February has been an exciting month for historians around the world. On the 4th February 2013, DNA results confirmed that the body that had been discovered under a car park in Leicester last summer, was indeed the body of Richard III, the last King to have been killed in battle. He died in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.
To celebrate this discovery, Channel 4 made a documentary following the discovery of the body and the tests carried out to find out whether or not this was Richard III. Unfortunately, though this documentary – from a historian’s point of view – ridiculed Richard III and the Society dedicated to him. This was for several reasons.
The first reason was the heavy use of Tudor propaganda throughout the documentary. Anything written under the Tudor Monarchs is biased towards the Tudor family. Obviously, Henry VII would want Richard III to be seen as a tyrant with a hunchback, who murdered his nephews. We know he did not have a hunchback – any paintings that showed that, have been examined and it has been proved that they had been edited in order to give that impression. Yes he had scoliosis, but that is mainly seen to cause issues at the bottom of someone’s back and would not create a hunchback. Nor it would it impair his ability to move, like it has been described in the Tudor times.If he had a hunchback surely contemporary writers would have noticed? Furthermore, there is no evidence that Richard killed his nephews; for all we know Henry VII killed Edward IV’s sons so that he could gain the throne and not have to worry about any legitimate heirs crawling out of the woodwork.
I could forgive them of all this though -(after all, these are common misconceptions) if it hadn’t been for the constant referencing of Shakespeare. Again, he was writing for a reason; to please Elizabeth I, a Tudor Monarch. Thus Shakespeare defaming the last Yorkist King would please her. The fact that they actually showed the clip of Laurence Olivier playing Richard III and shouting ‘A horse! A horse! A kingdom for my horse!’ really wiled me though. First of all, he never said that. Secondly, again showing a Shakespearean view of what Richard may have been like. There is plenty of primary source evidence about Richard before he became King. It describes him as a good ruler of the North, his brother Edward relied on him – so why could they not recreate one of these moments?
The icing of the cake though was when they did the facial reconstruction and surprise, surprise Richard looks like his Tudor portraits! What’s the odds of that happening?! Even my lecturer brought this point up and laughed about it. Yes the portrait of him would have been several years after his death and maybe a few did remember what he looked like, but anyone who has ever tried to draw someone’s portrait knows that it is easier to make an actual likeness when you can actually see the person, rather than from memory.
The second thing that annoyed me about this programme was the fact that rather than choosing a reputable historian (they did show A.J.Pollard though and I will give them credit for that) to host the show and give it a bit of credibility, instead they chose an actor from the BBC Horrible Histories show. Why, just why? Who is going to take him seriously when you’ve seen him dressed and singing on a show aimed at children?
The final thing that annoyed me though, was the way in which they portrayed Philippa Langley, the member of the Richard III Society present throughout the dig and months following. They ridiculed her, made her look like an overemotional woman, getting her hopes built up from the start. The scene where she wraps the flag of Richard on the box of her remains – they don’t know it’s him yet, but just in case – was that her idea or the producers? The fact that every time we saw her she was an emotional wreck. You just could not take it seriously. And, how do you thing she felt watching that back? Apparently Leicester University have since said that whilst Channel 4 was filming them, they were led to believe that it would have been a much more academic programme then it actually was.
Which just goes to show that Channel 4 documentaries, unless presented by an alumni of that subject matter, cannot be taken seriously. If the BBC had commissioned this, it would have been much more academic and useful documentary, rather than what Channel 4 did. They ridiculed the Richard III society, had a comedic actor to present it and relied heavily on Tudor and Shakespearean propaganda that is not reliable in the slightest.
For those that have not yet seen the documentary; it is still up on 4OD for the next week. Though, if I was you I wouldn’t bother.