I learn from today’s media that archaeologists are digging up a car park in Leicester in a search for the the foundations of Greyfriars Church where it is believed that Richard III’s remains were buried.
I am afraid my first thought was a fear that many school children would not have the slightest idea who Richard III was, given the haphazard way in which history seems to be taught today. My second thought was about the way in which Richard III’s reputation was utterly destroyed, primarily by William Shakespeare in his desire to curry favour with his Queen who was busy managing the transition from a Tudor age to an Elizabethan one. Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 after leading his troops against the rebellious Earl of Richmond who became King Henry VII as the result of Richard’s death. This marked the end of the Wars of the Roses between the rival Houses of Lancaster and York and signalled the start of the reign of the Tudor dynasty that was to last 122 years. He was the last English monarch to lead his army into battle.
Shakespeare largely created the legend that Richard was responsible for the murder of the Princes in the Tower of London, thus clearing his path to claim the throne. The Richard III Society exists to clarify Richard III’s reputation. Archaeologists hoping to find his remains in the church foundations below the Leicester City council car park believe there could be much to learn about the manner of his death if not about his life. A direct descendant stands ready to provide corroborating DNA.
My thoughts shift from Richard III as a historical figure to modern politics and the way in which history is written and re-written and political reputations are assessed and re-assessed in the light of the swirling political sands. Power shifts no longer follow bloody pitched battle as it did in the Middle Ages – at least not in the Western world – but the political fighting is no less intense and the power of the victor in a political struggle to re-write the reputations of the losers is probably as powerful today as it was for the Tudors after the battle of Bosworth Field.