The British, it is commonly said, are obsessed with their past. And just in case proof of this were needed, the whole nation is gearing up for a royal funeral, or rather reburial, of a King who died in 1485. Leading the way in coverage is Channel 4, that famously edgy broadcaster, which is planning what feels like wall to wall coverage of the event.
Of course, Richard Plantagenet has a certain appeal, in that he is the centre of an historical whodunit, though, as my colleague Ed West has pointed out, there is really very little doubt about his responsibility for the murder of the Princes in the Tower.
In addition, though he can hardly have been aware of it himself, Richard’s passing marked the close of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the early modern era, as well as the end of the Plantagenet dynasty, which, in its later generations, effectively devoured itself in its lust for power. He was, thus, a darn sight more interesting that the blameless House of Windsor, but he has been dead for 530 years. It is decidedly odd that he now merits star treatment.
Our obsession with history, and also royal history, does have some positives to it, though. The whole Richard saga, and the story of the recovery of his remains, puts the spotlight firmly on the question of evidence. We now know the way the King died, because his bones give us a pretty clear evidence of the wounds that killed him, including that last contemptuous stab in the buttocks. Moreover, even the discussion of the fate of the Princes does focus on the evidence, in particular the question of the reliability of St Thomas More’s history, and the reliability of, let us say, the Croyland Chronicle. Richard III makes us think about history and the way that evidence is crucial. For this we should be grateful.
Bad historians, or pseudo-historians, make terrible theologians, which is one reason why history matters. Cardinal Newman said that to immerse oneself in history is to cease to be Protestant. Many non-Catholic claims about history have no foundation, and as a result the theology that rests on such claims is equally false. One major area where this is true is the question of Papal authority in the early Church; it is not true that Papal authority was a “late” innovation – but that is something I had better leave to the scholars.
Another people who are obsessed with history are the Mormons. They have spent a great deal of energy looking for archaeological evidence to back up some of the events narrated in the Book of Mormon, which they believe to be historical, but so far with no success.
Equally obsessive, but in a very bad way, is ISIS, which is so keen to destroy anything that predates the emergence of Islam (the date of which is also controversial.) If they believe there was an “Age of Ignorance”, then the imposing ruins in Iraq and Syria that date from that supposed age must be a terrible reproach. Hence they must be destroyed.
The denial of history, which ISIS personifies, is a terrifying thing. So, perhaps we should not be so harsh on our fellow Brits and their historical obsessions: perhaps it is our understanding of history, and that assertions about the past have to be backed by evidence to have any value, that keeps most of us from extremism.