The news that archaeologists had found, or thought they’d found, the body of Richard III under a council car park in Leicester ought to have been cause for celebration. He (or presumed he) is exactly where he ought to have been according to historical sources. He had an arrow in his back and his head had been bashed in. There could be no clearer physical proof of the complete ruthlessness of Henry Tudor. Apparently the body has curvature of the spine, so Thomas More and Shakespeare weren’t too far off when they called Richard crook-backed. History seemed to have been vindicated.
But somehow I just didn’t feel good about it. Partly it was the solemn University of Leicester press conference, where men in suits tried to hold in sober academical check their triumph at a great historical find. They had discovered, after more than 500 years, a body that had been killed in a very nasty way, then dumped with the minimum of decorum required to avoid a public outcry. I wondered how archaeologists in the future might reveal that they had discovered the bones of bin Laden.
Then my vague liberal outrage gave way to other considerations. When they said they were testing his DNA to identify the body I couldn’t help thinking of a Jurassic Park of Richard clones (Richard IV, V, VI…) all strutting around reciting: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent…’ Could we get rid of those Windsors? At least Richard Redivivus would keep his clothes on.
His burial hugger-mugger in the Greyfriars in Leicester, away from York and away from anywhere a cult could form, gives a brutal reality to the triumphalist ending of Richard III, where the dead king becomes a ‘bloody dog’ and a ‘bloody wretch’, from whose temples the crown could be plucked like a garland for the victor. The discovery of his bones made me feel the hurt beneath that triumph. It isn’t that I have a soft spot for unscrupulous tyrants. But I have always held it against Blake for saying: ‘Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead.’ It was bad enough for Richard to lie there for centuries, unhousled, disappointed, unaneled. But then to have the members of Leicester City Council park their cars on top of him – well, no one deserves that.