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What I Watched Last Night: “Richard III: The King in the Car Park”

Your best “king/car park” jokes are welcome after the cut.

Portrait with caption "Richard III: Hide and Seek World Record Holder, 1485-2012"
This one is still my favourite

Broadcast on the night of the announcement – that the skeleton found in that Leicester car park really was that of Richard III – the conclusion is no surprise, but the story is genuinely fascinating.

We are introduced to Philippa Langley, of the Richard III Society, the person who was instrumental in getting the dig started in the first place, juggling Leicester city council, University of Leicester archaeologists, and funding shortfalls to do so. Her mission is to reveal the real man behind the Tudor myths of a disfigured tyrant.

There is also a comedian/actor Simon Farnaby, because there is a certain kind of British documentary that cannot be broadcast without a comedian-slash-actor present, to interpret the incomprehensible mutterings of historians and osteoarchaeologists for us plebs with a merry quip and a loathsome jest.

Philippa comes across as a bit…eccentric, shall we say? When she stands in the car park before the dig begins and is taken by some mystical intuition that she is standing on Richard’s grave, I wanted to yell through the TV, “Philippa, the ‘R’ just means ‘Reserved’!!”.

But what do I know, because they found a skeleton there. On the first day of the dig.

I am quite excited, because that appears to be a hole in the skull,” says Simon.

Yeah, that’s not an old hole, that’s a hole that’s been there for ten minutes…” replies osteoarchaeologist Dr. Appleby, a dab hand with a mattock.

But when further excavation showed that the skeleton had a curved spine, Philippa had to sit down – and so would I, if I hadn’t been sprawled on the couch at the time.

If you can forgive the sometimes-slow pace (and knowing the end before you start, of course), it’s an enthralling story – showing that sometimes it takes someone with a seemingly harebrained idea to reveal the truth; and that the truth, once revealed, isn’t always exactly what you expected.

The documentary is available on 4od for those in the UK and Ireland;  if you’re not, try checking, or a proxy server may be your friend. 

7 replies on “What I Watched Last Night: “Richard III: The King in the Car Park””

Channel 4 released another, more science-focused ‘behind the scenes’ episode which is worth watching as well: intriguely, the geneticist did manage to confirm a Y chromosome and is testing the DNA further, so it might still be possible to confirm or refute a match to the remains found in the Tower.

Richard’s fanclub are a little hardcore, but I do have respect for what they’ve done for Richard’s reputation. I honestly do believe he did kill his nephews, or at least abdicated all responsibility for them and let someone else do the dirty work. It does amaze me that these people have taken one of the great villains of history and at least created enough doubt about his misdeeds to change the direction of the conversation. What I don’t like is them pinning it all on Henry Tudor when there’s no evidence he had anything to do with it. If they want an alternate suspect Buckingham is the obvious choice considering he had as much of a motive and plenty more access.

Whether Richard’s guilty or not, I think that those of us who study history need to always be skeptical of who the real bad guys are and not judge anyone as a villain outright. It was a pretty horrible time period and no one’s hands are cleans. If Richard killed his nephews that makes him worse than most, but only because they were little kids. Any monarch during that period would gladly execute adults from the wrong branch of the family. If Richard were tried today, he would probably get off because the case would be so circumstantial. But now that we’ve done DNA testing on Richard I wish we could test the princes and confirm that the bodies found in the Tower are them! That won’t happen during Queen Elizabeth’s life though since apparently she is against it.

All very good points! Especially about being sceptical and resisting the temptation to demonise historical figures.

Philippa reminded me a bit of Heinrich Schliemann – all his contemporaries thought he was a madman; but without his excavations modern Classical Studies would be hugely different, even though he turned out to be wrong in some important ways.

I do think Henry Tudor had a motive – his engagement and marriage to Elizabeth of York necessitated repealing the Titulus Regius, which meant re-legitimising the Princes by default, and thus resurrecting their claim to the throne (assuming they were still alive by December 1483 when he swore to marry her). But he’s certainly not the only one who had a motive apart from Richard III, and we’ll probably never know for sure.

I would love for those bones to be DNA tested, too – however they couldn’t be tested in the same way as Richard’s were. It was mitochondrial DNA that provided the match in his case (descendants of his sister), but Richard III would share no mitochondrial DNA with the Princes. I don’t know if there was enough of his nuclear DNA left to test.

It was rather enjoyable, although the level of obsessiveness on display, courtesy of that lady and others from her society, was a bit unsettling. As I understood, a fair portion of them were completely denying Richard III ever had a crooked back or any other sign of disfigurement, dismissing it all as Tudor propaganda – and she seemed somewhat disappointed when first seeing the very obviously crooked spine of the skeleton.

Character judgments aside, the vivid image of his death painted by the gruesome evidence (and those were only the wounds that left marks on the remaining bones) made me feel genuinely sorry for him. Puts things like GoT in perspective – things really were that bad, if not worse.

Yep, there definitely was that. As if it was difficult for them to grasp that a person could be both unfairly maligned by history and also still have a disability. The way Philippa asked how visible the scoliosis was… a bit creepy.

I really appreciated the level of detail they were able to get from the bones, as gruesome as it was. Game of Thrones is apparently loosely based on the Wars of the Roses (for anyone who doesn’t know, the wars that ended with Richard’s brother Edward IV on the throne) so quite relevant indeed. And the discovery of the body and its injuries apparently added to evidence for the identity of the man who killed him: possibly Rhys ap Thomas or a man in his service

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