Interests to declare – I live in Leicester, I'm a historian - though not for Leicester U - and some significant chunks of my MA, decades ago, were taught in its archaeology department. And I can remember where I was when one of my friends told me, a couple of days before the story broke for you lot, that this dig wasn't the doomed publicity stunt I'd taken it for, but had actually found what it was after. Clearly I am a rational kind of guy, and a cynical one, forever muttering about the evil of PR culture, and banging on about the how I only really want to write about filing cabinets, but I'm afraid that my actual reaction was 'Wow! Over there? Yay!" Where was I? Behind the railway station, by the site of the burned out warehouse between the wino car park and the homeless shelter.
The Richard 3 Society have confirmed all the unreasonable prejudices that I had of them before this saga, and then some. Obsessive conspiracy theorists for whom the past is only ever a zero-sum morality play, and the mind's construction - indeed, the precise amount of blood in which it is steeped - can apparently be found in the face. I'd make some crack about Daughter of Time having had a permanent effect on them, if I didn't suspect it was be unfair on that fine and thoughtful work of fiction to associate it with Richard's fanclub. But I suspect that this development has dealt a blow to their long-term survival prospects, given that it's contradicted one of the articles of their catechism: Shakespeare was lying about the hunchback. Nevertheless, they've brought an immense amount of publicity for their £10,000 – I suspect that Leicester archaeologists are kicking themselves that they took this cash, and the associated albatri round their necks, rather than funding the dig themselves.
Now, though, it's all got complicated – but in an interesting way. The latest news from York is that the attempt to gather Richard's bones in the Minster is getting ugly. My mate Lisa has been checking this out on her consistently excellent website, and has come up with a novel suggestion: settle it with jousting.
This whole row is interesting to me as an urban historian – it's an example of how different places, even in a country as homogenous as England, cultivate their own identities through a fandom which isn't confined to the sports field (a smart move for York, given YCFC's record): history fandom. When I lived in York I noticed that they had a thing for Richard; when I moved to Leicester, I noticed that they (now 'we') did too. Plaques, statues, and everything. York's even got a museum for him, but (a) they have a museum for everything already, already, and (b) we named the evil relief road which cut a swathe through the west end 'King Richard's Way'. That's commitment, that is – it puts the head gangster in the same category as Attlee, and he ended PM, CH and OM.
This argument is remarkably like an unseemly (Lisa's right to notice that this is a key word here) tussle between two medieval bishops over who gets to stick the preserved bits of an apostle in their cathedral, the better to clean up the lucrative dippy pilgrim (Richard 3 society, howareya?) market. And why not? Both cities (especially them) have got a lot less industrial employment than they used to, and are adopting the same regeneration strategy: attract tourists from er, somewhere, for weekend citybreaks.
So – was it worth it? With my 'Leicester' hat on, I have to say that despite all that, it's been fun. It's nice to have people who live thousands of miles away actually having heard of my city. This doesn't happen very often: we don't frequently kill each other like the Nottinghamites do: we only ever riot when everyone else does, so how else are we going to get on the news? You can see that I am, to this extent, complicit in the crap local boosterism.
With my historian hat on, I like it too. Mary Beard clearly didn't think so. Her tweet about the relevance of all this appears to be motivated by her perceived need to rally round the flag for social history, and thus stick the boot into 'kings 'n' princes'. Me, I'm a paid-up social historian too (mainly), but I think her intervention was based on a fallacy. As Richard Evans noted eloquently in In Defence of History, it's not a zero-sum game: social, economic, political historians should all be welcome to the party. I'm rather depressed that someone in Beard's position hasn't twigged that yet – here's hoping Evans lets her know in person next time they meet.
The point of academic history is to find things out: wie es eigentlich gewesen. And that's what the Leicester U team has done: we now know more about 1485 than we did a year ago. That's a result.
But if you do ever come here for your weekend citibreak, don't waste your time looking at some plastic bone replicas in the Guildhall: go up Abbey Park Road, past the increasingly desperate archaeologists ripping up the flowerbeds and draining the ornamental pond in a doomed search for the holy bones of Cardinal Wolsey and check the space museum. It's got a half-decent statue of Ed White outside it, and an actual Soyuz inside. A Soyuz, people – Leicester rules.