In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Norman Housley of the University of Leicester explains what a recent archaeological discovery could mean for our understanding of one of England’s most maligned monarchs.
Norman Housley is a professor of history at the University of Leicester where his teaching and research interests are focused on the history of the crusades and the English monarchy during the middle ages. He has published a number of books on the crusades and his current project is a monograph provisionally entitled Crusading and the Ottoman Threat: 1453-1505. He holds a Ph.D. from Cambridge University.
Dr. Norman Housley – Richard III
If the skeleton found in the Leicester dig is shown within a reasonable margin of doubt to be that of Richard III, this discovery’s historical significance will be threefold.
Firstly, we will have found the remains of the last English monarch killed in battle. The news will be particularly exciting for the many members of the Richard III Society. For them establishing the truth about Richard’s personality and reign has always been clouded by the disappearance of his corpse after the battle of Bosworth. This will mark a new chapter in their work on behalf of Richard’s memory. Little reliable contemporary evidence has survived for the nature of his kingship because his reign proved so short. His Tudor successors legitimised themselves by encouraging literary works that depicted him as a caricature tyrant, Shakespeare’s play being the most famous example. So, if it proves possible to nail the slander of the ‘hunchback king’ with medical evidence of severe spinal curvature as opposed to a hunch, it will be gilt on the gingerbread because efforts during the last three centuries to restore his reputation have never fully succeeded in undermining this cruel popular image.
Secondly, irrespective of the Richard myth, the discovery of the body will be significant because of what is already being indicated about the cause of death. The evidence of an injury to the back of the skull and the discovery of the arrowhead between vertebrae of the upper back will stimulate debate about exactly how Richard was killed at Bosworth, and beyond that, about close combat in medieval battles.
Thirdly, it will bring a pleasing sense of closure to our knowledge of the vicious civil war which Bosworth itself brought to an end. The rather whimsical name, ‘The Wars of the Roses’, has had the unfortunate effect of disguising the sheer bloodiness of this conflict. Finding a royal skeleton that bears the marks of such violence will be a perpetual reminder of the grim reality of this war.