Historical rant: My thoughts on the discovery of Richard III

Richard III Hide & Seek

I don’t know who created this, but it’s been doing the rounds on social networks this last week and makes me laugh every time.

Unless you have been living under a rock (or should I say under a carpark) this past week, there’s a very good chance you will have heard of the discovery of the skeleton of Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet Kings of England, in Leicester. It has sparked fierce debate among historians, has started a battle over where the remains are to be kept (though it’s more than likely they’ll stay in Leicester), it’s been declared one of the greatest archaeological finds of our time, and it’s sure made me excited!

The reason that many people are excited about this find, including myself, is because it could potentially rewrite a little bit of history. Richard III’s reputation has been tarnished since the moment he died, with historians accusing him of killing many people (including his two young nephews) to get to the throne. Much of the history we have of the man is written by the Tudors who were his immediate successors (and so naturally wanted to make him look bad to strengthen their position and right to be on the throne), and much of this history tends not to mention the important political reforms he introduced, such as the right to bail, and the idea of innocence until proven guilty. And roughly a century after his death, Shakespeare wrote a play about him in which the villainous portrayal was exaggerated greatly for the sake of drama – yet this of course has only further affirmed such views of the King in the eyes of most people.

A facial reconstruction of Richard III using artist's impressions and the recently discover remains. Credited to Rex Features/AP Images, found on www.smithsonianmag.com

A facial reconstruction of Richard III using artist’s impressions and the recently discovered remains. Credited to Rex Features/AP Images, found here

Some historians, or rather quite a lot of historians, are trying to quickly shut down the idea that anything at all is up for debate regarding the legacy of Richard III – the commonly asked question is, quite simply, how could a skeleton reveal anything new? It has revealed some things already – that he was not only weathered by battle at the time of his death, but was probably killed quite brutally. It also confirms a number of things regarding what happened to him after he died.

But I think these historians who think there is nothing new to discover need to open their eyes up a little, and remember that history is not something that stays the same. The past itself cannot change, of course, but history is ultimately our understanding and perception of the past, and this can, does and should change regularly. And it doesn’t take much for it to shift – simply the renewed interest in this controversial monarch could help bring about a lot more research into his reign and character, and that alone could rewrite the books at least a little.

We all know that old saying about how history is always written by the victorious – what we learn in history class at school is always from that one perspective of it, and even if we do learn from other perspectives it’s still very biased. I remember a big moment for me and my understanding of history came when it was pointed out to me that most of what we know about the Celts was written by the Romans, and so of course this is going to be biased against them and portray them as much more barbaric than they really were. It becomes more difficult the further back into the past you delve to find evidence to suggest differently to the current history of that period, but the general principle stays the same no matter what era you’re examining. And there’s a whole society and group of historians who are out to try and change the perspectives generally held about Richard III.

The thing that excites me most about this is not just the sudden interest in this king or this period of history even, but the explosion of interest in history itself. It is rare that something like this makes the news at all, but this king’s skeleton really has people talking all over the world and the internet, and for me, for someone who loves history, this is simply awesome.

Anyway, I’m going to end what has become a not even remotely cohesive post on the subject (but at least I conveyed my feelings somewhat). So I pose to you, my readers, the questions:

What does the discovery of Richard III mean to you? Do you care about it at all? Do you think it’s important, and why/why not?

It was never going to be very long before somebody made this joke. If you don't get it you need to watch Blackadder immediately.

It was never going to be very long before somebody made this joke. I need to re-watch this first series of Blackadder now.

18 thoughts on “Historical rant: My thoughts on the discovery of Richard III

  1. Like a great many people I don’t think too much about history, I was bored senseless by it in school and the only time now that it excites me is in relation to the books that I may be reading that may touch on living conditions, costume and general attitudes to life. However, this is really thrilling, for me I just wonder why he has been found now! I am a great believer in fate and that things mostly happen for a reason and really out of the blue here is this amazing find and not only that, we have the tools to confirm his identity. I wonder how much investigation will be done now and what if any (probably none) effect this could have on the current royal family – could their own position be looked at askance now??? oooh is that treason,?? I was only asking.

    • It makes me sad when I hear people say they were bored by history at school! I think history is fascinating, and I suspect if people were bored by it in the classroom, they weren’t being taught it very well, unfortunately.
      I suspect there’ll be a lot of investigation into this, and I only wish I was more of a professional historian and not just a history lover and teacher! You’re right, it wouldn’t have any effect on the current royal family, as his death and the succession of the Tudors still remains the same, but I think it could bring about some interesting stories. We’ll soon find out.

      • I have no illusions about my school it was awful, history, maths, geography (oh yuk geography and yet I love travel and have lived all over the world) everything except English and Spanish – totally boring and dreadful. Secondary school in the sixties in UK meant that you were going to be a shop assistant or possibly some sort of nurse if you were lucky. Oh Oh better get off this soap box before I fall off 🙂

        • It’s kind of sad really – your generation would have appreciated teachers that care more like at least some of us do now. But not all of the current generation of teenagers appreciate having such teachers. Oh well, such is the way things go I suppose.

  2. As a history undergraduate the discovery of the remains of Richard III has got me excited too. I found this a very interesting read. I find it hard to believe that ANY historian would claim that there is nothing new to be found from examining the remains etc, I would have thought that any historian would jump at the chance to explore such an interesting part of history.

    • I know, that’s exactly how I feel too – I am simply a history lover and occasional teacher of history (most of my classes are English by I have one class that is half history and half geography), but I would give anything to be enough of a professional historian to be able to explore and research Richard III in light of this new discovery. I find it mind-boggling that some are scoffing at it, but hey, that’s their silly loss.
      Glad you found this interesting! 🙂 What history in particular are you studying?

      • I have always been interested in the early modern period – mainly around the Tudors. However this year at university I chose to widen my horizons a bit and have studied Nineteenth Century Britain, Modern International History (focusing on Germany, America and India) and ‘Hands on History’ which looks at different forms of history such as oral and digital.

        • Oh wow, they all sound like awesome subjects to be studying. Victorian Britain is fascinating, and of course was a huge turning point for English literature which is interesting in itself. I’ve studied a lot of modern history on Germany (I teach a lot of it too), though not so much on America or India, although both would be interesting I think, especially the latter. That hands on history course would be good too, I did a couple of subjects at uni like that, looking at the different ways history is portrayed, whether intentionally or not – we did a course on history and film, and some films were purposely historical, but then others were more interesting for revealing more about the time in which the film was made, than when it was set.
          Good luck with your studies, you’ve definitely picked an amazing thing to be learning about! 😉

  3. History is what makes the present and the future…. The war of the roses is a very interesting part of British, therefore Australian History. Most of our legal, political and social institutions were directly transplanted from there to here… The finding of one of two British Kings to be killed in battle on English soil is special… The discovery of the last of the ‘middle ages’ kings is bloody awesome… Woot woot… History continues to astound and entertain….

    • Absolutely, couldn’t agree more! I was a bit shocked to see so little of the news story in Australian news though – I had to look elsewhere to get more information on it when it was unfolding. But yes, history will continue to amaze us for as long as there is an us to be amazed. 🙂

  4. I love your art about Richard III being the record holder for Best Hide and Seek. Made me laugh.

    History to me is fascinating because it’s the story of the people that came before us. I wonder what future generations will think of us?

    • I’m glad that made someone laugh – I definitely had a good chuckle at it myself!
      I wonder what future generations will think of us too. Hopefully it won’t be “now why did they have to arse everything up for us?”

  5. I love history, so it was very exciting to have an important piece unearthed. Admittedly (and somewhat ashamedly) I don’t know a lot about Richard III aside from the fact that he was last king before the Tudors came into power. That in itself I think has taken away from Richard III, as the Tudors are very prominent in history (particularly Henry VIII). People seem so fascinated by the Tudors, that they seem to forget that there were kings before them. So for me, I think that the most exciting thing about this discovery, is that it will hopefully encourage people to look further back in history instead of just reading about the same things they always do.

    • Yeah, this is true – the Tudors seem to have had a lot more interest recently in popular culture, that’s for sure. Interestingly, I probably know more about pre-Tudor England – I would say 1200-1500 is the period that fascinates me the most – than I do about the Tudors onwards. And yes, that is an awesome point, just the creation of interest in this period of history is something to be excited about! 🙂

  6. I certainly agree that the discovery of Richard III’s remains has sparked an interest in history that most people may have ignored in the past. Let’s hope it can help historians understand more about what happened to him.

    History doesn’t have to be only about learning the dates of particular events. It is the people behind those events that I find the most interesting. Unfortunately, my teachers were the ‘remember the date’ types (and me, with mathematical dyslexia, obviously didn’t do well!). I have since worked in classrooms where the teachers get the kids to act out certain scenes in history to help them learn the motivations of the key players. It got them more involved and made it more exciting for the students. I wish I had teachers like that when I was in school! 🙂

    • I agree – history is so much more than dates of events, or even the events themselves. We need to view history in every aspect, including the people behind them, their motivations and intentions, and the multiple perspectives of each and every event. We need to view them holistically and analytically, and realise that history is not a set of facts but a way of understanding the past, and, therefore, the present. Though I teach more English than History, I do hope to bring the latter alive a bit when I teach it. I hope so, anyway. I certainly get excited when I talk about it to the kids 😛

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