In a world of constant change and uncertainty we all need some timeless truths to hang onto. In the absence of religious beliefs, or even alongside them, history can be a great comfort. To establish the facts of battle or a monarchy or a lost galleon beyond dispute can be very anchoring for us twenty-first century cyber-waifs -- as long as we hear about it first on Twitter.
So one has to rejoice with the English this week at the prospect of nailing down once and for all where King Richard III is buried, exactly how he died, and whether he was a hunchback. Unfortunately it will not settle the question of whether the last of the Plantagenets was a power-crazed villain, as Shakespeare, following Tudor propagandists, portrayed him, but that’s another story.
What’s happened is this. Archaeologists had a pretty good idea that Richard was buried 500 or so years ago in Greyfriars Franciscan monastery, which was torn down by Henry VIII, replaced by a manor and eventually, as a final indignity, survived as ruins deep under a council carpark. Comparing modern maps with historical ones helped pinpoint the site and, sure enough, excavation has uncovered a skeleton with evidence of severe head injuries (such as someone might sustain in a 15th century battle) and evidence of curvature of the spine.
The circumstantial evidence is very strong, say the experts, but they could never be sure -- except for another remarkable discovery: genealogists have identified a blood relative who is alive and well and living in London. Canadian furniture maker Michael Ibsen is descended from Anne of York, the king’s sister, and the experts are on tenterhooks waiting to see whether his DNA matches that of the bones. That will take a few months, so stay tuned.
The moral of this story? One suggestion: somehow it’s very important to us to know What Really Happened. History at its best is a search for the truth, so we can learn from it. But we will never know the whole story (Richard’s true character, for example) -- for that we await a greater miracle than DNA testing.
Our new articles: an interview with Priscilla Coleman, the main author of an important study of pregnancy outcomes and maternal mortality; my piece on a (important, I think) study of Catholic women and their attitude to contraception; Sarah Joseph examines the awful “Innocence of Muslims” film from the point of view of hate speech; and George Friedman looks at Israeli and American relationships with Iran.