Richard III

The ‘king in the car park’ story has proved irresistible for the media. The discovery of the body of Richard III is a huge coup for archaeologists at Leicester University who can be rightfully proud of their find. But the way it’s been reported raises some uncomfortable questions about news values and history.

This is a historical story that ticks lots of news boxes. It has royalty and celebrity – controversial royalty at that, given Richard’s historical reputation as a ‘Bad King’. It has a nice touch of the ordinary: the discovery in the mundane urban environment of a car park. It has a supporting tale of screenwriter and member of the Richard III Society Philippa Langley. As the Daily Mail reported, she ‘felt a chill on a hot summer’s day as she walked through the area where it was thought he was buried’. Not just history, but ghosts! And the Big Reveal of the results has been thoroughly stage-managed, with live TV coverage and a Channel 4 documentary.

On the day, the Leicester team were duly careful with the presentation of their research. No dashing to conclusions in the news conference: this was measured and scientific. Nonetheless, releasing results directly to the media before their publication in learned journals is a new trend. The approach of CERN in the quest for the Higgs Boson has been influential here. Universities have realised that media interest generates publicity and with it – they hope – cash. While the Leicester results, as presented today, look impressive to this non-expert, if the trend continues, as I suspect it will, the danger is that other less well-grounded findings will be rushed out inappropriately.

Amid the excitement over Richard III we should be conscious of how news values shape the history we see on TV and in the press. Imagine that the Leicester archaeologists had uncovered not a royal grave, but a grave of some peasant farmers, results from which completely changed the picture of what we know about human nutrition in the fifteenth century. Not so glamorous, but just as important in understanding the past – perhaps more so. They wouldn’t have the media pull of ‘England’s lost king’. Traditional ‘kings and queens’ history, so criticised over the decades by historians, still plays very well on TV.

In an environment where marketing, PR and generating ‘impact’ are increasingly important for universities, it’s worth stopping and thinking about the values of historians, journalists and TV programme-makers. Where do they align, and where do they collide?

I’ll be back later in the week to blog about my own experience of writing kings and queens. [You can see this blog here.]

Catherine Fletcher is Lecturer in Public History at the University of Sheffield. Her book, The Divorce of Henry VIII, comes out in paperback on 7 February.

You can find other History Matters blogs on public history here.

Image © University of Leicester [UM0A1404 – The skull of the skeleton found at the Grey Friars excavation in Leicester, potentially that of King Richard III.]

Tags : archaeologycar parkhistorymediaresearch impactRichard III
Catherine Fletcher

The author Catherine Fletcher


  1. Really, can’t you enjoy a good story, even if the “history” you serve is not at that moment served as you like it?

    1. I agree that this is an undignified response. No matter how valid the point about the media and funding issues this kind of sour grapes sniffiness is what robs us of any passion regarding the grand ideological and spiritual sweeps that carry this humanity on its sometimes tortured course. Sod human nutrition in the 15th Century, I want to know about the deep workings of the human soul and the characters that portray them.

  2. I can’t speak for historians but the author is dead wrong on CERN; the announcememnt in July of the detection of a Higgs-like particle at CERN was the culmination of years of careful experiments by two of the world’s top particle groups. At that level, the ensuing journal articles are a formality. the announcement of the resul was anything but premature (a much better example would be the ‘faster-than-light’ story a few months earlier).
    On richard III, it seems to me that the story is a very nice mix of academic work and outreach. hopefully it will generate interest in the theory that his nephews in fact outlived him, as suggested by Joesephine Tey in the book ‘The Daughter of Time’

  3. This kind of sniffy response is very undignified. Do you not understand why people are interested in history? Have you forgotten why you were originally interested in history? Richard III is the great pantomime villain of English history, and while i fully accept that this isn’t as academically interesting as your example of 15th peasants’ millinery habits or whatever, do you not see the appeal of this story? It may have had news values applied to it, but that may be because it is news. Media refracts things in a certain way, and the best that historians can do is to manage appropriately. As you say the Leicester approach was measured and scientific. They have handled this terrifically well.

  4. I quite agree that the story of Richard is very intriguing, but I think perhaps this misunderstands the spirit of Catherine’s blog a little bit. I don’t read this as playing down how fascinating the find is, far from it, but asking us to reflect on why this particular story (rather than others) catches our attention, and also how far agendas beyond academia are driving which parts of research come to public attention.

  5. Caroline’s got it about right. I agree that the media refract things in certain ways but having studied and worked in the media before I became a historian I’m very conscious that those processes aren’t well understood by the public. I thought this was a good opportunity to comment on the relationship between the two – not least because I’m teaching a module this semester where we ask students to reflect on the uses of history in public life.

    1. Dr Fletcher, it is indeed an indication of a naivety in matters dealing with the press. Your comments have been reported elsewhere as being negative in tone towards this research, as have those of Dr Beard and Dr Morley. The latter especially, reported with comments that were indeed petty – smacking of academic envy. I have followed both up and commented to them and likewise followed your comments through to this blog.

      Whilst I am pleased to read in the “ink” as-it-were, that you did not stoop to that level, I am sure that you are now aware of just how careful you have to be – if it is possible, any comment made to any form of media will be interpreted to enhance the “news” value. Not necessarily twisted – they rarely do that for it may be actionable – but cited in a way that makes it appear quite differently to what you might wish.

      Of course the bones of a peasant would have been just as interesting – academically and to the public (if to a narrower section perhaps), but as Mr Gutteridge writes below, the Shakespearean publicity has been ubiquitous and taught internationally for 400 years. Add to this the new science of DNA – allowing us now to identify linkages from the past right down to individuals alive today. The 6,000 year old man unearthed from the bog near Chester – linked to someone still living in the region today; the bog men from Denmark; the ice man from Italy – all are fascinating.

  6. ‘Lost King’ media hoopla mayhem is utterly inevitable with this chap, I’d say. If it was some culturally-peripheral medieval monarch who’d been mislaid, or they were digging round the outskirts of Faversham looking for Stephen, and there was still a three-ring live-stream circus, then I think there’d be extremely valid points to be made about the continued media obsession with the kings’n’things narrative of the past. But with Richard III, it was always going to go this way: Shakespeare, Princes in the Tower, the hunchback, Olivier & McKellen: he’s a figure with some level of pre-existing contemporary cultural presence, so I think what we got was a level of interest to be expected. But you make the key point, I think, about the mundane. It’s all over the media: “Car Park Skeleton”. I think that resonance is saying something extremely interesting about the imaginative potential of archaeology: the most extraordinary things could be under our feet, wherever we are, we only have to look. It gives an electric frisson to the present’s landscapes (especially the cityscapes) and it’s also a particularly British form of imagining: this nation of deep time that has paved over its Avalons only has a to break the concrete of a car park to find its sleeping kings. On a more prosaic note, there’s something extremely interesting about the funding bricolage put together here, and I haven’t quite thought this through. I don’t think the issue here is ‘impact’, at least not quite in a formalised rigid way: this hasn’t been run, it seems, from a big-ass research grant from the HLF or the AHRC (which would require/prefer impact written into their bids), but it has been supported by a patchwork of donations, sponsorships, presumably some C4 cash, and whatever ad hoc in-kind stuff they could get to hand, it seems. Plus (and here’s where it gets really interesting) it’s not one of the university’s research projects (or not initially); rather, it’s come from an outside organisation, who worked to convince the university that they had a viable research strategy. To read the RIIISoc’s posts, it’s almost as if they hired the university to pursue a research direction for them. Now that’s interesting, if it’s true, and perhaps is a more significant direction pointer to the collaborative future of academic research funding partnerships than the issue of ‘impact’.

  7. Personally, I’m still bitter that I never got taught traditional ‘kings and queens’ history – at my appallingly poor comprehensive back in the 90s I got stuck with a tedious ‘Humanities’ course that ignored all the kings and queens and battles aspects of history that fascinated me (and continue to do so), in favour of studies about the Kayapo living in the Amazon, Seven Up!, and poor kids in Victorian workhouses. Even WW2 study was made boring – we only studied the Home Front. I always found the obsession my school had with concentrating ‘ordinary’ people with ‘normal’ lives extraordinarily boring.

    As a son of Leicester, who fondly remembers his childhood visits to places like Richmond Castle and Tewkesbury, I’m fascinated by this news, and if it encourages more interest in history and archaeology then I’m delighted. I would have loved to have studied subjects like The War of the Roses back at school.

  8. And what would you have done, if you had discovered the bones? I suspect your response would have been rather less sniffy.

    1. But Catherine doesn’t say she would have done otherwise. As I understood it from the article, she’s reflecting on the relationship between history, the public and the media, not criticising the discovery, or the Leicester archaeologists. She’ll have to speak for herself though of course.

  9. I think it’ll be a very good thing if this find encourages more people to take an interest in history. I agree with Nick that it’s important to understand a broad narrative of history and that there isn’t enough of this at the moment in schools. We find ourselves having to introduce that narrative to our first year students when they arrive here at Sheffield, and I certainly missed it myself. My point wasn’t so much that this sort of history isn’t important, just that the media have their own priorities when it comes to covering history that aren’t necessarily shared by the historical profession.

    On CERN, point taken but I still think that the shift to announce/publish simultaneously marks a change from how results would have been published ten years ago.

  10. Hi Catherine, interesting blog. I have an interest in the intersection of science and society, similar to your own in the intersection of the discipline of history and the media.
    On CERN, you’re probably right that nowadays, results in science tend to be announced publicly before being accepted by the community, much more so than a few years ago. Who knows why – fear of being gazumped, funding pressures etc. However, I wouldn’t pick the Higgs boson, simply because that particular experiment involved two competing teams comprising a great many of the world’s particle physicists, using two different approaches; so their own checks and balances on each other were formidable (think of two competing world-class teams examining Richard’s remains with different methods).
    I’m still confused about the fate of the nephews, it seems bizarre that such a well-known story should have no basis in evidence. It seems the real question is whether Richard was popular during his reign – if only half his army fought at Bosworth, that would seem to add some support that he was not the popular monarch Richardians claim…

  11. “marketing, PR and generating ‘impact’ are certainly “increasingly important for universities”; important too for the careers of individual academics. Which is presumably at least part of the purpose of this blog, carrying as it does an ad for the writer’s forthcoming book. Worth sending to Private Eye or the News Quiz!

  12. Is it now possible to DNA test the remains of the two boys found under a staircase at the Tower of London (believed to be Edward V and Richard of York) & compare them to the DNA of Richard III?
    Sorry if this is a stupid question, I’m not an academic, just interested in history.

  13. Cormac – on Richard III and popularity I think it’s hard to say given that his reign was so short. It seems very unlikely to me that the exact truth of the Princes in the Tower affair will ever be resolved. Even if you could absolutely establish that they were killed during Richard’s reign (and that would be very difficult) it would be impossible to say whether or not the king had authorised it.

    Terry – it was the experience of writing the book and engaging with media that made me reflect on how history is reported. I’ll be blogging more about that in a separate piece so won’t reply in detail here.

    H Smith – yes, it would be possible (though DNA analysis doesn’t always yield conclusive results) but at present I’m not aware of any plans to do so.

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