History is written by the victors. So Richard III might have anticipated that his death at Bosworth Field in 1485, the last English monarch to be killed on the battlefield, would only be the start of a downward reputational spiral. The last five hundred years have not been good for the man whose remains may just have been found under a Leicester car-park yesterday.
Shakespeare did much of the damage, forever fixing our image of this hunched Machiavellian schemer and his ignominious downfall – “my Kingdom for a horse” – though the Bard was popularising an existing Tudor narrative. Sir Thomas More, seven when Richard died, deserves at least equal credit since his polemical history of Richard, written three decades later, is the main source for much of the legend of the Princes in the Tower, and the allegation that Richard murdered them.
So this unlucky King’s posthumous enemies have been our most beloved writer and, in More, a martyr who was later canonised! Now given one final chapter in the Richard story, it seems unlikely that the defenders of the Plantaganet King could turn this long reputational winter of discontent into glorious summer once again, but they may well get to contest the argument.
It is a brilliant archeological story. The University of Leicester team are clear that they can not claim victory. The details are tantalizing: the skull cleaved by a bladed implement; and the spinal curvature, which “would have made his right shoulder appear visibly higher than the left shoulder”. What a shame it would be if DNA verification to quash the theory, with Richard’s identification depending on a match with his 17th-generation descendant, 55 year old Michael Ibsen, a Canadian-born furniture-maker based in London.
If this is Richard, what happens next? It was suggested at the press conference that he would be buried in Leicester Cathedral, but others now suggest a full state occasion in London and his burial in Westminster Abbey.
By all means, let there be a state funeral for Richard, but it should be a state funeral in the north.
The last Plantagenet King should lie in state and be buried in York minster. What better way could there be to relearn the history of England, and to realise too that it has not always a London-centred story?
Whatever Richard’s deeds or misdeeds, one final symbolic moment of reconciliation would enable us all to find out what the Wars of the Roses were about, and how much they shaped England, before the white and red rose became primarily, today, the symbol of a fiercely benign county cricketing rivalry between Yorkshire and Lancashire.
Every schoolchild once knew that Richard of York gave battle in vain. It is now to York that he should finally return, rest and remain.
This article was first published in The Spectator.