Sunday, 10 February 2013

Royal News: The Amazing Discovery of Richard III—Part I

(There is so much to say on this historical event that I divided this post in three parts. Part II and III will be published in the coming week.)

I must admit, I got tears in my eyes on Monday night when the truth about Richard III’s end was told. The anticipation built all throughout the day after the team at Leicester University revealed that they had definitely identified the remains found under a car park as those of the last Plantagenet king. When all details were finally revealed in a prime-time documentary, there was, surprisingly, much to be emotional about (especially for a monarchy-struck boy like me!).

The centerpiece of this discovery was the worldwide premiere here in the UK of the Channel 4 documentary Richard III: The King in the Car Park. Channel 4 grabbed exclusive worldwide rights to tell the story of Richard’s discovery, to the point that the Leicester team had to hold back the definite results from the public for over a month so that the documentary could be broadcast on the same day the news was revealed. It was a pretty shameless media attention grab, but there was little to fault in the documentary itself. In fact, it is interesting how the trendy, republican-leaning Channel 4 is slowly turning royalist after airing some of the best monarchy documentaries of the past year. The opening of this documentary, marching to the tune of Zadok the Priest, was worthy of BBC royal coverage.

The most unlikely royal burial site in England: the back parking lot of the social services department in Leicester.

The real story of course was not about Richard III’s death. The documentary spent very little time talking about Richard’s life or the historical events he was part of. It was all about the search for his remains, and if Richard was the lead character speaking from beyond the grave, Philippa Langley was his leading lady, shedding tears and championing his cause like a faithful widow. Langley is a member of the Richard III Society and she was the driving force behind the entire enterprise searching for Richard’s body.

The Richard III Society was funded in 1924 with the aim of dispelling the Shakespearean myth of Richard as a crooked evil man and they are a pretty hardcore bunch, going by the name of ‘Ricardians’. I visited their museum in York in 2006, a small makeshift affair inside an old gatehouse but bursting with information, all handcrafted like it was a high school project (updated since then). They even have a mock trial made up of mannequins and recordings to determine whether Richard killed the princes in the tower, at the end of which you are asked to leave your vote on whether he was guilty or not. There is a good cause behind all of this and it is to dispel all the Tudor propaganda that warped Richard’s memory as soon as he was dead. Behind that propaganda, they say, there is good king who was innocent of all the crimes ascribed to him.   

The lovingly made, information-packed Richard III museum in York, complete with a wax king. Click on the picture and you will see that a poster of Richard at the back says “I am not the monster I am made out to be!”

The finding of Richard III’s body will forever be remembered as the Society’s greatest triumph, and one that had to overcome incredible statistical odds. Where the documentary excels is in showing just how impossible the odds were of finding Richard’s body, and how they were almost miraculously overcome. To start, the archeological team hit bullseye right away by spotting exactly where the old Greyfriars church used to sit in modern Leicester, then they found the location of the choir right away (where Richard was likely to be buried). Then, amazingly, Richard’s bones were the first bones found while digging the first trench during the first day of excavation, within the first hour of digging!
No one in the archeological team or among the fanatical Ricardians expected such speedy discovery. It was almost as if Richard wanted to be found. Philippa Langley even recalls that when she first visited the parking lot she found it odd that there was an R, marking a reserved parking spot, on the pavement space to be dug. And then bizarrely, as soon as Richard’s remains were dug the sky darkened and a storm drenched the site with rain, a scene the team described worthy of a Shakespearean play.

The first glimpse of the lost king. Notice the bent spinal column, the first hint that this might be Richard III, and the tied hands, evidence of a humiliating burial.

There were more odds to be faced after the bones were found. Against all likelihood, theycarried the spinal deformity that made it easier to identify them as those of Richard. The bones had then to face carbon dating to the right period; then a forensic pathology examination to prove that the man had died in battle, as Richard had; and finally a merciless DNA analysis to prove that the man was a member of the Royal Plantagenets. The remains passed each test with flying colours, almost as if a choir of past sovereigns was rearranging stars in heaven to bring about success. To find the long-lost remains of a monarch as famous as Richard III is incredible enough. To find them the way they were found is absolutely mindboggling. 

Real life Indiana Joneses: some of the team behind the Richard III enterprise.
Third from the right is Michael Ibsen, one of Richard's distant relatives who
 furnished DNA to match that of the King.
They are holding Richard III's own royal standard. 

The whole enterprise, from the first digging to the identification of the bones, took only six months, and must have been an emotional rollercoaster for Philippa Langley. We saw her shock when she first found out that the hunchback was not a myth, and afterwards her moving tears as she faced the skeleton of the man she championed spread out on an examination table. There was also a very moving moment when she and another Ricardian convinced the archeological team to move Richard’s bones from the trench in a box draped with Richard’s own royal standard.

Some folk might have found her behavior over the top, but it is understandable if you dedicate a large part of your time to the lives of dead kings and queens (I feel just as emotionally attached to Elizabeth I). The history of the British monarchy is, in the end, the history of a family, made of real, once-breathing people. As Philippa said at one point through tears “I don’t see bones on that table, I see a man.” The most inspiring part of this documentary was showing just how Philippa’s and the other Ricardians’ heartfelt attachment to their King rewrote history against all odds.

Philippa Langley and her man from beyond the grave.
Some might also question if it was appropriate to dedicate 1 ½ hours of prime time to this event, especially airing the very biased views of the Richard III Society. But with all the injustice Richard suffered at the hands of Tudor propagandists, it was just right that his reputation be given a opposite boost by the biggest propaganda machine of our time, the media. And besides, regardless of what one thinks about Richard, his discovery really has been an amazing story in itself.  

End of Part I.
Part II will be published in a few days.

Watch the Channel 4 documentary, Richard III: The King in the Car Park (contains commercials) at YouTube or Channel 4's website. (Note that it might not play in some countries because of copyright.)

Learn more about Richard III at Wikipedia.

Not an actual Leicester parking sign (though it should be…)

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