The Battle Over Richard III’s Bones…And His Reputation

Rival towns are vying for the king’s remains and his legacy now that his skeleton has been found 500 years after his death

A facial reconstruction of King Richard III, based on an analysis of his recently identified remains and artist portrayals over the years, was unveiled by an eponymous historical society on Tuesday. (Rex Features / AP Images)

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“The city is very keen to have the man have his living wish fulfilled,” says Megan Rule, spokeswoman for the city, adding that York loved Richard III even as forces converged to remove him from power. “York people were loyal to him then and remain so.”

Leicester, however, dismisses York’s claims. City Mayor Peter Soulsby says, “York’s claim no doubt will fill a few column inches in the Yorkshire Post, but beyond that, it’s not something that anybody is taking seriously. The license was very specific, that any interment would be at Leicester Cathedral… It’s a done deal.”

Moreover, the city of Leicester is already planning a multi-million-pound educational center around the king’s car park grave: In December, the City purchased a former school building adjacent to the site for £800,000 to turn into a museum detailing the history of Leicester, with a big focus on Richard’s part in it. The center is expected to be complete by 2014, handily in time for Richard’s reburial.

It’s also easy to dismiss the fight over his remains as two cities wrestling over tourists. Leicester has already debuted a hastily put together exhibition on the king and the discovery. But the debate has tumbled into a minefield of regional loyalties—though this is ancient history, it can feel very current. As Professor Lin Foxhall, head of University of Leicester’s archeology department, notes, “You get these old guys here who are still fighting the Wars of the Roses.”

The Richard III Society’s Phillipa Langley is staying out of the debate about where Richard’s remains should go—though she can understand why Leicester and York both want him. “They’re not fighting over the bones of a child killer—for them he was an honorable man,” Langley says. “This guy did so much for us that people don’t know about. They’re actually fighting for someone who the real man wants to be known, that’s why they want him.”

Others, however, are more skeptical about this whitewashed version of Richard and about what impact the discovery will have on his reputation. “What possible difference is the discovery and identification of this skeleton going to make to anything? … Hardly changes our view of Richard or his reign, let alone anything else,” grumbled Neville Morley, a University of Bristol classics professor, on his blog

“Bah, and humbug.” Peter Lay, editor for History Today, wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian on Monday declaring that the claim that the discovery rewrites history is overblown, and that the jury is still out on Richard’s real character—at the very least, he probably did kill the princes. And historian Mary Beard prompted a fierce 140-character debate on Twitter this week after she tweeted, “Gt fun & a mystery solved that we've found Richard 3. But does it have any HISTORICAL significance? (Uni of Leics overpromoting itself?))”.

Langley, however, is still confident that this discovery will have an impact. “I think there’s going to be a major shift in how Richard is viewed,” she says. “It’s very satisfying, it’s been a long time coming.”

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