Long Twelfth Century

Richard III and all that

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Although not about the twelfth century, the story of the finding of Richard III’s remains has caught the attention of medievalists of all stripes, as well as of the news-consuming public. Based on Facebook references to the various stories, one can safely conclude that this is a Big Story for professional geeks. I have thought a great deal about what it means and why it matters, which I regard as the two most important questions for historians. The two questions are, of course, not unrelated. The Richard III Society, which has tried to rescue Richard from the widely accepted slanders of his Tudor critics, involved itself in the search for the bones, and now Leicester and York are fighting over them.

The linked fates of Richard’s body and reputation speak to the typically nasty politics of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England. Both the body and the reputation suffered at the hands of the Tudors. Richard probably was not considerably worse than most other kings of the period in terms of ambition and ruthlessness, and he could have demonstrated little in the way of administrative genius during a twenty-two month reign (both these points came up multiple times in a 1994 collection of scholarly essays about Richard). The horrific injuries to his body, both before and after death, demonstrate the importance of the king’s presence in battle and the symbolic significance of his body. Naked and mutilated, he still scored a grave near the altar in the Greyfriars church. We can make these observations without falling into the naïve moderno-centrism that simply writes off medieval politics as inherently violent. There is something pretty interesting and significant, even by medieval standards, about having a rapid succession of three kings, plus a probably murdered claimant, in three years. We now have a bit more material evidence about how that was experienced.

It is unlikely that the discovery will change much about the debate over Richard. Historians will still need to endure the whining of the Richard III Society and of fans of Josephine Tey about how Richard has gotten a bad rap. (We all should be so unlucky as to be the subject of one of Shakespeare’s finest character studies.) Perhaps the most striking thing I have learned is that scoliosis can be horrific.


Author: johndcotts

I am a Professor of History at Whitman College. My research has focused on intellectual and spiritual life in twelfth-century Europe, and I am currently working on Crusading ideology between the Second and Fourth Crusades.

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