Posted by Richard the Rawlinson
The fully articulated skeleton of what might be Richard III is now being rigorously examined in a laboratory. Leicester University archeologists and DNA scientists are undoubtedly handling these human remains with great care due to their historic value, but perhaps also because of our tradition that the dead, exhumed or otherwise, be treated with respect and dignity. Those with spiritual leanings might also be having such airborne musings as whether or not the late medieval monarch has any consciousness of his current brush with the 21st century, or even whether he’s in a place sometimes referred to as Heaven or Hell.
The possible discovery of the body of Richard III poses questions beyond how to re-inter such a historic figure—if tests reveal the skeleton (with battle wound to the skull and spinal curvature entombed in the Choir of Grey Friars Church in Leicester near the ground of the Battle of Bosworth) is indeed the 15th century King of England. State/CofE burial, Catholic ceremony etc?
It also illustrates wider comment about how we dignify the dead, regardless of good reputation. If we visit the tomb of a controversial figure—say, Lenin in Moscow’s Red Square—we pass by with hushed reverence, we don’t spit on his grave. Would this even be the case if we knew of the resting place of a Hitler or Jack the Ripper? It’s certainly not a case of ‘all is forgiven and forgotten’ but death is undoubtedly an equaliser of sorts.
We, therefore, want to do the right thing for Richard III, whether or not we believe the full Tudor/Thomas More/Shakespeare package that he had several of his relatives murdered, including his young nephews, the Princes in the Tower.
Historians who reassess the King’s reputation in a more positive light are not cover-up merchants, like Holocaust deniers, but merely academics who favour factual analysis over spin and acquiescence, who point out there is insufficient evidence to find him guilty of all accusations, and also ignored evidence of some positive achievements and character witness. ‘Great is Truth and it shall prevail’.
Today’s historians are also thankfully putting subjects into the context of a society riven by feuding over land and influence, without projecting modern moral sensibility. ‘No man is an island’.
Any identification of Richard III is perhaps made more rivetting by the Whodunnit mystery surrounding his life. Just as writers have made a killing out of death-related conspiracies (Jack the Ripper, JF Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Lord Lucan, Da Vinci Code), expect more literary and celluloid attention for Richard III that’s both reputation-destroying and revisionist. (As an aside, the movie, The Madness of King George, was originally going to be named ‘King George III, but this title was avoided lest Americans mistook it for a sequel).
TV police dramas often avoid the risk of confusing viewers by making the prime suspect the guilty party. Agatha Christie, on the other hand, preferred to make guilty the Least Likely Person. But ‘guilty or not guilty’ is often too simplistic in real life. ‘A sinner also sinned against’ is perhaps the fairest thing to say about any of us mortals. How we receive the hunchback of history is of interest: my hunch is that we’ll welcome him into the fold with forgiving love.