Tuesday, April 1, 2014
Are they Richard III's remains? To ask the question is to miss the point
'The story of Richard III evidently has powerful appeal – the bitter underdog, scheming and ruthless, finally undone by the forces of good.' Photograph: Culture Club/Getty Images
The battle to prove whether these bones actually are Richard's is a bit like quibbling about the authenticity of Wolf Hall
There's been a twist in the strangest cold case of our times: Richard III's bones, thought to have been discovered in 2012, may yet prove as elusive of those of the princes in the tower who he is alleged to have murdered. Two senior academics have cast doubt on claims by Leicester University that his skeleton has been found, its spine bent out of shape by scoliosis, using DNA and carbon dating. There are other noblemen of the time who would have shared the crucial genetic material, they argue, meaning that the match with a swab taken from Richard's distant relative, Michael Ibsen, is inconclusive.
The university has hit back. There's other evidence, it says, that supports a positive identification. But the point is that it doesn't really matter. A couple of dissenting voices may be just what this story needs.
Many found the excitement generated by the original discovery baffling. A bizarre row arose, for example, over whether the remains should be buried in York, the home of Richard's dynasty, or Leicester, where they were found. Something called the Plantagenet Alliance was formed and a case was lodged with the high court. Hadn't these people got better things to do with their time?
The story of Richard III, fixed in our national consciousness by Shakespeare, evidently has powerful appeal – the bitter underdog, scheming and ruthless, finally undone by the forces of good. So powerful that it has given rise to a reaction: for years people have become obsessed about proving that he wasn't such a bad person after all. Members of the Richard III Society, formed in 1924, get to experience the thrill of redemption every time they explain that he was pious, a patron of the arts and learning, a "talented administrator".
The apparently eccentric response makes more sense when you realise that what is at stake is not historical truth. Richard, about whom relatively little is known, but much has been imagined, is a mythological figure. As a character he generates either morbid fascination, or sympathy as a good man wronged, depending on which version you buy.
And myth captures the imagination far more effectively than the reality of most archaeological work. If the bones were somehow proved not to be the real thing, they would still be interesting from a scientific point of view, as an example of a medieval warrior killed in battle. But outside academia, hearts would sink.
This is an unlikely scenario, however. Seeds of doubt may have been sown, but the case on the other side is still strong. And when it comes to myth, doubt is fine: it is probably an essential ingredient. Once entirely pinned down by forensic science, the fun evaporates. The gaps in our knowledge through which the light of imagination plays are filled. In 1991, for example, DNA evidence proved beyond all doubt that Anna Anderson could not have been Anastasia, the last tsar of Russia's daughter. Her story was incredibly unlikely – the real Anastasia was executed in a cellar in 1918. But it was a myth of escape and continuity. Squashing it once and for all seemed gratuitous.
Data from the case will contribute to various specialised fields of research. But beyond university departments, the battle to prove whether these bones actually are Richard's is a bit like quibbling about the authenticity of Wolf Hall – sort of beside the point. It might be better to think of the skeleton from Leicester as the modern equivalent of a medieval saint's relic. The church never worried much about the fact that there were 40 or so shrouds of Jesus knocking around, or enough pieces of the true cross to build a barn. To stand in for faith, we have nostalgia for a simple story of good or evil. Tourism, for whichever lucky city eventually gets to host the tomb, will supply the modern equivalent of pilgrims