King Richard III’s remains important to some, but eye-roll inducing to others


Jo Appleby, a lecturer in bioarchaeology at Leicester University, points to an image of the skull of Britain's King Richard III during a news conference at the university in central England on Feb. 4. (Andrew Cowie/AFP/Getty Images)
February 6, 2013

Monday’s announcement of the discovery of King Richard III’s ancient remains has ignited a rivalry. According to the Associated Press:

The discovery of King Richard III under a parking lot in the English city of Leicester thrilled history buffs around the world. But the news meant a winter of discontent for the rival city of York, and now the two are doing battle over the royal bones.

Officials in Leicester say the monarch, who was unceremoniously buried without a coffin 528 years ago, will be re-interred with kingly dignity in the city’s cathedral.

“The decision has already been made,” said Leicester Mayor Peter Soulsby. “All the permissions have been granted and the various authorities involved have agreed that the interment will take place in Leicester.”

Not so fast, says York, a city 100 miles (160 kilometers) to the north that claims the late monarch as its own.

VIDEO | The Post’s Katherine Boyle offers news in less than a minute on King Richard III, John Kerry, President Obama and more. All here on weekdays from noon to 2 p.m. (The Washington Post)

“Every taxi driver I talk to, every shopkeeper I talk to, they are very excited about it — they want Richard back in York,” said Michael Ormrod, professor of medieval history at the University of York. “There is a view that he is a king for York.”

The York City Council said Wednesday that it is petitioning the government and Queen Elizabeth II, arguing that “one of the city’s most famous and cherished sons” — who grew up in the region and was once known as Richard of York — should be buried in the northern city.

While a rivalry is brewing, archaeologists on Twitter seem like they could care less about the discovery. Caitlin Dewey reports:

Nearly 530 years after his death, “Richard III” even trended on Twitter.

But while most of the mainstream reaction lauded the discovery — “it ranks as one of the most dramatic archaeological discoveries of modern times,” gushes a Telegraph editorial — the reaction from some archaeologists has been decidedly less enthused.

“Gt fun & a mystery solved that we’ve found Richard 3,” tweeted Mary Beard, the prominent classical scholar and one of the earliest instigators of the debate. “But does it have any HISTORICAL significance? (Uni of Leics overpromoting itself?))”

The criticism from archaeologists basically falls in three camps. First, they point out, the research announced at the University of Leicester’s news conference hasn’t been reviewed or published yet, though the university says it will be soon ...


An undated photo released by the University of Leicester in England shows the skull of English king Richard III, who was killed at the Bottle of Bosworth Field in 1485. (Ho/EPA)

Then there’s the news conference itself — a “jamboree” of “hype” at the University of Leicester, according to Guardian culture writer Charlotte Higgins and Beard, respectively. The announcement, carefully orchestrated by the university and made on live TV, is unusual in academic circles, writes University of Sheffield historian Catherine Fletcher. And as archaeologist Mark Horton notes in the New Scientist, some of the dig’s funding even came from a British television station, which aired a program solely dedicated to its findings.

And finally, veering into classic ivory-hall territory, academics such as University of Bristol classicist Neville Morley have argued that the skeleton doesn’t contribute much to history at all — the skeletons of ordinary people or artifacts, they say, would actually prove much more telling than the old bones of some maligned monarch, though the monarch may draw more cameras.

While archaeologists discussed the historical significance, Tom Toles focused on “how the mighty fall” — or, what it means for a king to be buried beneath a parking lot.

There you have it, for those who dream of earthly glory. Parking lot. Of course, what is a proper cemetery if not a parking lot? But now poor Richard, you will be rehabilitated and your dignity restored! This apparently begins by having your bones neatly set out on a dark background and photographed and published with your spine pieces displayed as curved as a fossil archaeopteryx’s neck, and atop your own actual neck, TWO heads, one your busted skull and next to it your jawbone and two bone fragments arranged as, what else, a smiley face! Oh happy king! His feet are missing, which is perhaps why he is remembered for trying, at the end, to trade his kingdom for a horse.

You can imagine him down there in his unmarked grave, brooding about that gratuitous stab to the buttocks for centuries on end, until the larger indignity of the parking lot arrived overhead. Much more appropriate would have been to turn his jawbone the other way to make a frowny face, shouting, “This is anything but Shakespearian, methinks!” But he would have been wrong about that. Such are the ever-unlearned lessons of history, and art, as we strut and fret away our own hour upon the stage.

Related:

How the mighty fall

On social media, archaeologists roll their eyes at Richard III skeleton discovery

For Richard III, the plot thickens

The debate over King Richard III’s legacy continues

Richard III project: DNA pioneer Leicester University led the way on identification

Amazing photo of King Richard III’s tiny, curved spine proves Shakespeare was wrong

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