Tuesday 12 February 2013


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.”

So said Leon Hunt, the dig supervisor, in last week’s (excellent) Channel 4 documentary which followed the dig from the beginning (you can watch the documentary here.)

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.)

Portrait of Anne Boleyn (17th century copy of a lost original, described by Prof. Eric Ives as "the best depiction of Anne we are ever likely to have, failing the discovery of new material”)
- attributed to John Hoskins 

[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.


Sue Bursztynski said...

This is fascinating stuff. Actually, I can see why they don't want to dig up the children, though I wish they would. They say,"If it isn't the princes, what then? Do we put the bones somewhere see? And where does it end?"

I loved the article on the battle of Towton dig - and I see you get a mention, too. :-)

How good is that, finding poor Richard on the first day, million to one?

H.M. Castor said...

Many thanks, Sue. (It's not me mentioned in that article, in fact, but my sister - another H!)

Sue Bursztynski said...

Just tried to access the documentary - alas, not available outside Britain! :-(

Mary Hoffman said...

Hmn - a lot to comment on here! Firstly, that Philippa Langley was a writer? I found her the most intensely annoying person I have come across for a long time. Likewise - though to a lesser extent - Simon Farnaby, whom I have never seen before.

My sympathies were entirely with the osteologist who patiently put up with the histrionics.

I have been as fascinated by this tory as everyone else and am re-reading Desmond Seward's Richard lll: England's Black Legend.

The bones can prove nothing about the deaths of Henry Vl, Clarence, Henry's son, Edward, Hastings, Buckingham, Rivers, Grey etc. etc.

But there is a lot of documentary evidence and not all of it Tudor propaganda.Edward V and the Duke of York had not been seen for nearly two years by the time Henry Vll arrived on this coast for the second putsch that culminated at Bosworth.

I would like someone from the Richard lll Society - preferably not Philippa Langley - to produce some evidence to set against the wealth of material that documents soberly the acts of Richard of Gloucester.

Why did he have to make public statements that he neither caused or rejoiced at the death of his Queen for instance? Or that he did NOT plan to marry his niece?

Dem bones is mighty interesting but dey is still just bones, as you rightly say.

Katherine Langrish said...

Oh, I liked Simon Farnaby - and I liked Philippa as well, even though she was scarily emotional and tense. But I didn't mind the injection of some emotion into history to make the dry bones live; balanced as it was, and as you say, by the professional detachment of the archeologists. It made for an interesting human dynamic. Yes, I'd love to see an unbiased (from either side) new appraisal of all the evidence. Like most of us (I suspect?) I read and enjoyed Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time, and of course as a Yorkshire lass I'd rather like to see Richard exonerated... though I don't suppose I shall!

Unknown said...

Just wanted to say that this was the most interesting article on the R3 find out of all those I've read so far. And that I thought the Philippa & Simon Show detracted from the excitement of the discovery rather than enhanced it. But I suppose it's the wave of the future in a world where historical sites emphasize telling a straightforward story over presenting the visitor with a richly layered collection of miscellany as used to be the case. I hope more emerges from the professionals who worked on the site - their unemotional perspective is a valuable starting point for story and should be allowed to make its contribution.

Mark Burgess said...

I was particularly interested in the facial reconstruction. I would like to know more about that, and how 'blind' the initial work was, as there are close similarities (colouring aside) with the portraits, especially around the mouth.

I'm also interested that there are people who say that the evidence that it is him is flimsy. It seems to me that any one thing would not be enough but when they are all taken together, the conclusion seems as near water-tight as one could get. For DNA testing, I believe the Society of Antiquaries has some of Edward IV's hair. That would make an interesting comparison...

H.M. Castor said...

I didn't know that about Edward IV's hair, Mark! And, yes, I'm with you regarding the combined power of the different pieces of evidence. Many thanks for your kind comment, Jane. I know what you mean about the 'Philippa and Simon Show' - I hope that other perspectives emerge (I'm sure there will be books...). Still, the fact that the impetus and funding for the dig came from 'private' sources is interesting in itself - and is relevant, I think, to the on-going debate in academic circles about how valuable this really is as historical work (I mean in the sense that it wasn't a university that came up with the project in the first place).

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I'm with Mary Hoffman on her comments re Philippa Langley and Simon Farnaby. I suppose Simon was there as the 'every man' among us to provide the bridge between the public and what was going on, but I found him an irritating twerp. Instead of his pratting about at Middleham, we could have had an opportunity for more serious historical data.
Philippa Langley made brilliant reality TV for those with a taste for that kind of show. The constant close ups of her face as she struggled with her emotions were excruciating to see - I nearly turned off. When Richard III actually showed up with a spine like a question mark, you could see her thinking an agonised 'Noooo! This isn't how the script's supposed to go.' And when she saw the head,(the photoshopped version of the reality I suspect!) I thought she was going to swoon. As a friend said to me 'If the head goes missing after the show, we'll all know who's run off with it.' All kudos to her for raising the money and interest, but outside of the Richard III society, I think the way she was portrayed on TV may have done as much damage as good.
On the other hand, I thought the presentation of the archaeological evidence in the morning was excellent. Had there been a documentary along those lines, I'd have been a lot more satisfied.

adele said...

I must watch that documentary on Iplayer. Fascinating article though. That P. Langley woman I saw on the news...seems a bit...well. Obsessed is the kind word.

CrazyCris said...

This is an amazing story! I wish I could see the documentary but it doesn't play outside the UK... It's been pretty fascinating hearing about it in the news (until the Pope news superseded it)

Sara O'Leary said...

What was curious to me about the documentary was forced correlation between looks and personality. The idea that you can say that this is not the face of a tyrant is almost touchingly naive. Not that I am saying he necessarily was but I don't think a reconstruction of a face demonstrating some attractive qualities (or at least the lack of a scowl) proves he wasn't any more than the clear curvature of his spine proves that he was.
Good article and I'm looking forward to following up some of these links so thank you.

H.M. Castor said...

Yes, I absolutely agree with you, Sara. I thought it was a very strange comment!

Derek Birks said...

I agree with Mary Hoffman about Simon and Philippa but I think the nub of it is what sort of programme do people want? I thought that the central point was scientific authentication of the remains and as such I felt that the somewhat "Ricardian" feel of the programme and Simon's excessively light touch detracted from the documentary. I wanted to be informed not entertained. The discovery of the body will, of course, change nothing about the mysteries surrounding Richard.

Katherine Roberts said...

What I want to know is have they found the horse yet...?

Ann Turnbull said...

I was hoping someone would write about this - thank you! I was so excited by this discovery once I realised it was genuine and the programme wasn't a spoof. But the infuriating Philippa and Simon drove me mad! I wanted to hear from the archaeologists and historians, not them (though did slightly forgive Philippa afterwards when I realised how much she had invested in the project for so long, but could only sympathise with her when she wasn't there!) I hope there will be more to come from the experts and a more sober programme to follow. You have already given us more information, Harriet, and I look forward to following up those links.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I love the idea of people getting excited about history, and after reading that article and seeing the image of the skeleton with it's 'S' spine, it does make Richard 3 less of a boogeyman and more of an actual person, but there's a part of me that's thinking what Mary Beard's thinking http://bit.ly/XaQKG9 - what if it's NOT him? What if the media hype around this creates a new historical myth to wade through, if peer review later finds that there's substantial evidence to say that this could well be some other person LIKE Richard who also died in that battle? I admit, at this moment it seems unlikely, but the possibility of that situation happening nags at me.
In the meantime though, it is a great way to make History real in classrooms - 'you see this skeleton? Well, it's actually a King. THIS king in fact' Whip out a portrait and suddenly there's an instant connection between the present and the past. That has to be worth something, even if the programmes might be getting ahead of themselves.

Annis said...

I've always felt sorry for the fifteenth-century queen, Catherine de Valois. When her body was accidentally disinterred during extensions to the abbey in the reign of her grandson, Henry VII, it became a macabre tourist attraction for generations.

In 1669 the diarist Samuel Pepys boasted that he kissed the long-deceased queen on his birthday:
"On Shrove Tuesday 1669, I to the Abbey went, and by favour did see the body of Queen Catherine of Valois, and had the upper part of the body in my hands, and I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it I did kiss a Queen: and this my birthday and I thirty-six years old and I did kiss a Queen".

The unfortunate Catherine's remains were not properly reinterred until the reign of Queen Victoria.

Hopefully such a fate won't befall Richard III, but he will be decently reburied - whenever the fight for possession of his remains is finally resolved!

H.M. Castor said...

Golly, Annis, what a macabre picture that paints! Yes, poor Catherine indeed. Thanks so much for posting your comment.

C.J.Busby said...

Great post! I really enjoyed the documentary, but most of the other members of my family were driven to distraction by Philippa. I really hope the interest will result in a decent book or documentary weighing up all the evidence one way or the other - I loved The Daughter of Time, and I have yet to come across a book that takes the arguments she makes and refutes them one by one - but maybe I need to check out the Desmond Seward book?

Leslie Wilson said...

Excellent post!