Charlotte Higgins on the Guardian’s culture blog: “But it’s not really history, not in any meaningful sense.” Mary Beard, somewhat ironically herself a face and voice of populist history, tweets: “Want to see WHY its historically significant.”
I can tell them both why the current media hype of bones dug up in a Leicester car park being ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ the bones of King Richard III, last plantagenet king of England, is history, both meaningful and significant.
In 1982 I was a lost little boy in a big school, about to start history lessons, when Mr Holden introduced us to the mystery of ‘The Princes in the Tower’. We were the detectives and it was up to us to pour over the documentation, from contemporary accounts to Shakespeare and later investigations; and it was us who would investigate first the character of the accused, namely Richard, then his supposed criminal actions, the alleged deaths of his 2 nephews. It was for us to try and get to the truth.
This approach to investigative history not only successfully won the attention of a bunch of kids and got them genuinely interested in the medieval, but it also taught us how to research and present relevant arguments in ways I would find useful years later. When I found myself producing a presentation on the origins of medieval Germany (not exactly the rock ‘n’ roll of medievalism), at Birkbeck University, I found I already had all the investigative tools I needed, thanks to Mr Holden and his princes in the tower lesson.
The memory of that same lesson remains with me today, and though academia was never to prove my strong point, history is the one subject from my school years that has proved to be a bit of a love affair. Because of that lesson I love medieval history, because of that lesson I discovered Shakespeare, because of that lesson I laughed when my Uncle Derick would title me Richard the Turd and because of that lesson I adored days out at Bosworth and the re-enactors on their horses. Critics levelled similar accusations at Time Team when it first took to our screens. The debate even entered the hallowed academic halls of archaeology departments where accusations were made at Time Team for being the equivalent of populist ‘low art’, the Rolf Harris to painting’s Tintoretto; the same Time Team that was most likely responsible for most of us students being there in the first place.
This find is significant because, as sceptic Charlotte Higgins also points out in her blog piece “it shows people the work of archaeologists and other experts, and draw interested people in to the discipline (not least potential students)”. It is meaningful because, as historian Helen Castor, an expert on the 15th century, tells the Guardian, “the anatomical analysis will mean we now have some facts with which to calibrate our reading of both contemporary evidence and Tudor propaganda about Richard’s appearance, and the accounts of his death at Bosworth”.
Yes it’s high profile, no it’s not the day-to-day historical grind; yes it’s media friendly, no it’s not all about facts and figures (though the evidence itself is); it is populist and it is the populist face of academic subjects that allows them to have relevance amongst a wider audience. At the very least this discovery should get us nearer to the truth behind one of England’s most monstrous monarchs.