Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Garden of History: Richard III and the End of the Middle Ages

          This is a book that engages both a love of history and an interest in those who search for history, dig for it or otherwise create 'new' history, a seeming paradox. As the head archeologist repeatedly states in this multi-purposed book, "Digging for Richard III: The Search for the Lost King," you don't go looking to find the graves of famous historical figures and you pretty much never find them. You plan digs after careful research, probably preliminary digs that suggest that there may be finds of some scientific interest if you plan an organized, well-prepared, funded dig with a reasonable chance of telling you something more about the human uses of a particular site in the depths of time. Nevertheless, this archeological project in Leicester, England, a place with a university and a long history of human settlement, truly began with a contemporary woman's -- intuition? psychic summons? -- that she knew where the grave of Richard III could be found.
          I'll be frank. It's the history that interests me most, and that attracted me to this book. Richard III is of course one of the most controversial kings, perhaps the most, in English history. Shakespeare, following earlier writers and traditions, blame him for the murder of two young claimants to the British crown ("the princes in the tower"), and Shakespeare's famous history play "Richard III" turned him into a monstrous and notable villain.  A reaction, typified by the novel "Daughter of Time," looked at the historical evidence and concluded that Richard was a well-intended monarch who had been bad-mouthed by his enemies after his death. No evidence, this view says, shows that Richard had the princes killed.
           So for me the highlight of this book comes at the beginning when author Mike Pitts gives a clear account of the War of the Roses, enumerating the twists and turns of the (mostly bloody) conflict between various branches of royal descendants over who had the better claim to the throne. Here are some of my gleanings from this book's account: Richard III, a member of the York line, and the last British kind to die in battle, lived from 1452 to 1485, a short life. He contended for the throne, made enemies, vanquished them for the crown, then fought to keep it and died in the effort. His death at Bosworth, marking the end of the Wars of the Roses, also initiates the reign of the Tudor dynasty. Also, arguably, the battle at Bosworth marks the end of the Middle Ages for England. Richard's lifetime saw the first book printed in English, the Caxton Bible, in 1473. Richard III owned one book, a slender "book of hours" prayer book; that's the pre-printing Middle Ages for you. Richard is generally regarded as last Plantagenet Kings (going back to William the Conqueror), though the Tudor kings who replaced him seem also to be descended from a Plantagenet ancestor. Dynastic politics is complicated.
            I also learned that the British royal family today still receives rents from lands bequeathed to English monarchs from the Plantagenet kings.
         The history of the area of the dig, what medieval Leicester was like, is also interesting. In act the official reason for the dig was to explore the remains of an old religious establishment. And I did find the details of the dig itself, and what Pitts had to tell us about how archeology actually works in today's world, worth reading about. However, I was less interested in the story that follows the amazing discovery; none of the professionals thought they would find the grave of Richard III. The journalistic account of how various institutions, academic, governmental, media, etc. reacted was less compelling. Maybe these details about how the world works today are more interesting to English readers, who can bring their own experiences to the contemporary story. I suspect, however, that if America had kings to dig up, the resulting brouhaha would be truly appalling.
           There will always be an English royalty. Saying this, I have to admit to being a devoted viewer of two recent TV series about English monarchs. (I like fiction too.)