The Oliver Observations

‘Shadows begone! Richard’s himself again!’ – some thoughts on Richard III

with 3 comments

I wrote must of this piece on Monday, 4th February when Richard’s bones were found, but have only just got round to finishing it and posting it – always the first with the breaking news.
(The title is an inaccurate but fitting quote from Shakespeare’s Richard III as used by Walter Scott for one of the epigrams in Ivanhoe.)

This morning I played my own small part in the media circus surrounding the rediscovery of the body of King Richard III by archaeologists at the University of Leicester.

While Channel 4 may present popular archaeology shows fronted by Tony Robinson, BBC Radio Sheffield relies on his near namesake – Sheffield institution and general polymath Rony Robinson.
I was interviewed on his radio show, giving my reaction to Richard’s re-emergence, along with osteologist Linzi Harvey from the University of Sheffield’s Archaeology Department offering her expertise in bones and John Mann, MP for Bassetlaw, offering a wonderfully passionate/shameless case for why Richard’s skeleton should be reinterred at Worksop Priory in his constituency.

We offered some thoughts on the discovery, sandwiched between such appropriate music choices as Dem Bones.
(I was only surprised they didn’t have a topical reworking of The Funny Bones theme ‘In a dark, dark town, there was a dark, dark carpark…’)

If you’re interested the recording is up here (at least for the time being)
The discovery is discussed throughout the show, and I’m on at 21.40 and again at 1.49.40.
[Rony’s show is easy enough to do given as one colleague said ‘He laughs uproariously at anything!’

I tried in my rather brief appraisals of Richard’s record to strike a balance between the ridiculously evil devil incarnate portrayed by Tudor propagandists, and the sentimental, saintly figure depicted by some of his defenders.
I’m not sure how much I succeeded – coming down a bit too much on Richard’s side, presenting him as a lovable ne’er-do-well; ‘Of course he had a few of his enemies murdered, but which of us hasn’t done that.’ etc
But I genuinely meant it when I claimed that ‘This is the greatest day for the Plantagenet cause since the Battle of Tewksbury’.

News of the archaeologists declaring ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that the skeleton is Richard’s instantly went international, and the last Plantagenet King of England was soon the subject of chatter and jokes at water coolers and watering holes across the world.
To me all this publicity is great for the debate around Richard, and for increasing awareness of Medieval History. I think historians have to be honest and admit this find will do more to ignite interest in the prototype Game of Thrones saga of The Wars of the Roses than a thousand academic books and journal articles could.
Such a discovery is also great for the discipline of archaeology showcasing the depth of the field (or indeed car park), and for Leicester itself, putting both the City and the University onto the world’s front pages.

I doubt the University of Leicester’s Archaeologists will have much difficulty demonstrating their ‘research impact’ in next year’s REF.
As prince of the Higher Education wonks, Mark Leach, put it ‘Breaking: Public value of education discovered under a car park in Leicester’.
Knowing how academia often contains as much jostling for tradition as any Medieval court, I did find myself momentarily thinking ‘If you were working on other research at the University of Leicester just how fed up with Richard III would you be now…’


Most of all, however, this week where Richardian references were everywhere has made me ponder the continued public interest in Richard III, and why this might be.

Of course I’ve no more idea than anyone else why public interest, which can be as fickle as the false, fleeting, perjured Clarence, has maintained a fascination with the ill-fated monarch over the centuries but I’d hazard a guess at a few possible factors:

The very fact that he was doomed and ill-fated is intriguing. There’s a sentimental romance and glamour that clings to a lost cause, whether it’s Jacobites pining for Bonnie Prince Charlie, Yorkists for Richard or Republicans for Mitt Romney.

There’s an undying debate around Richard’s record and character – was be a villain and a tyrant or a virtuous man and just King unfairly maligned?
People always even joining such a debate and picking partisan sides, rather like the arguments over whether Saul in Homeland or Snape in Harry Potter (pre-the Seventh Book) are good guys or bad guys – stretched over half a millennium.

The debate comes complete with the classic murder mystery – including the conundrum of whether there was even a crime – of The Princes in the Tower. Were they murdered? By whom? If not where did they end up?
The truth is of course lost in the mists of time, thicker that the fog at the Battle of Barnet, but this hasn’t stopped generations enjoying trying, and failing, to solve this mystery of history for centuries.
Depictions of the princes as wide-eyed, golden-haired innocents, straight out of a Millais painting have only added to the comic book villainy of traditional interpretations of Richard.

This depiction of Richard as a cartoonishly evil figure has also ironically helped ensure his memory lives on. As King John, or the executive Producer of the millionth ‘Great Dictators’ documentary for the History Channel, will tell you – there’s much more marketing potential in a villain than a dull saint.

Whichever side of the debate you’re convinced by, Richard is a colourful character, and probably one of few English Monarch’s instantly recognisable to than yeoman in the street. The larger than life, controversial Richard III and Henry VIII still charge their way through popular culture and bestride the history curriculum like a Holbein portrait, whist the well-governing bureaucrat Henry VII between them vanishes in comparison.

The facts (if such they be) of his life appeal to the Ladybird Books school of History, while many people vaguely remember the strong images of his story, taught at school or picked up through cultural osmosis – the poor little princes locked in the tower, their Uncle, tormented by the phantoms of his victims, screaming in his sleep on the eve of Bosworth, Richard personally killing the ‘poor old man’ Henry VI while he kneels in prayer, and overseeing Clarence’s drowning in a butt of Malmsey wine, before meeting his dramatic end crying ‘A horse! A horse! My Kingdom for a horse!’ within striking distance of killing Henry Tudor and winning the war. (As the rainbow itself tells us the colourful Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain.)

The crown of course rolls into a gorse bus where it is picked up, given to Henry Tudor, who immediately marries Richard’s niece, and unites the nation in a stroke of design genius by delighting both feuding houses in the War of the Roses with the Tudor Rose Logo.
(I suppose had he used different PR consultants he could have united Richard’s white boar and the Tudor’s Welsh dragon as a flying pig…)

If nothing else Richard would maintain a place in pub quizzes as the last English King to die in battle, and indeed the first since Harold Godwinson at Hastings in 1066. If we believe the Tudor chroniclers’ tales of his murdering Henry VI and the boy Edward V, he would also, I think, be the only King to kill two of his predecessors – though I’m open to being contradicted.

The manner of the discovery is bound to be the latest chapter in this memorable tale of Richard, and ‘the King in the car park’ does make an excellent addition to the story.

Richard’s royal status inevitably also plays a part in fuelling interest. Catherine Fletcher, from the University of Sheffield’s History Department, strikes a note of caution amidst the enthusiasm, detecting an element of historical hierarchy and snobbery in the interest around the discovery, featuring as it does ‘celebrity and royalty’.
She does have a good point – if the skeleton had turned out to be a 15th century equivalent of the unknown soldier, interesting as this would have been, it would have been lucky to get much publicity beyond a ‘News in Brief’ paragraph in the BBC History Magazine.

As in so many of our national identity, Shakespeare was a major influence in shaping our picture of Richard, and the villainous version, guaranteed to please his Tudor patrons, depicted in The Tragedy of King Richard the Third, is probably the biggest reason of all Richard remains so well remembered.
Famous actors across the centuries from David Garrick to Laurence Olivier portraying Richard and refining the stereotype have also been largely responsible for his imprint on popular culture.

This stereotype has also proved self-sustaining, with such performances, particularly Larry Olivier’s, being constantly parodied, memorably by the two Peters – Sellars and Cook; Peter Sellar’s performing a wonderfully sinister cover of The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night in the manner of Olivier’s Richard III, and Peter Cook providing some brilliant cod-Shakespeare in Beyond the Fringe (Performed here with Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett, and Terry Jones as a worthy stand-in for Dudley Moore at the first of Amnesty International’s Secret Policeman’s Balls in 1976), and of course years later in the first episode of Blackadder.

Richard’s rediscovery with its saturation media coverage inevitably produced some good jokes (and some terrible groan-inducing ones)
I particularly liked the twitter account @HMRichardIII (which had about 500 followers when I checked on Sunday before the findings were announced and now has over 8000) where our late lamented King provided commentary such as:

Looking forward to a good catch up with my nephews. Oh….wait.

The two Princes may or may not be buried underneath the Swindon branch of Lidl. That’s all I have to say on the matter.

500 years in a wooden coffin. Talk about splinters of discontent.

Burying people in multi-storey car parks. That’s wrong on so many levels.

I wonder if Chris Huhne could get his wife to pay my parking fines for me.

My jokes are like my legs – lame.


Whatever the reason, Richard III is clearly embedded even deeper into our national consciousness than he was under a Leicester car park.

And whether through a mawkish love of celebrity and spectacle or a noble desire to comprehend the past, I did feel a bit of a thrill seeing images of him, knowing this is the first time he’s been seen in nearly 528 years.


As a lover of historical what-ifs I’ve also found myself idly wandering this week just how different England and the world would be if Richard had won the Battle of Bosworth and remained King?
The answer is of course nobody has a clue but its intriguing to speculate…

There would have been no Tudor dynasty and no King Henry VII or King Henry VIII. In fact there would have literally been no Henry VIII as his parents would never have married. Though given the rumours in the last year of his life that Richard planed to marry Elizabeth of York it’s quite possible a future King of England, sharing half Henry VIII’s genes could have come to the throne around the same time.

Without Henry VIII of course there would have been no single, dramatic break from the Church of Rome, and it’s quite possible England would still be a Catholic country today, subjects perhaps offering a prayer during mass for the royal Saint Richard of York.
There would almost certainly be no established ‘Church of England’ whatever the national faith.

Broadly speaking, most histories will tell you that Henry Tudor brought relative stability to England, uniting the warring Houses of Lancaster and York, providing children and a clear line of succession which had been sorely lacking, and growing the treasury through years of shrewd management and scooping up taxes with Morton’s fork.

We could assume that if Richard’s reign had continued this stability would have been missing and the Wars of the Roses might have continued.
Though it is at least arguable that stability and peace might have been attained a different way.
Richard might have united managed to unite the country, either through clever politics and strategic marriages, or by shear force having won the battle, killed Henry Tudor, and supressed the House of Lancaster.

If Richard had won in 1485 the House of York would have held the throne continuously since 1461 (apart from Henry VI’s sad and sorry second reign for five months in the winter of 1470-71), and with every year the likelihood of a Lancastrian revival could have faded.
Richard might also have reigned King a long time, being only 32 when he died at Bosworth. (His Father also died a violent death, like his father before him, but his mother lived to be 80 so it’s not fanciful to imagine a triumphant Richard ruling well into the 16th century, by which time the civil war would be long forgotten.)

Had he triumphed at Bosworth it’s fair to assume one of Richard’s first priorities would have been to remarry, (after his wife’s death the year before) possibly to Princess Joan of Portugal, and produce a ‘son of York’ to succeed him.

We might also assume the Treasury would have recovered under Richard, if a period of peace could have been provided, given many of Henry’s policies were built on initiatives begun under Richard. He had also presided over the Council of the North before becoming King, which can be seen as overseeing early attempts at regeneration or prototype-Keynesian economics, aimed at boosting the North’s economy which had never quite recovered from the devastation wrought by the Harrying of the North after the Norman Conquest.
If Richard had remained King might the North-South divide now be reversed and the country’s economic hub be – perhaps – York under the shadow of the even larger Minister Richard intended to fund?

Another fascinating point to consider is whether a hypothetical post-1485 King Richard would have listened to a Genoese gentlemen who visited England in 1488.
Christopher Columbus, during his long quest to finance his crazy sounding scheme to discover a new world, or at least sail to Asia, dispatched his brother Bartholomew to the English Court seeking patronage. Bartholomew was received by Henry VII and the King was intrigued by his plans but eventually they didn’t pass his risk assessment and he refused to put up the cash.
The Columbus Brothers eventually received capital from Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain and the rest is history…

Had England had a King less fiscally prudent than Henry, say with a history of taking brave gambles and sanctioning investment in large projects, South America could well have been claimed for England generations before the Pilgrim Fathers and others colonised the North.

To sound a bit like a Ladybird Book, for once it’s no exaggeration to say the course of History as well as the King changed with the slash of a sword (or it now seems the blow of a battle-axe) on the 22nd August 1485.


3 Responses

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  1. Great pothole joke


    February 9, 2013 at 11:06 pm

  2. I liked the story of the Archeology Department calling in someone from ATOS to examine the remains and pronouncing Richard III fit for work.

    Roberto Mancini

    February 12, 2013 at 6:38 am

  3. Good write-up, I’m regular visitor of one’s website, maintain up the

    nice operate, and It is going to be a regular visitor
    for a long time.


    September 6, 2013 at 7:22 am

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