If I hear one more person saying that they "had a hunch it would be Richard III" I think I'll scream (or at least strike the next person through my office door with a halberd).
Richard is, of course, one of the more famous of monarchs to rule England, thanks, primarily, to the demonization of both character and personality in the play of the same name written by Shakespeare in the early 1590s. In the play, Richard is a malformed, crook-backed, amoral, power-grabbing despot who casually slaughtered his young nephews in order to illegally seize the throne of England. As such a clear-cut 'monster', he could, of course, be legitimately dethroned by the next amoral power-grabbing despot that came along, in this case one Henry Tudor, later Henry VII. The gory death of Richard at the climax of the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, effectively brought to an end the Game of Thrones known as the Wars of the Roses, and is traditionally viewed by many historians as the point at which the ‘Medieval Era’ closed.
So far, so historically debateable.
In August of last year, an excavation in Leicester (which most newspapers stated, somewhat incredulously had been conducted "beneath a Council Car Park" as if such things were utterly impossible) found human remains which, many suspected, were those of the deposed monarch.
Admittedly the immediate field evidence compiled, as it stood, and once you cut away the media hype, looked extremely promising: the skeletal remains retrieved by the University of Leicester possessing signs of near-death (or even cause of death) trauma to the skull and an iron projectile point in the back. This was a person who had died in battle (or at least surrounded by much violence).
What most journalists picked up on, however, was the evidence for severe scoliosis, or curvature of the spine. Could this, many asked, be the key feature of the king that Shakespeare and others were later to so cruelly point out? Perhaps. The condition would certainly have made one shoulder appear higher than the other, something that later rewriters of history could legitimately describe as ‘a hunch’ (although it is fair to say that amoral power-grabbing madness is not, in itself, detectable in the archaeological record).
Still, despite the certainties, uncertainties and general (sometimes heated) debate, it's brilliant to see archaeology, archaeological finds and scientific process (including radiocarbon dating, DNA sequencing and geophysical survey) being so heavily trailed in the news, especially amidst the otherwise gloomy headlines prophesising all sorts of global and political meltdown.
An understandably very excited member of the "Richard the Third Society" being interviewed by an even more excited BBC journalist, gushed forth on the discovery with much enthusiasm and passion whilst the elated journalist wondered whether the find, now that it had been positively identified, could finally help "restore Richard III's reputation"
…er, sorry but how exactly?
We know quite a lot about Richard's life and brief reign, although certain details, such as the ultimate fate of his nephews, the 'princes in the Tower', remain unknown (confirmation of the discovery of their remains would be definitely generate something of a media sensation). We also know how and where he died and, ultimately, how, where and under what circumstances his mortal remains were disposed of, contemporary records noting the precise location of burial within the Franciscan friary of Greyfriars (demolished during the dissolution of the monasteries conducted under Henry VIII and now definitively covered by a car park).
The discovery of Richard’s remains (if indeed they really are him) are interesting from the point of view that this is the first time the skeleton of a Medieval English king has been subjected to rigorous scientific analysis (evidence for disease, health, nutrition etc. all being of vital importance, supplementing the scanty historical evidence for such things); a rare example of history and archaeology coming together to tell a single tale.
But will all this say anything more about the personality of the last Plantagenet king?