I was present recently at the inaugural meeting of Ireland’s branch of the Richard III Society and one of the questions before us was, what are we going to do? We need, it was agreed, a crackingly good programme for our first year - a couple of accredited speakers and perhaps a study event - to catch the eye of potential new members. What would interest people? Overwhelmingly the topics suggested dwelt on that body in the car park. The King’s now verified scoliosis, for instance; how would it have affected him as a warrior? Or how about the recently disclosed evidence of his ringworm infestation; what did it tell us about his life and times? And those battle wounds, so clearly visible on his bones after more than 500 years; which of them would have been the actual death blow?
Now I’m not squeamish about death and disease. Medical sciences were my subject long before I was a novelist. And yet I find myself slightly uneasy about this taste for recreational autopsies. Are we maybe watching too many television forensic investigator shows?
When King Richard’s remains were found last year I felt enormous gratitude to all those from Philippa Langley onwards, who had made it happen, and also for the science that made identification a certainty. I have mixed feelings about the facial reconstruction but on balance I welcome the reminder it has given us, if nothing else, that Richard was a young man. Thirty three. The wounds to his skull and pelvis bear witness to the violence of hand to hand combat. Do we need to analyse his death any further than that? He went to Bosworth Field understanding perfectly well that he might not survive the day, and perhaps he didn’t much care. His wife was dead, his son was dead, and the Cousins’ War was a nest of vipers.
There are instances in history where there might be some justification for breaching the privacy of the doctor’s consulting room. Did Henry VIII have syphilis, or diabetes, or McLeod Syndrome? Would one or any of those diagnoses explain his destructive nature and his frequent recourse to the axe? Would it make him a more forgivable figure?
Haemophilia in Queen Victoria’s numerous descendants certainly had profound consequences for the Romanov dynasty. If the Tsesarevich Alexis hadn’t been haemophiliac the Tsarina wouldn’t have fallen under the thrall of Rasputin and Russia might have learned to love its German Empress. Perhaps, perhaps.
And if we know why haemophilia has apparently disappeared from the remnants of Europe’s royal houses - monarchs now know better than to marry off their daughters to first cousins - it would still be interesting to know where the gene sprang from. Could Victoria’s mother have been a carrier? Or was Queen Victoria the unfortunate source of a spontaneous mutation? Such things do happen.
George III’s porphyria, a diagnosis that is still debated, led to the Regency, but the life of the nation wasn’t greatly affected. Life went on. Revolution didn’t come to our shores and eventually political reform did. Yes, it would be interesting to have a firm diagnosis, but it would hardly change our view of George’s reign. A more interesting point would be whether his porphyria (or whatever else it was) has now been bred out of the Royal Family? But actually it’s none of our business.
As for King Richard, my thoughts are that he should be laid quickly and finally to rest. A Catholic funeral mass and a tomb worthy of an anointed King. No more picking over his bones, no judicial reviews, no soi disant descendants bickering about his resting place. And no more forensics. He died a violent and horrible death along with many others, on Bosworth Field. Time to close the autopsy file.