Richard III and Bodies: Why Are We So Interested In This News?

Big news today:

A skeleton found beneath a Leicester car park has been confirmed as that of English king Richard III.

Experts from the University of Leicester said DNA from the bones matched that of descendants of the monarch’s family.

Lead archaeologist Richard Buckley, from the University of Leicester, told a press conference to applause: “Beyond reasonable doubt it’s Richard.”

Richard, killed in battle in 1485, will be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral.

[Here is a piece that complicates the DNA part of this identification.]

I am a historian who is infinitely interested in how a society and its cultural thinks about bodies. The reaction to the news that the bones of Richard III had been identified, therefore, is something I have been thinking a lot about today.

For example, the phrase “Richard III” has been the top trending topic on Twitter all morning, which means that not only are people tweeting about this but they are tweeting about it constantly, in numbers high enough to make it the most used phrase on a social media site where information travels at light speed and attention spans are very short. This all on the day after the Super Bowl, which not only had a lose ending and an amazing halftime show but an unprecedented 34-minute power outage at the beginning of the second half. It says something that Richard III is beating that news in its “trendiness.”

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Looking up “Richard III” under the “news” section of Google right now brings about nearly 1000 hits. People have feelings and thoughts about the scientific discovery that some bones under a car park belong to a king made famous by a Shakespeare play.

King Richard III was King of England from 1483 to 1485. He died at the Battle of Bosworth Field, the culminating battle in the War of the Roses. Henry Tudor was the victor that day and went on to become King Henry VII and start the (in)famous Tudor reign in the England.

Richard III’s bones are awesome:

His skeleton had suffered 10 injuries, including eight to the skull, at around the time of death. Two of the skull wounds were potentially fatal.

One was a “slice” removing a flap of bone, the other was caused by bladed weapon which went through and hit the opposite side of the skull – a depth of more than 10cm (4ins).

Dr Appleby said: “Both of these injuries would have caused an almost instant loss of consciousness and death would have followed quickly afterwards. […]

Other wounds included slashes or stabs to the face and the side of the head. There was also evidence of “humiliation” injuries, including a pelvic wound likely to have been caused by an upward thrust of a weapon, through the buttock.

Richard III was portrayed as deformed by some Tudor historians and indeed the skeleton’s spine is badly curved, a condition known as scoliosis.

However, there was no trace of a withered arm or other abnormalities described in the more extreme characterisations of the king.

A friend on Facebook said that these marks on Richard’s body reminded him of this post on medieval warfare as determined from skeletons:

By looking at the different ways that bone fractures when it has fluids in it and when it has dried out, Ms Novak found that 27 of the 28 skulls she examined had suffered blows at the time of death. Not just one, either. Both Towton 16 and 25 were struck eight times and Towton 10 six times. Towton 32 suffered no fewer than 13 different blows to the head.

According to Graeme Rimer of the Royal Armouries, Britain’s arms museum, medieval weapons had the capacity to decapitate or amputate at a single stroke. “Given how much damage you can do with one blow, why land another 12?” he asks. There were signs of mutilation, too: marks on the left side of Towton 32’s head suggest that his ear had been sliced off.

And so, I think, why the fascination with THIS skeleton? Certainly we aren’t amazed at the battle scars. That was information we already knew. Mary Beard had a similar thought:

And then there is the history… Like Neville Morley and Charlotte Higgins, I’m still really wanting to know what history this really adds to our understanding of the period. And like History Matters, I wonder, if it had been the skeleton of some poor peasant whose remains DID overturn a lot of what we though we knew, whether it would have got half the publicity.

Putting all of this together: we already know that medieval warfare of the kind that ended Richard III’s life was horrific and that it is hard to conceive this kind of response to a peasant’s body being found (I mean, was there a response to Towton?). So, what’s going on here?

First, I think there it matters that many people have read and/or seen a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, so they feel that they have a direct connection to this particular monarch.

Second, we love monarchs, especially English and British ones. Even if they only ruled for two years and those two years were centuries ago.

Third, he was found under a car park. Is there a more inglorious place for a famed King of England to have been buried? (well, I’m sure we can all think of a few but you get where I’m going — there’s a story in that alone).

Also, if something like this can be discovered centuries later, it makes you wonder what else is buried where, waiting to be uncovered.

Fourth, and most intriguing to me, is our ideas about bodies.

Let’s start here: The Richard III Society, which has existed since 1924, has spearheaded the search for these bones. The woman from the Richard III Society who led their campaign is Philippa Langley and this is how the Richard III Society writes about her quest:

The story of The Greyfriars search starts with Philippa Langley. A screenwriter and member of the Richard III Society, she is a Ricardian with a strong sense of the injustice done to Richard III. […]

Philippa was convinced that Richard’s grave had not been desecrated during the dissolution of the monastery. Richard had made good laws and earned respect as a ruler. His death had been lamented. There was no reason why he should not have been left to rest in peace at the site of the old friary known as The Greyfriars.

It was this belief that underpinned her determination to fly in the face of accepted opinion. King Richard was waiting to be found, and in 2009 Philippa decided to find him.

Langley was interested in finding Richard III’s body because she believed it would banish old historical narratives that he was tyrant and instead would be replaced with a narrative that “he made good laws” and was a respected ruler. If he had been buried properly, we would learn that “his death had been lamented” and, if you continue the thought, that his people loved him.

Here is what she told the BBC after the findings were released:

“It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work. I think, as someone said to me earlier, it’s just the end of the beginning.

“We’re going to completely reassess Richard III, we’re going to completely look at all the sources again, and hopefully there’s going to be a new beginning for Richard as well.”

“We’re going to completely reassess Richard III” because they found his skeleton and where he was buried.

In the end, I’m just not sure how this particular find will do that. The official findings (scroll to the bottom) are that the “grave was hastily dug, was not big enough and there was no shroud or coffin.” I don’t know if his burial is going to somehow translate to “obviously he was a beloved king.” Perhaps Langley and others believe that the spotlight of the media will give them cultural space to tell a new story, especially as they were the ones leading the charge in finding his bones.

Yet, what I am seeing in what I am reading is about the bones and Shakespeare. Not so much a discussion or debate about Richard’s reputation as a king.

Perhaps the interest is cosmetic: we now know for sure that Richard was a hunchback but that he did not have a withered arm. But that alone does not seem enough to garner the massive response to this news.

No matter the reason people feel connected to this particular skeleton, there is something underlying this specific moment: the phenomenon of our desire to connect to the bodies of the revered.

When I heard about Richard III this morning and I saw how many people across multiple social media platforms were interested in this news, it made me first think of the medieval Catholic practice of collecting and displaying the relics of saints in Cathedrals and other holy sites, most famously, the Vatican built directly over the remains of Saint Peter, a disciple of Christ and the first Pope. And anyone who has been to the Vatican knows that it is also home to the bones of many past Popes in its crypt and even the full-body moldings/recreations of some Popes. Medieval Catholics would travel hundreds of miles on pilgrimages to view these relics at a time when traveling hundreds of miles was mainly done on foot.

And some relics are just…well…

Relic of St James the Great displayed at Reading Abbey

The hand of St James the Great made a return to Reading for St James’s Day.

The relic was once an object of pilgrimage at Reading Abbey for those who could not make the sea voyage or the long overland journey to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

St James’s church in Reading, built using some stone from the monastery and on the site of the abbey church’s north transept, celebrated St James’s Day on Sunday with the relic placed before the altar.

I believe that a lot of people see this kind of religious ritual and think it silly or even morbid. For people who practice Catholicism, though, it is a way to be close to the people who were closest to God while they lived on Earth. There is power and good and love in these corporeal pieces that remain behind and simply being near them is being closer to God.

I imagine that if or when the bones of Richard III go on display somewhere, people will flock to them. They will say it is because of History. That if they stand close to these bones, gaze upon them, they are looking at History, possibly they will think they are looking at greatness (if one defines “greatness” as being born into the right family in the right order at the right time — many do). And yet, most won’t call the act of traveling to see these bones “a pilgrimage” nor will they refer to these bones as “relics.”

My friend on Twitter put this best:

And this is part of a larger secular phenomenon: People also flock to look at whatever has been drudged up from the bottom of the Atlantic where the Titanic sank (a gigantic graveyard). People spend lots of money and time going to historical places to stand where history happened.

And yet, I want to argue that there is something about bodies. Something about this news being such a big deal because it was not Richard III’s castle they uncovered but rather his bones. And that his is a body to be worshipped and fawned over. His bones are worthy of this level of response.

When people went to see King Tut’s collection, where they going to view the gold treasures buried next to him or to see his sarcophagus in which his embalmed body was carefully wrapped, stored, and beautifully covered?

It is hard for me to say why people went to see Tut. Certainly there were people more interested in the treasures than the body. The image of the traveling Tut show, though, was the face from the sarcophagus, hinting that going to the collection would allow you to look at the face of a fabeled ruler.

But this is something I do know. When I visited the British Museum, I had to fight larger crowds to look at the mummified bodies of Egyptian kings I’d never heard of than I did to see the sculpture from the Parthenon or the Rosetta Stone.  I know that in the Victorian era, people paid good money to consume the powdered remains of mummified Egyptians because they thought it would give them some kind of spiritual boost. I know that we still spend considerable sums on the burial places of our loved ones and on the state funerals of major political figures. Why did so many people feel compelled to line up for hours to walk past the body of the recently-deceased Ronald Reagan a few years ago? What is that desire, which, theoretically, is born from a secular belief about that person (rather than a religious one – it’s easier to imagine why people want to go see the Pope, a man they believe was the closest person to God while he lived on Earth)? Why do we have that desire to be near the bodies of the dead? How did that action come to equal respect for the dead in our society?

There is something about bodies. I can’t place it exactly but this reaction to Richard III makes me ponder it.



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