The Future of History

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Unearthing the Past

Three cheers for The History Press!!!  For it was they who published The Last Days of Richard III by John Ashdown-Hill.

Dr Ashdown-Hill's years of research into the much-maligned King Richard III, and what happened to his body after he was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, has borne fruit today.  Archaeologists, digging underneath a car park in Leicester, have discovered a human skeleton.  The skeleton revealed a disorder of the spine (famously, Richard III was supposed to have been deformed).  There was a barbed arrowhead found between the vertebrae, and damage to the skull consistent with his having been killed in battle.

It should be possible to prove, by means of DNA, that this skeleton was indeed that of Richard III, the not-so-bad-after-all king who was the victim of a cynical Tudor campaign to blacken his reputation.

Exciting stuff.  And great news for my publishers.  After all, wouldn't it be marvellous if they gained an international reputation for publishing books which really do uncover the past and help to resolve its mysteries?  Maybe one day we will see the excavation of sites identified in The King Arthur Conspiracy, also published by The History Press this year - including the site of Arthur's last battle and his burial mound on the Isle of Iona.

The fabulous news to emerge today from Leicester also has a bearing on my current project, Who Killed William Shakespeare?  It was, of course, Shakespeare who popularised the Tudor image of Richard III as a cruel, corrupt, rapacious villain (although, truth be told, I believe Shakespeare's depiction to have been based on Robert Cecil, a very influential, self-serving individual whose own deformities - splay-foot, hunchback - were replicated in Shakespeare's portrayal of Richard 'Crookback').

More pertinently, the difficulty in locating the grave of Richard III owed much to a Puritan map-maker and pamphleteer named John Speed.  Speed completely failed to identify Richard's grave, partly because he looked in the wrong place.  He mistook the Greyfrairs in Leicester for the Blackfriars.  Because he couldn't find the grave, Speed came up with a story that the grave had been emptied and the body dumped in a local river.

Speed was only doing what certain kinds of historian tend to do when they can't find what they're looking for - they make something up.  Something similar happened with the first 'Anne' to whom Will Shakespeare was betrothed: because a leading scholar failed to track her down, he insisted that she must have been a spelling mistake.  It is unfortunate that these guesses can all too easily became the 'truth', until somebody actually comes up with the goods.

John Speed, it would seem, was wrong.  Not only had he misidentified the last resting place of Richard III, but he had also preserved a false story of what happened to King Richard's remains.

Speed also traduced William Shakespeare: in 1611, he branded Father Robert Persons, the Jesuit rector of the English college at Rome, and Will Shakespeare as -

this Papist and his Poet, of like conscience for lies, the one ever feigning, and the other ever falsifying the truth.

In fairness, John Speed might not have been making that up - there were many connections between Shakespeare and the Jesuits.  But the publication of this smear in Speed's Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine must have precipitated Shakespeare's retirement from the public stage in that same year.

The news from Leicester is exciting and encouraging.  It reassures us that things need not remain hidden for ever.  Just because a Puritan historian tried to cover his own tracks, doesn't mean that the truth will not out in due course.  And now, it would appear, is the time when things long hidden and covered up can finally be brought to light.

My book, Who Killed William Shakespeare?, will not be published (by those clever folks at The History Press) until next summer, but I am already hopeful that we can reveal something every bit as exciting as the remains of Richard III, if not more so.  These, again, are human remains.  The skull of William Shakespeare, no less, which might not be in his Stratford grave after all.

And, inspired by the example of Dr John Ashdown-Hill and his excellent work on Richard III, perhaps we can look forward to the excavation of the burial mound on Iona where, as I argue in The King Arthur Conspiracy, the original Arthur was laid to rest.

Let's hope, then, that the researcher and the archaeologists who have - apparently - discovered the grave of Richard III and unearthed his remains have started a trend.  The bringing to light of things long hidden.

And let's hope that The History Press can keep up its enviable track record of publishing the books which lead to discoveries like that one!

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