Perhaps you have heard the story of one of England’s kings, recently discovered and exhumed from beneath a car park in Leicester, before receiving a ‘proper’ royal burial. Or maybe you studied Shakespeare’s Richard III in your time in education? In either case, you may be interested to hear some more.
Richard III continues to be an important historical figure, but down the ages the stories that have been told of him have (potentially) molded the public perception of his character and reign out of all proportion from who and what he was. This challenge to the old character analysis is the subject of a soon to be released British film, “The Lost King”, co-written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, and with director Stephen Frears.
Wherever you learnt the story from, most people have a rough grasp of the character of Richard III: his life lasted from 2 October 1452 to 22 August 1485, and he died fighting at the Battle of Bosworth Field – the decisive and doomed battle of the War of the Roses which also, well, doomed for his house. After being crowned King of England and Lord of Ireland on 26 June 1483 until his death, he was the last of the Plantagenet family and his demise marked the end of the Middle Ages in Britain.
History, Shakespeare, and more have linked him inextricably with the story of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ – the Princes in question being Edward V and his brother Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York -, and damned him to being the villain of the piece. This well-known tale of youth and rightful succession being cut down is the one that has been most prominent in Richard’s narrative.
He has been portrayed as a ‘hunchback’ and ill-tempered, but is this potentially a past discriminatory discourse conflating physical disability with ‘disagreeable’ character traits? His recently rediscovered remains show that whilst he suffered from scoliosis of the spine, its impact was far from creating a ‘hunch’ back. Can we therefore consider that his temper and behaviour might also have been the product of political and social ‘spin’?
The Middle Ages were a notoriously ‘cut throat’ time politically and socially. In order to gain rank, lands and finance people were prepared to behave in horrific ways towards each other. There is no way to qualify the damage that the powerful perpetuated on the less fortunate, but when considering past depictions of individuals and situations it is useful to be aware of any gain that can be derived from particular perspectives being pushed – the infamous concept of history being written by the winners.
Our world of polarised heroes and villains has created a Richard III who is constantly maligned for behaviour that, yes, was at times was appalling. However, perhaps we should also be consider who may have been to benefit from creating this type of scapegoat. And that their behaviour may have been just as bad.
The social and cultural era during which both Shakespeare and more published will have also played a role. Machiavelli’s “The Prince” had been written in the first quarter of the century that preceded his writing, and the focus on the amoral, deceitful, cunning, and violent aspects of pursuing power and politics may well have been lodged in the persona of Richard III as a means to direct public gaze from the current political and economic issues of the time.
It is an interesting counterbalance to observe and one which it pays to be aware of. In the present this polarisation is a common way to persuade people into political and social alignments, so are the masses simply ‘being played’ by this strategy? Likewise, when this occurs, what unacknowledged and unprocessed aspects of our social and cultural system, or our relationships, or ourselves are we burying alongside this ‘villainous character’?
So, finally the finding, retrieval and especially the repositioning – or reinternment – of Richard III’s remains occurred. For a time, they were a hotly contested issue but, after court battles and many discussions, he has been laid to rest – in Leicester Cathedral.
It is a testament to human interest, curiosity, and tenacity that Richard III was ever found and that the narrative surrounding his life has been challenged, with other ideas about who he was brought to light. It is also an interesting twist on the concept of letting the past stay buried. It has shown that digging up the skeletons of that past can in fact create opportunities to learn and integrate the lessons they provide, and then offer opportunities to lay a person to rest in more appropriate, more positive, and longer-term surroundings.