it’s first trench there and they found a leg bone almost immediately which eventually turned out to be the body of Richard III. It was amazing that they should be so right and find him so quickly, but Philippa’s emotional involvement almost demeaned the interesting scientific and historical processes going on here. She was obviously deeply enthralled and ‘in love’ with the man and not only found it difficult to see the bones, but more obviously was deeply distressed when it was proved that he was actually a ‘hunchback’ after all. She kept on going on about how he wasn’t a ‘tyrant’. But as the historian Tony Pollard suggested on the programme, even if Richard III did kill (or order to kill) the two princes in the tower – isn’t that just what any monarch at that time would have done?
There were some questions that the programme could have addressed better. How had they worked out that the priory was there? Just glossing over the fact that they’d used some old maps wasn’t enough. How had they reconstructed the skeleton and the curvature of the spine? What does scoliosis really mean? How had the carbon dating worked and how had they worked out that the body had had a high-marine diet? How had they worked out that the Canadian carpenter Michael Ibsen was a descendent of Richard III’s older sister? Why was Professor Lin Foxhall, head of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester giving the press conference on the historical accounts about Richard III when she is not a Medieval Historian but a specialist in Ancient Greece?
Anyway, it was fun. Maybe this is what watching Time Team with Baldrick is like – I’ve never seen an episode. I don’t know why Mary Beard and others are pooh-poohing the whole thing as not historically significant. Isn’t it significant that they’ve found out where Richard III was buried and they can now found out more about the priory? They now know how he was killed – in battle, by multiple wounds. They even know now that he did have a curved spine. The big question now though is whether future productions of Shakespeare’s Richard III will have to do away with the withered arm?