CSI: Plantagenet

5 February 2013

Richard III, unknown artist. Photo: National Portrait Gallery.

Like millions of other people, I excitedly tuned in to Richard III: The King in the Car Park, last night’s documentary on Channel Four about the recent discovery of the remains of Richard III, looking forward to an hour and a half of superb and unmitigated history geeking about DNA, osteo-archaeology and carbon dating. What I got instead was a little bit of all of that (which was much appreciated but, honestly, we’re not stupid and could have handled a LOT more of the science stuff) and a lot of peculiarity involving crazed eyed Richard III enthusiasts, funny feelings in car parks, the Stupid Death actor from Horrible Histories and unrequited love.

You think I’m joking, don’t you? I’m not. I wish I was but I’m really not.

Although the documentary was something of a mess and did very little to rehabilitate Richard III’s tarnished reputation while simultaneously ensuring that a large swathe of the populace will now cross the road in a terrified panic if they see a member of the Richard III Society coming their way (unfair by the way), it wasn’t all bad to be honest. For a start, I really liked Simon Farnaby’s rather wry and occasionally shell shocked presentation as he observed the process of identifying the remains discovered in a Leicester car park last year and the whole thing made for fun viewing if you didn’t have very high expectations in the first place.

Richard III from the front.

However, what could and should have been a really insightful, interesting and informative look at the exhumation and identification of the remains and what it all means was instead a low brow romp poking merciless fun at Yet Another Great British Eccentric – in this case Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society, who raised the funds for the dig and was, shall we say, rather heavily invested in the whole Richard III thing. I feel a bit bad making fun of Philippa as when all things are said and done and all ‘funny feelings’ and mockery aside, she believed that Richard III would be found under the car park and so he was. She was RIGHT in fact and deserves a bit of credit for that.

I’m not sure how the documentary’s director expected things to pan out to be honest – I suspect its treatment of Philippa Langley and her passion for Richard III was intended to be light hearted and even affectionate but it came across rather differently. So intense was her reverence towards Richard III that we joked on Twitter that it was only a matter of time before she declared that she was the reincarnation of his wife, Anne Neville. The moment when she looked on the speculative reconstruction of his face was actually pretty uncomfortable viewing as she gazed hungrily at his features. ‘Is she going to take it home with her?’ we all wondered with a frisson of aghast horror. ‘Will the Tory government have to put a special bill through making marriage with reconstructed heads legal?’

I shouldn’t joke though. As we all know, I too have terrible crushes on historical figures (Saint Just, Prince Rupert and Henry V are notable examples) so perhaps I should just shut up about it because I’m in no position to point fingers.

Richard III from the side.

Let’s move on instead to the reconstruction of Richard III. As most of you are in the US and haven’t had a chance to see the documentary yet and I didn’t know how quickly pictures would be released, I decided to get a couple of screen grabs last night so that you could have a look at how they think he may have looked. As I joked on Twitter last night: ‘Let’s face it, many of us are only watching this documentary because we want to see if Richard III was fit’ but I think you’ll agree he was quite handsome albeit in a Naboo from The Mighty Boosh crossed with Quentin Tarantino sort of way.

One of the most interesting parts of the show was when they got art historian Dr Pamela Tudor-Craig to talk about the best known portraits of Richard III, which she said was most probably an excellent likeness albeit a posthumous one but with subtle tamperings to make him appear as villainous and mean as possible. The additions of a hunched back and so on being there to subtly suggest that he was disabled, which at the time would have been seen as proof that he was not favoured by God. As Dr Tudor-Craig pointed out ‘It is easier to exaggerate than it is to invent. You exaggerate a little tiny fact and make a monster and if he had a deformity, a slight deformity then it wouldn’t have been mentioned to his face or in his reign but the minute he was dead buzz buzz buzz.

I mean, who the hell is going to tell a Plantagenet warrior king that he’s deformed? Not I, that’s for sure.

The skull of Richard III.

Another really interesting segment was when they got a trauma specialist, forensic pathologist and an armoury expert in to talk about the injuries that had been inflicted on the body, which neatly tied in with contemporary accounts of Richard’s horrible death at Bosworth which stated that he was dragged from his horse and killed by a melée of men, finally despatched by a poleaxe blow to the head after losing his helmet before being stripped naked then slung across a mule to be taken to Leicester. The story told by his remains is very true to this with devastating blows to the head as well as cuts and grazes, including a stab wound to the buttock (although I’m wondering if they were being coy and it was actually more an Edward II type of thing going on – eek), elsewhere on the skeleton that suggested ill treatment designed to humiliate after his death and he was no longer protected by armour. Crucially, however, the face of the skeleton was left intact and there had clearly been no attempts made to disfigure him – clearly so that it was possible for him to be identified, which was a crucial factor in Henry VII’s succession. After all, he wouldn’t be the first king who would have to prove that his predecessor had shuffled off this mortal coil.

Does this find have historical significance? Well, only in so far as it may well confirm what we thought we already knew about Richard III’s appearance (slight, rather handsome and with a spinal deformity that may not actually have been all that obvious at first glance) and his grisly end (on foot, surrounded by a mob of men and despatched by a blow to the head before being stripped and humiliated). Beyond that though this is really only a curiosity, a fascinating glimpse into the amazing scientific tools that historians now have at their disposal and a wonderful testament to the massive amounts of enthusiasm, diligence, inspiration and research behind the scenes of such historical discoveries. By far it’s real value, I would say, is in making people enthusiastic and even EXCITED about history and that’s something that benefits us ALL.

Richard III’s skull, showing that his face was left intact despite the brutality of his death.

One thing that this discovery doesn’t do, however, is rehabilitate Richard III. It’s easy to get misty eyed now that we’ve all had a look at his face and seen evidence of how brutal his death was but we still don’t know for sure whether he was a wicked, ruthless nephew killer or a much maligned king. Philippa Langley may say that the rather personable reconstructed face of Richard III ‘doesn’t look like the face of a tyrant‘ but I think we’ve all moved a bit beyond the Victorian idea that a person’s personality was writ upon their features, haven’t we?

Ultimately though, scoff though we may, this is a fascinating subject but one, I feel, that deserves a much more in depth treatment as I for one would LOVE to know more about the scientific process behind the identification. Hopefully there’s a book in progress right now.

ps. Heartfelt congratulations to the University of Leicester and all involved. As a graduate of the University of Nottingham, I am always inclined to think of the University of Leicester as THE ENEMY and our ARCH RIVALS (although not as much as Nottingham Trent University obviously and don’t get me started on the University of Loogabarooga – boo hiss!) but honestly, I am thrilled for them.

pps. The Daughter Of Time by Josephine Tey is 38th in the Amazon UK charts right now (I suspect it’s been even higher!) and has gone to 6-11 days delivery. Wow. It’s a great book. I really recommend it to anyone interested in reading more about Richard III.