Anybody who has known me for more than, oh, twenty minutes has probably learned about my long-time fascination with Richard III. I wrote all about it for Open Letters last year. Little did I know that if I’d only held back my piece for a few months, I could have ridden the wave of Richard III-mania stimulated by the amazing archaeological project undertaken by the University of Leicester. As everybody knows by now, their work culminated in the announcement, just yesterday, that the skeleton in the car park is almost certainly Richard’s. The University has put together a fascinating, comprehensive site about the whole thing.
I know there are those who find this all distasteful: sensational, pandering to the media (and to the forces pressuring academics into proving their public “impact”), making a circus out of research … or just unfortunate because of the emphasis on a famous figure, as if archaeology and history are less interesting and important if they focus on ordinary people and ordinary lives. I have some sympathy for that last concern: there are many who “rest in unvisited tombs,” and there are lots of reasons to value and tell their stories: in the last century or so there’s been a transformation in historical priorities precisely in this direction, away from a focus on great men (and the occasional great woman).
Still, I can’t see raining on this parade. Aside from the intrinsic excitement of discovery, of adding some certainties to a centuries-old mystery (here’s a piece of the puzzle that has been missing for over five centuries, after all!), isn’t there something exhilarating about seeing a wider public get excited about something like this? Who knows what might be the wider effects–benefits, even–of sparking people’s imaginations in this way. Individual stories bring history into focus: they help us think about it as something that happens to real people. And this truly is a sensational story.
There’s something both thrilling and poignant about the spectacle of this broken body. It’s one thing to debate the theoretical value or responsibilities of historical fiction to the past. It’s another thing to see that past resurrected in all its tangible but enduring fragility. Difficult as our access to it may be, and impossible as it may be to reduce it to a single story, there is something that really happened. Now, here in front of our eyes, is, quite literally, the skeleton which has been fleshed out in so many memorable ways. I find it stunning: it gives me goose-bumps.
Updated: Thanks to my Open Letters essay on Richard III (linked above), I was contacted by Kate Taylor of the Globe and Mail to chat as part of her research for this piece on the continuing appeal and controversy of his story.