Richard III's burial site
photograph by Chris Tweed
[CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
It’s like something out of a novel. A writer, obsessed with Richard III, manages to raise the hefty sum necessary to fund an attempt to find his remains. She then persuades sceptical experts to take on the project and, lo and behold, in the very first trench dug on the very first day of excavation, finds her man.
It’s like something out of a novel but, if you gave that novel to an archaeologist to review, s/he would say it would never happen.
“One of the things you don’t do in archaeology is you don’t go looking for a specific thing, because the chances are you’ll never find it. And you don’t go looking for famous people.”
And Richard Buckley, the lead archaeologist added:
“There are people who have these great dreams of finding things… As an archaeologist I just know how many variables there are at play on any excavation. So the chance of finding Richard was… a million to one.”
It was the first attempt in this country to find the lost remains of an anointed king.
It was taking place in the car park of a Leicester social services building.
It was led by an intensely emotionally involved writer, Philippa Langley, who "suddenly felt cold" when she stood on a parking space marked with an R (for, um, ‘reserved’).
It had, in short, all the ingredients for a rather wonderful and eccentric English comedy, ending in noble failure. I could see exactly why Channel 4 chose Simon Farnaby, a comic actor best known for playing Death in Horrible Histories and Spike in Jam and Jerusalem, as presenter (and not just a voiceover presence, incidentally, but there in person at the dig).
And yet, not only did the Leicester University team find Richard III, but they found him straight away – his leg bones were uncovered in the very first trench (minus the feet, destroyed when a Victorian outhouse had been built; how close the whole skeleton had come to destruction, no doubt one of many such close shaves). At that stage, the archaeologists weren’t even sure they had found the right building. The exact layout of the Greyfriars friary they were looking for was not known before digging began. And so they covered up the legs and made no attempt to uncover the rest of the body until they had found their architectural bearings.
As time went on, and it became nail-bitingly clear that the skeleton might be that of Richard III, presenter Simon Farnaby rose to the occasion brilliantly. He seemed able to empathise both with Philippa Langley’s frequently overwhelmed state, and with the bemusement of the academics who were startled by someone reacting as a close relative might when viewing what were in fact the 527-year-old remains of a stranger.
At this stage of the documentary – as Philippa, Simon and the experts stood clustered around the skeleton in the lab – I was experiencing pangs of job-envy (why wasn’t I an archaeologist/bone expert/obsessed Richard III Society member with excellent fund-raising skills?). How I would have loved to be able to examine a bone from Richard III’s forearm and notice its gracile quality. ('Gracile' isn’t a word I’ve had cause to use before this week, but I’ve learnt it means gracefully slender and, to a bone expert, it implies femininity. Usually.) How fascinating it would have been to peer at the nasty effects of one of his post-mortem injuries, or examine the truly gruesome traumas to his skull.
I must admit to slightly ghoulish instincts in this regard, I think because I have never fully accepted that I cannot go back in time and meet these people – and meeting their remains might be the next best thing. For example, when the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Katherine Parr (Henry VIII’s sixth wife) tells me that:
“For nearly 250 years her body lay forgotten until it was accidentally unearthed by some workmen in May 1782. Opening the lead casket, they found the body in perfect condition but it rapidly disintegrated...”
…I do rather wish a Channel 4 documentary team had been there to film it.
But this train of thought untangles, for me, one of the many reasons for my complete fascination with what has been going on in the search for Richard III. We simply do not usually have the chance to examine the remains of known individuals from history, to compare the sources with the bone-hard evidence. In Richard’s case, we can now compare written descriptions of his build, his looks, his disability and the manner of his violent death and his treatment afterwards with the story his skeleton tells. We can compare the surviving portraits (none painted in his lifetime) with the facial reconstruction made using his skull.
We cannot tell anything about his personality and his actions other than that, most likely, he fought doggedly to the end. We cannot tell whether or not he was responsible for the murder of his nephews. But we can imagine with more accuracy, perhaps, what his experience of scoliosis was like, as a war leader in a brutal age which expected him to be able to fight for his life (for example there is a very interesting article by Julie Myerson, who also has scoliosis, here). And we can evaluate more accurately exactly what the Tudor propagandists got up to in their portrayal of Richard (as the art historian Pamela Tudor-Craig commented in the Channel 4 documentary, it is much easier to take a fact and exaggerate it than it is to invent something from scratch).
All this is made possible by the fact that Richard was lost – and then found. Bones that have never been lost cannot be dug up, willy-nilly, for the sake of interesting tests. Much as I would love a facial reconstruction expert to get to work on Anne Boleyn’s skull (since no authenticated likeness drawn or painted in her lifetime exists) or for samples to be taken from Henry VIII’s bones to see what can be learnt about his medical history, the Church of England does not allow such investigations. The bones of the supposed Princes in the Tower – uncovered in the 17th century during building work at the Tower of London and now interred in Westminster Abbey – have been the subject of a concerted campaign by those who want tests done to establish, as far as possible, their identities. However, permission to exhume the remains has been refused. And although DNA and dating tests might bring relative certainty about the identity of the two skeletons, it could not help with the question of who was responsible for their deaths, since Richard III only reigned for two years and dating cannot be done to that level of accuracy. (For more detail on the reasons for the Church of England’s refusal of permission in this case, see this article.)
So, to meet an ancient king in the bones (if not the flesh) is a rare thing. Richard was the last King of England to die in the thick of battle – and indeed the only king, I think from a quick rummage through the Plantagenets, since Harold had been killed at the Battle of Hastings more than 400 hundred years previously. The details of his wounds given by the experts who worked on his skeleton make sobering reading. And they also widen the attention of all of us interested observers, I hope, to the battle itself. Clearly this was on the mind of Michael Ibsen, a nephew of Richard III at 17 generations’ remove, whose DNA had been used for comparison in the tests. In its report of the day last week when the identity of the skeleton was confirmed, in a blaze of publicity, The Guardian said:
Ibsen… grew more quiet and subdued as the day wore on. "My head is no clearer now than when I first heard the news," he said. "Many, many hundreds of people died on that field that day. He was a king, but just one of the dead. He lived in very violent times, and these deaths would not have been pretty – or quick."
Just one of many, many hundreds of dead – not only at Bosworth, but at so many other terrible battles during the Wars of the Roses. None of the other individual dead men could stir up such intense international interest, or gain a university working on their remains such publicity. And yet perhaps Richard III’s remains will lead more people to become interested in those battles, and in what life (and death) was like for the ordinary soldier. There is, for a start, an absolutely brilliant article here on the archaeological work done in the last few years (and still ongoing) on the skeletons of those who died in the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil: the Battle of Towton in 1461. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
H.M. Castor's novel VIII - a new take on the life of Henry VIII, for teenagers and adults - is published by Templar in the U.K., by Penguin in Australia, and will be published by Simon & Schuster in the U.S. this summer.
H.M. Castor's website is here.