CSI: Plantagenet

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.

18 thoughts on “CSI: Plantagenet

  • Ian

    oh how I agree, i too made a point of sitting down to watch it, and very soon began to wonder whether i was on the right channel. My daughter wandered through and asked “Is this a dramatisation?”

    I’d like to feel sorry for Philippa, and claim that this really portrayed her wrongly, i hope it did. But for all those who spent the day saying how irrelevant this discovery was for history, and how any real historian or archaelogist should have a million better things to do with their time, then this programme can only have given them more ammunition than provide a suitable riposte.

    Of course history didn’t change yesterday, but I found the discovery and the subsequent detective work both important and fascinating, and deserving of better treatment. maybe one day it will get it.

    My favourite twitter comment last night, and I forget who said it, was “at least Richard and his family can now get some sense of closure” – maybe that’s what the C4 programme was all about.

  • Marie

    I’m sorry the documentary you watched turned out to be a bit sleazy; it’s both sad and angering when historic revelations are treated in a cavalier manner. The discovery of Richard III’s remains is exciting and informative regarding Britain’s late medieval history. I look forward to learning more about this intriguing yet much-maligned monarch.

    P.S. I understand the next quest will be the seeking of King Alfred The Great’s remains. I am looking forward to this, as well!

  • Little Me

    The BBC would have done it better… Poor Philippa they have turned her into a laughing stock, and distracted everyone from the fact she was right, as you say. Very unfair.

  • Leslie Carroll

    I’ve always been quite clear-eyed about Richard III (meaning, I suppose, that I am not a Ricardian; at least I do not romanticize him or seek to exonerate him by insisting that yes, it was a bloody world where might made right and nearly every king during the era was a usurper and Richard was no better or worse than his predecessors or than the Tudors). What I love about the discovery of his skeleton is that it proves that there was more than a glimmer of truth in what the Ricardians have always claimed was mere Tudor propaganda. Exaggeration/embellishment of his physical condition: undoubtedly. But now we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Richard’s spine was indeed deformed, which leaves the door open to the possibilities that other “propaganda” may have some truth to it as well and cannot be dismissed as, well, a hatchet job on their dear Dickon. And this is what I love so much about History. It’s an ongoing mystery of little boxes to be opened, and even if the discovery of Richard’s bones turns out to be the beginning of a new conversation about his life, rather than the resolution of the mysteries surrounding his death, that’s all to the good for History and all of us history geeks and wonks.

    And hey — am I the only one who noticed what remarkably good teeth Richard had? Quite straight, quite white. For all the jokes about poor dentistry in England, the king had pretty healthy choppers!

    • Melanie Post author

      No, not the only one! There was a lot of chatter on Twitter last night about his nice teeth. They discovered that he ate a lot of fish and meat when they analysed the remains, which is the sort of thing that I would have liked to hear more about.

      • Lauren

        Me too. It would be intriguing to see the bone analysis, or tooth analysis. Mineral composites, diet, age in terms of life style,omg,the the treasure trove of DNA.(m-DNA Plantagent!) it makes me inarticulate!!!! Maybe the docu will be brushed up when it is aired state side. Fingers crossed……

  • Sara

    What happened to the bones of the boys buried in the wall? Can they now be identified using the same methods that were used to identify Richard?

    • Paul Tarrant

      The bones found under the stairs at the tower during the reign of Charles II were placed in Westminster Abbey. Although they have been exhumed once since I believe a request would need to be made to the Queen.

  • Ankaret Wells

    I was dubious about Simon Farnaby but thought he came over as rather sweet and approachable. I definitely liked that he kept pointing out that it’s not an either-or case of ‘he had scoliosis and was a bad person’ or ‘he was handsome and symmetrical, and was a good person’, and that there’s room for something a bit more nuanced.

  • Muddling Along

    I had to call home in a hurry last night to get this recorded – shame if they haven’t gone into the science – was really looking forward to learning about all of that

    Super exciting they have found him though – have heard they are going to look for Alfred the Great next

  • Paul Tarrant

    Yes, a little disappointed with the programme as I to would have preferred more science and yes, Phillipa did not come across well.

    Nothing should distract from this amazing discovery and I wasn’t surprised about the curvature of his spine or disappointed. Lets not romanticise this man of his time. I still believe he was behind the murders in the Tower which was a terrible betrayal.

    He died in battle and by all accounts met his end bravely, if without a horse.

  • teamgloria

    the most glorious bit of the whole affair (as we live in the USA and could not watch British Telly that evening) was happening to watch the delicious tweets as you and your companions watched it live – splendid! we thank you.


  • Kate H

    hi, did u watch the doc. on more4 after this with david starkey(about richard)? i’m going to check it out.

  • Elizabeth Kerri Mahon

    My friends and I were talking about the whole facial reconstruction last night and we decided that he looks like Lord Farquhar from Shrek! I’m going to see if someone has thrown this up on YouTube because I have no idea if we will ever get to see this in the states.

    The Daughter of Time is one of my favorite books and partly why I came to believe that Richard wasn’t as black as painted by Sir Thomas More and other Tudor historians. Also Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendor. I’ve always believed that Richard’s usurption of the throne had more to do with his belief that the Woodvilles were untrustworthy, wanting to end their influence over the princes, than any ambition to be King.
    Also England had suffered through too many boy Kings, the most recent being Henry VI.

    Of course, we’ll never know the truth, and we’ll never know if the bones found are the two Princes, since I just read in the Telegraph that the crown has said they won’t allow them to be exhumed.

  • PatW

    Being in the US, the documentary was not available, but I’ve been moderately exasperated by some of the media coverage. A lot of utter ridiculous stuff out there. Over the years, I’ve grown from a rabid Richard enthusiast to a bit of a skeptic. However I hope that the discovery of his remains will lead to some truly significant research on him, and yes, I’d be pleased if it pinned the notorious murder on someone else.

    And for heaven’s sake, he should be laid to rest in York. His wishes were made plain in his lifetime, and they should be respected; in his time it would have mattered a great deal.

    • Phoenix Woman

      The thing is, why would he have needed to kill them? They’d already been declared illegitimate — and this not by Richard, but by the Council and the Three Estates, which were made up largely of men who were Southerners and not exactly automatically inclined towards Northerners like Richard. (The idea that Richard somehow bullied the Council and the Estates/Parliament into submission is ridiculous.)

      Now Henry “Tudor”, on the other hand, had a Lancastrian blood claim that was shaky at best, and likely wasn’t even a Tudor as there is some doubt as to whether his father Edmund was really Owen Tudor’s son. So Richard’s nephews, illegitimate though they were, still had better blood claims than he did.

      Interestingly, Henry Tudor went back and forth on whether or not the guy he overthrew was a rightful king of England. In the 1490s, there were various revolts being led against him by persons claiming to be or claiming to be acting on behalf of Edward IV’s sons by Elizabeth Woodville. At that time, it was in Henry’s interest to disparage the strength of these boys’ claim to the throne, and the best way to do that was to acknowledge that their uncle was indeed a rightful king and that the Act of Parliament known as “Titulus Regius” declaring the boys illegitimate was accurate. (Which is ironic, as Henry himself had ordered TR repealed without being read and every copy destroyed — luckily he didn’t find them all, which is why we know about it)

      That’s why roundabout 1495 Henry had Richard’s resting place at Greyfriars spiffed up a bit and a plaque added acknowledging Richard as king; this would all get destroyed a few decades later when Henry’s son dissolved the monasteries, but not before the inscription was written down. (Go read John Ashdown-Hill’s The Last Days of Richard the Third and the Fate of His DNA for more on this.) Once Henry felt the boys were no longer a threat, that’s when he suddenly started talking about the poor innocents murdered by their wicked uncle. He even had Sir James Tyrrell tortured to death and then, after Tyrrell was conveniently dead, produced an alleged confession from Tyrrell stating that he’d offed the boys on Richard’s orders.

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