Like everyone else with an interest in history, I’m following the story of ‘The King in the Car Park’ with fascination. Can it really be true that the remains of Richard III have been found in Leicester? Archaeologists from the University of Leicester have been conducting a dig in a car park, where they have discovered a church that seems to belong to the ruined Franciscan Friary known as Grey Friars.
It seems almost too good to be true, but the archaeology team have announced the discovery of a male skeleton wrapped in a shroud, with an arrowhead in his back and his skull sliced through, perhaps with a sword or battle-axe.
The really interesting feature, though, in an already fascinating story, is that while there’s no evidence of either a withered arm or a hunched back, this man suffered from scoliosis, a spinal curvature that would have made his right shoulder higher than his left.
Archaeology and history have a lot of overlap, but they rarely come together with such satisfying neatness as they do here. Archaeology deals with concrete objects, such as a buried friary. History deals with words, such as contemporary chronicles that report that after Richard died at the Battle of Bosworth, on 22 August 1485, his body was taken to Leicester, and buried in the Franciscans’ church there.
Historians sometimes say that archaeologists can find the bathtub, but still miss Archimedes. Here, for once, we may have found both. We will now have to wait a few weeks to see whether mitochondrial DNA can be extracted from the skeleton’s tooth, and if so, whether it matches a sample taken from Canadian-born Michael Ibsen, whose mother is apparently the 16th-generation descendant of Richard III’s older sister, Anne of York.
I spent my first sabbatical leave in Leicester, in 1988. It was not, I admit, my first choice, but there was a very good and welcoming Victorian Studies Centre there, and it was within striking distance of both London and Cambridge, both of them too expensive to live in.
For a city of such medieval significance, Leicester itself had sadly little history left: one or two medieval buildings, and some fine Victorian architecture, but in the 1960s, urban developers had vandalized the place, knocking down much of the old city for shopping centres and car parks and a confusing ring road system. Now at least one of those ugly car parks has become famous.
Leicester University is a red brick university dating from the early 20th century. While I was there I was told, rather too often, that its original buildings were originally a lunatic asylum, and in the late 1980s, after a decade of Thatcherism, there was a slight air of desperation about the place. Academics were friendly, but stretched. One of those who was particularly kind to me was an archaeologist – I hope she is still involved now, when the university’s Archaeology Department has scored such a coup.
One of the most significant historians ever to work at Leicester University was W. G. Hoskins, who transformed the history of landscape and local history. His book, The Making of the English Landscape (1955) is still a masterpiece. He would have approved, I think, of my visit to Bosworth Field. It is possible still to see where the armies gathered, clashed and fled, and Henry Tudor, with barely a shred of substance to his claim, was proclaimed King Henry VII. His son would later destroy the Franciscan friary where Richard III was buried, during the dissolution of the monasteries.
It will be interesting if DNA testing proves this newly discovered skeleton is a Plantagenet. It’s a big If. On the one hand, mitochondrial DNA passes from mother to daughter, so the ‘milkman effect’ – the tendency for a wife’s adultery to disrupt the genetic record between (alleged) father and child – doesn’t apply. On the other hand, it’s a big Ask to expect the records that link 16 generations of women to be entirely accurate.
For the best part of a century, historians have argued that Tudor propagandists, from Thomas More to William Shakespeare, blackened Richard III’s reputation. Richard III became a monstrous tyrant, the murderous uncle of the Princes in the Tower – and in this telling, his deformity was the outward and visible sign of his wickedness.
Thankfully we don’t any longer treat deformity as a sign of evil. Richard III may have been a good ‘crookback’, or a bad ‘crookback’ – or, as I suspect, a typical Machiavellian Renaissance prince capable of both good and evil – but either way, if it turns out that Richard really did have a twisted back, we may owe the Tudor propagandists at least a partial apology.
There is another link with Leicester University. There would be no way of using DNA to identify the skeleton in the car park with his Canadian, 17-times-removed nephew, except for genetic finger-printing. This technique has become such a commonplace nowadays that it features in every crime novel, as well as in paternity testing and even to unravel historical mysteries. The geneticist Professor Alec Jeffreys first developed DNA profiling at the University of Leicester during the 1980s. Police used it first in several cases in and around the greater Leicester area during 1986-7.
This new cold case will be a greater test for the technology.