Boning up is the best way to learn history

Was Richard III a graceful king or malevolent hunchback? As archaeologists dig up what might be his remains, we are moving closer to the truth.

Share
Fact File
  • 6"3 The height of Henry VIII

The Richard III Society is not about to shut up shop soon. But the society, which exists to defend the medieval king from what it sees as Tudor propaganda against him, may soon be about to have a firm answer to one of its disputed points. Was Richard the grotesque hunchback of Shakespeare? Or was his deformity a much milder one? Was he – some of Richard’s proponents have suggested – disabled at all?

The site of a medieval church in Leicester, now a car park, has been dug up in search of Richard’s remains. In the past few days, a skeleton has been discovered which shows signs of violent death, exactly as reported by contemporary chroniclers. Interestingly, there are clear indications of scoliosis of the spine. There will be DNA tests, using some of Richard’s direct descendants. In the meantime, it does look rather as if the king was deformed in exactly the way the Tudor propagandists described.

Whether or not he murdered his nephews in the Tower, archaeologists cannot answer.

When a myth is confirmed, it can have a disconcerting effect. For years, anybody who thought about it took it for granted that Shakespeare’s version was cooked up to please his Tudor masters. The famous, gloriously grotesque version – it is, almost invariably, one of his funniest plays – is countered, probably, by the measured account of Josephine Tey’s classic armchair detective novel The Daughter of Time. Richard didn’t kill his nephews – that was, people will tell you, Henry VII. He wasn’t the thug and bully of the drama, but the thoughtful reformer his contemporaries praised. And the hunchback was much exaggerated, his proponents will say, if indeed he was hunchbacked at all. At this point, the evidence of the Leicester skeleton surfaces. If it doesn’t undermine the whole case, it certainly starts to suggest that the Shakespearean version is not complete fantasy: there may be some truth to it.

Gossip and propaganda about historical figures, particularly royalty, can be so extravagant that it comes as a surprise when it is proved true. Of course, most of the disputed accounts of royalty turn out to be less securely based than, apparently, Richard’s hunchback. The 19th-century newspapers were much less respectful towards royalty, surprisingly, than nowadays – when the day-old Prince John died, one newspaper called him a “wretched abortion… a shrivelled piece of skin and bone, grandiloquently entitled ‘prince’, not 24 hours old”.

In this setting, an irreverent attitude towards Queen Victoria and her children produced a glorious array of myths and fantasies. According to these, the Duke of Clarence was Jack the Ripper, or the habitué of homosexual brothels: his brother, the future George V, had a wife and children in Malta; the Queen herself had married her Scots ghillie John Brown; Prince Albert’s real father was a Jewish court chamberlain, and so on. These stories have circulated to the present day, given impetus by Edward VII’s unfortunate habit of burning the personal letters of his family, suggesting that there was more to hide than was really the case.

In the case of Richard III, which do you choose to believe – the Grand Guignol of Shakespeare, indirectly buttering up the Tudors? Or the propagandists and authors of court panegyrics of Richard’s own time? In this question, the point about whether he was, in fact, hunchbacked plays an uncomfortable part. Shakespeare had wide human sympathies, but a physical deformity still tended to reinforce villainy in his imagination.

The physical facts about a monarch, like Edward I and Henry VIII being well over 6ft tall, are often some of the few unarguable truths about them. What you choose to do with those physical facts places them, once again, in the realm of debate and prejudice. I don’t suppose we will ever get to the truth about any individual king, queen or prince. There has always been too much at stake. Both denigrators and supporters of any given historical personage are in the business of inventing picturesque details.

Only very occasionally does a bone thrust up from a grave, beyond the control of chroniclers, to state the exact and incontrovertible truth. If this is Richard’s skeleton, and can be proved to be, it will be a genuinely rare witness. On the whole, it is better to get your history from graveyards than from playwrights.

So we're back to Woody's 'return to form'

Amusement may be had, in the film world, by simply saying the words “Woody Allen” and “return to form” shortly after each other. Mr Allen has been returning to form for nearly 30 years now – I remember that The Purple Rose of Cairo and Hannah and Her Sisters were acclaimed in exactly this way. Recently, it’s become a ritual. Midnight in Paris was hailed like this. But so were You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and even, bravely, Match Point. I had ruled Mr Allen out since the atrocious 1998 Celebrity, but this drip feed of returns to form must have got to me. I went to see his new film, To Rome with Love. It was not a return to form. The term must be one of the most witless of all critical judgements. It must rival “will make you laugh uncontrollably on public transport” and “writing at the peak of his powers” as a guarantee of non-entertainment. Could we please have a moratorium on it, and when Mr Allen in particular next brings out a film, just say honestly what we think of it?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Today is a bigger Shabbes than usual in the Jewish world because it has been chosen to launch the Shabbos Project  

Shabbes exerts a pull on all Jews, and today is bigger than ever

Howard Jacobson
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker