Tuesday 2 April 2013

Still sceptical about Richard III

Well, I don’t know. I watched the recent documentary Richard III: The Unseen Story about the discovery of the bones of Richard III again over Easter – watched it through twice in fact. And I’m still not quite convinced.

I admit, I am partly defending my own impression of Richard III, based on somewhat dubious eye-witness accounts, that he was not actually a hunchback at all. The programme revealed that his spine did not begin to bend until he was in his teens, so perhaps that is still consistent with the stories.

Even so, it was all just too perfect. The first bones found in the first trench. And whoever it was turned out to have curvature of the spine. There is an air of a story so perfect that it just had to be true about this.

There is something faintly reminiscent of the Piltdown Man, the 1912 hoax that fooled everyone that the missing link had been discovered in Sussex. It just had to be true – but it wasn’t.

The analysis and DNA tests were all convincing of course. I just point out the following:
  • The carbon dating test had to be tweaked by dietary considerations to fit the right period. 
  • The DNA test was actually of mitochondrial DNA so, far from being an exact match, it would have been matched by two people in a hundred. 
  • By probability, everyone in the country is descended from Edward III, Richard III's great-great grandfather through both parents.
Given these remaining doubts in my mind that this was actually Richard III, I wanted to know more about the role of the Richard III Society in the discovery – their purposes and personnel, their ability to be so precise about the site, their search for a relative down the female line for a DNA test (back in 2005).

I’m not disputing what they believe. I am pretty sure in my own mind, having read David Baldwin's book, that the Princes in the Tower survived their uncle’s ministrations – that Edward V died of flu and Richard of York disappeared and eventually became a bricklayer in Kent (see, I am credulous in my own way).  Richard Plantagenet's tomb can still be seen in a derelict church on the Pilgrim's Way at Eastwell in Kent.  I just want to know the back story about the dig, how it was funded, how it came about.

Call me old-fashioned. Call me an old curmudgeon. I have no doubts about the absolute integrity of everyone involved. I just wonder about the ability of very clever people to delude themselves when the very first bones the digger uncovered turned out to have a curved back.

These questions were not answered.  Heavens, they weren’t even asked – and perhaps not surprisingly given that the Society was one of the producers of the documentary.

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