Thursday, 13 September 2012

An obscure grave

I must have walked along Greyfriars many times when I was in Leicester in the mid 1980s, having no idea that a King of England was possibly lying a few yards away.

There is still much work to be done before it can be stated with any certainty whether the remains found at Greyfriars are those of Richard III. DNA testing, if samples can be recovered, isotope analysis, which can establish where someone lived as a child or young person, establishing the age of the bones, establishing the age of the man at his death, forensic examination of the head injuries already identified and any others that might be discovered and facial reconstruction are among the techniques which could be used.

Even when all possible investigations have been carried out, it may still not be possible to say more than that there is strong likelihood that this is Richard III.

The intention is that  the remains will be re-interred in Leicester Cathedral, close to where they were discovered. Commenters on the BBC website and elsewhere have suggested that York Minster might be more appropriate. That is where Richard himself hoped to be buried. The citizens of York remained loyal to Richard to the last.

Others suggest Westminster Abbey, where Richard’s wife, Anne Neville, is buried.

Of course, neither of these would be an option if it cannot be conclusively proved that the remains are those of the King.

I have mixed feelings about this story. Obviously it is exciting to watch it unfolding. But is it right to disturb the remains of someone who seems to have had a proper, if simple, burial, merely to satisfy curiosity? Even if the remains are positively identified, it’s very unlikely they’ll reveal anything new about Richard’s personality or  the events of his reign, despite the assertion by the University of Leicester that the discovery 'has potential to rewrite history'.

The archaeologists have also uncovered information about the Greyfriars, but that was not the object of the dig.

Reading comments on the BBC website and elsewhere, I have been surprised at the number of people who seem not to know that the present Royal family is descended  from both York and Lancaster. One would think that anyone interested enough to read and comment on the story would know that.

I was also interested to see commenters expressing surprise that that the present street plan of Leicester is the same as that in the eighteenth century map used by the archaeologists. Apart from modern redevelopments and road ‘improvements’, most towns do retain their original street patterns which might date back to the early Mediaeval or Anglo Saxon periods.

Even the streets of nineteenth or early twentieth century greenfield suburban developments can sometimes be shown to follow much older tracks and field boundaries.

Perhaps the real value of discoveries such as this is not in the story of the lost king,   but in the incidental things that people learn about the history of their own towns and the people who once lived there.