(Dead) kings and queens history: Richard III and the car park saga

(Dead) kings and queens history: Richard III and the car park saga

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.]