It has been announced today that the bones found under a car park in Leicester are those of King Richard III.
I’ve been a huge fan of Richard III since I was in my teens. I wrote about him in my MA dissertation, which was about the construction of hero myths. For me, Richard III represents a fascinating historical conflict. He is the point at which my impartiality as a historian comes slap up against my instinctive loyalty and liking for Richard III, which is deeply unscholarly and completely subjective.
I come from Yorkshire. Even though Richard wasn’t a Yorkshireman by birth he spent a lot of his time in the North of England, holding the Lordships of Middleham, Sheriff Hutton and Richmond in Yorkshire. He gained a good reputation as a fair and just President of the Council of the North, and the City of York in particular held him in high esteem. On Richard’s death at Bosworth in August 1485 the City of York took the brave and unusual step of recording their unhappiness at the fact: “Today was our good King Richard piteously slain and murdered to the great heaviness of this city.” This can’t have made them popular with the incoming Tudors but showed how strongly they felt that they risked setting off on the wrong foot with the new administration because Richard was so highly regarded.
I have a framed poster of Richard III with the words “a true Yorkshireman” written on them. Yorkies, as we are known, don’t take everyone to our hearts, so for us to bestow this accolade on a man who was not Yorkshire born is exceptional. It means that we regard Richard as possessing those qualities we admire – loyalty, strength, toughness of character and a certain “Yorkshire grit,” as rugged as the rock the county stands on.
Like many people I discovered Richard III through reading “The Daughter of Time” by Josephine Tey, a great book and a powerful defence of Richard III’s reputation against the slanders of Shakespeare and the Tudor propaganda that blackened his name. When I went to university I studied the 15th century in detail including Richard’s role as a loyal supporter of his brother King Edward IV and also the achievements his own brief reign. I did a huge amount of academic reading on the subject of the Princes in the Tower as well as devouring all the fiction I could find.
I think a couple of things come together here to make the story of Richard III such a compelling one. First there is the enduring fascination of a historical mystery. You can’t get much of a bigger mystery than the one of who murdered the Princes in the Tower. For centuries people have argued for and against Richard III being the murderer and unless irrefutable proof comes to light, that is a story that will run and run. Irrefutable facts aren’t the kind of thing one gets often in history; although at school we are so often taught that history is made up of “facts” it isn’t static. History is open to interpretation and new discoveries are being made all the time. So I am not holding my breath that the mystery of the Princes in the Tower will be solved conclusively any time soon.
The other incredibly powerful element in the story of Richard III is the idea of fair play. That he was betrayed on the field of battle leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Then there was the Tudor propaganda. It was of course in the interests of the Tudors to portray Richard III as a monster, the more evil the better. They did a fabulous job of it with Sir Thomas More and William Shakespeare as their star players. But in doing so they, perhaps inevitably, invited a backlash. The depiction of Richard in Shakespeare’s play is a theatrical construct of horror. It’s a powerful fiction. The very power of that monster myth arouses a sense of fair play in those people who know that the “facts” don’t actually fit the fiction and hate to see Richard so maligned.
For me as a Ricardian it is a lovely historical irony that the Tudors worked so hard on their propaganda that they actually helped to create the hero cult of Richard III that exists now. So on a day like this I have several responses to the news that Richard’s body has been found. The trained historian in me is fascinated by the process of discovery and the interpretation of what has been found. The part of me that enjoys studying the way that historical myths are spun is relishing this latest development in Richard’s ongoing hero myth. And the Yorkshire girl whose loyalty to Richard feels like part of her DNA is happy to know that he will be re-buried in Leicester Cathedral (although York Minster would have been better) and thus one ancient wrong at least will be righted.