Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Dry Bones

Now that the remains of the old bones of most importantly the BBC motor mouth programme "Top Gear" and of less general interest the Coalition government that has failed both to govern and to co-exist have been put in the recycling bin of memory we can now return to the more interesting question of King Richard III and the debate about his last resting place.

It was given to Channel 4 to cover it all.  Sadly, as TV debate has now moved to aggressive questioning and posturing and this has become almost the norm where complicated matters arise we had the chest beating Jon Snow fronting the programmes with the tree swinging David Starkey claiming the primate research spot.

Other persons hauled in to make up the numbers were allowed a few seconds from time to time to try to make a point or even sketch in a bit of background, so long as it fitted in with the game play.  It was a pity really, some of them knew a great deal and also knew the complexities of unravelling the story of this period of history.

Some were female and their treatment was not just discourteous but justified the complaints of any feminist.  Starkey referred to the Richard III Society as loons ignoring both the extensive work they had done and the considerable expertise of many of them, notably Philippa Langley. Helen Castor tried to steer a middle course but was lost in the sea of noise.  John Ashdown-Hill who disagrees with Starkey was given little chance to explain.

What was also lost was the nature of politics and governance at the time.  There were factions, but not of religious belief or welfare policy or any of our thinking, but of family and property and relative standing in the great scheme of national matters.  A King had to keep more people on side than in opposition.

Sadly, the nature of record keeping then and documentation etc. meant that we have a very limited number of sources to draw on to work out who was who, who called the game and the rise and fall of influence.  As everything centred on the King we think only of the King and a handful of others.  The rest are lost or have to be ignored because the primary source material is no longer there.

There was one family name among such people that, along with others, did not arise.  It was the Welles family.  John de Welles. 1st Viscount Welles, c1450-1498, half uncle of the blood to King Henry VII, who married Cecily of York, daughter of King Edward IV, and his father, Lionel, Lord Welles, 6th Baron Welles, 1406-1461 (died at the Battle of Towton; picture above) are in Wikipedia and there is no doubt that they were major figures at the time.

In history there is a great deal of time spent discussing wars, battles, the politics etc. of the time in relation to the rise and fall of Kings.  Yet one crucial matter is largely ignored, it is the role played by infant and child mortality.  This becomes evident in the period of King Henry VIII to the point of the early death of his brother Prince Arthur being the key event that made him King.

But trawl down the generations and around the major families and it was the chances of life, inheritance and survival that were often the key to success or change.  Marriage was the business not only of claims to property and alliance but also providing the next generation.  We hear a lot from management theorists about succession planning in business today, then it was not commerce but state where it really mattered.

Polly Toynbee in the Guardian had a predictably sneering piece about the funeral procession and the ordinary people who turned out to watch or take an interest.  But what many did not realise or know is that quite a proportion of them would have had some sort of connection to the events and people of the 15th Century.

The figures are simple enough, go back that number of generations and in that period you will have a very large number up the family forest; far too many to be confined to one class, location or sector.  Quite how many might have had some sort of family connection to the Plantagenets or connected families is an interest calculation but it is probably a lot higher than many think. 

In the Channel 4 programme there was at one stage late on a piece of knockabout show where Jon Snow and Benedict Cumberbatch exchanged charts of descent and it seemed that they were umpteen cousins from the 15th Century.  It is a pity they could not have pointed out that out there watching and for that matter on the streets it was a funeral for all of us in one way or another.

As to the issues involved.  Purely personally, I would have preferred the interment to be at York, where Richard wanted to be or failing that Fotheringay.  The Roman Catholic Church missed a trick or two. At the Holy Cross Church in Leicester the Cardinal had a Requiem Mass said.  Ignored by TV but which could have gone to Youtube.  Even better might have been to put on a full Tridentine Right Requiem as in the 15th Century, see here for one at an hour plus.

In the question of the Princes in The Tower, the puzzle is that they had been declared illegitimate not just by the King but by Parliament as well arising from the Canon Law of the Church, so why the deaths?  Which brings us back to child mortality.  Philippa Gregory, the novelist tentatively suggested that the Tower of London was a very unhygienic place.

She may be right.  My added comment is that the River Thames would have been a filthy stretch of water at that point.  It would be an ultimate irony if having brought them into the Tower for protection they died of one of the many diseases common in the period with the accusations of foul play inevitable.

We do not know nor do we have the certain remains which modern testing might enable some reliable information to emerge.  But this is part of the story, the limited amount of reliable information from this whole period.

Although some would suggest, using the test of reliability, that in our modern high communication world we might have less reliable information now than did either the Plantagenets or the Tudors.

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