Guest Blog

John Ashdown-Hill from the Search for Richard Project

Dr. John Ashdown-Hill 

"My first degree, at UEA in Norwich, was a joint degree – history and French. Subsequently I did an MA in linguistics and a PhD in history. So my life always had two focuses, and I enjoyed moving back and forth between them. For a number of years I taught languages, both in this country and abroad. But I always did historical research, and published papers and later books, and also gave talks on history. For the last twenty years or so I've been a freelance historian, and although I have wide interests in history - including an interest in Egyptology and – through my own Anglo-Indian background – in the history of the Raj, my focus in my writing and lecturing has always been on fifteenth-century England."

John is an active member of the Richard III Society, but in this interview he is not speaking on behalf of the Society - he is expressing his own views.

Q1. What first awakened your interest in history?

A. I think I've been interested in history all my life. When I was a child my mother's father, who had been born in 1870, used to tell me about life in India. When I was older my father used to take me up to London and explore with me backstreets and the stories behind them. I was also always interested in old things. For example, when I was a child you could still find coins in your change in England which bore the head of Queen Victoria, and I used to look out for them. But my interest in York and Lancaster was awakened when I saw the BBC’s late 1950s black and white versions of Shakespeare's 'historical' plays.

Q2. These days you are an established author. You have written the book on Lady Eleanor in "Eleanor the Secret Queen: The Woman who put Richard III on the Throne" and most Ricardians will know "Richard III's Beloved Cousyn: John Howard and the House of York". But these are just two of your titles. Which of your books gave you the most pleasure to write?

A. It's impossible to answer that, I think. Each one, while I was working on it, became, in a way, the focus of my life. While I was writing Mediaeval Colchester’s Lost Landmarks, I was living in Colchester and moving on a daily basis around the sites I was writing about. I became so lost in the middle ages that sometimes I risked being run over by the modern traffic which was less real for me than the medieval neighbours whose quarrels I had just been reading about in the fifteenth-century court rolls! Eleanor, the Secret Queen was a kind of crusade for me, because I felt Eleanor Talbot had been so badly treated by historians. They had mostly just dismissed her without even bothering to find out who she was or what she was like.  Recently, while I was working in Turkey, I was also writing Royal Marriage Secrets. Not all the people in that book were of equal interest to me, but some of their stories absolutely fascinated me. I am still gripped and intrigued by the mystery surrounding Laura Culme Seymour. Maria Smythe (Mrs Fitzherbert) and Catherine of Aragon also became very real to me, particularly when I stood by their respective tombs in St John's Catholic Church in Brighton, and Peterborough Cathedral. Whatever I'm writing about, I think people are very important for me. Now, for example, I'm writing about George Duke of Clarence, and as a result, he, and the places associated with him, bulk very large in my mind right now.

Q3. Could you tell us more about this book? George is often in the shadows between the glamour of Edward IV and the tragedy of Richard III. 

A. Well, there has only been one study of George, really, and that was written some years ago, by Michael Hicks. It dealt with George as a magnate. I'm trying more to get at George as ahuman being – exploring what sort of personality he had – and also why he became that kind of man. As I tried to do with Richard, I'd like to get at the real George.

Q4. Your most recent book, "The Last Days of Richard III and the Fate of his DNA: The book that inspired the dig" (which we are giving away below) highlights the significant work that you did before the dig in Leicester was conceived. Did you at any time imagine it would startsuch a journey?

A. Well, I really hoped that it would – that's why the last sentence of the first edition read "Perhaps one day the search for Richard III will begin!" – But I suppose that I thought it might not happen in my lifetime. After all, Time Team turned the project down in 2005 because they thought their 3-day pattern wouldn't allow enough time, and when I first contacted Leicester University about it, early in 2010, they didn't even answer my letter.  In fact without Philippa Langley and her enormous determination, it really wouldn't have happened.


Q5. I'm trying to imagine the conversation between you and Philippa at the dawn of this project! How did it begin?

A. I don't really think there was one, because in one way we came at this separately to begin with – and from slightly different directions.

When I started the search for the DNA it was in response to a request from Belgian colleagues. And when I received the commission from the BBC, that led me to debunking the story of Richard's body being dug up and thrown into the river. Gradually the strands of evidence I was working on came together, leading me to the conclusion that it was really going to be worth trying to find Richard's remains.

But I think Philippa had that idea as her starting point – and of course when she became aware of the evidence I was amassing, and how that could help her, then she got in touch with me. She was the one who pushed me into putting together the bid for Time Team. And when that failed she got me details of a contact at Leicester University. When that also led nowhere, and I was going abroad for a while to take up a university post in Turkey, then Philippa took over pushing for the dig herself, with me just helping her with evidence from a distance, by email.

Q6. Although the Richard III Project was spearheaded by members of the Richard III Society the presentation of the project seems to have been headed by the University of Leicester. Has this caused any tensions behind the scenes?

A. Yes, I'm afraid it has. The University seems to have simply taken the whole project over, and tried to claim all the credit for everything. I can't understand why. After all, I have no difficulty at all in acknowledging and praising the valuable work which really was done by their archaeologists, osteologists and geneticists. So why do they seem to have such a problem with acknowledging my nine or ten years of preparatory research? Yet the fact is that they appear to have deliberately tried to write me (and others) out of the story. When you look at the history of the project,the university only became involved in 2011. But the project really started in 2003, when I began the search for Richard III's DNA.

It amazed me that the university didn't invite me to any of the press conferences, even though on their web site I was, and am, supposed to be part of the 'team'. It also saddened me very much that, on the day before the public announcement, they shut me out of the private revelation of the DNA results – an area of the project to which I had contributed so much in terms of preparatory work. I was also astonished when they raised questions with my publishers about our right to publish my updated edition of The Last Days of Richard III. To me, scholarship should be open. One shares information, and one gives credit where it is due. I passed on to the university researchers ALL the information I had. Nothing was ever held back on my part.

Q7. Who do you hold responsible for making these decisions at Leicester? From outside the project, it is unclear whether the academics, the council or university officials are in charge. 

A. I can't really answer that, beyond saying that I don’t think it's the academics. My impression, from outside, is that they are being manipulated. But I can't say who is doing the manipulating.

Q8. What was your first reaction to the identification of the remains as Richard III? Did you have any doubts or put any questions to the team in Leicester?

A. I sent Time Team a photograph in 2005, showing them where I thought the Greyfriars Church was. In that photo you can see a man standing in the car park, and he is standing on Richard III's grave! So I had very little doubt about where the choir of the church was, and I was confident all along that we would find it. However, I wasn't so confident that we'd find Richard’s body, because although I was certain (based on the evidence that I had found) that he was there, we only had two trenches initially, and we could easily have just missed his grave. Of course, in the event, his leg bones were found on the first day of the dig – 25 August 2012 – the anniversary of Richard III's burial! But it wasn't until the whole grave was opened up, a week later, that I saw the scoliosis (right shoulder higher than left, as John Rous had reported) and the head injuries. From that time on I was fairly convinced that we had found him. In fact, when the bones were exhumed and packed in a cardboard box, and when Philippa asked me to carry that box to the van which would drive him to the university, we put a Plantagenet royal standard over the box, because we felt sure that it was Richard.

I wasn't certain that there would ever be a DNA match, of course, because it isn't always easy to get DNA from ancient remains, but even without the DNA I thought there was sufficient evidence to indicate fairly clearly that the remains were those of Richard III. 

Q9. Most people who saw The King in the Car Park will recall not only the scene of you and Philippa draping the standard over the remains, but also the scepticism / humouring by the Leicester academics, obviously surprised by reverence and emotion displayed. Was this disparity of attitude a product of the editing or a reflection of the dislocation between the two parties?

A. I think one can't simply separate the participants into two categories. Each person had his or her own approach to the rather awesome situation in which we found ourselves. For example, I think Philippa's innate response to Richard III is more emotional than mine is. The university staff also had varying responses to the situation – or at least, different ways of expressing what they felt and thought, and where their priorities lay. Personally I don't have any problem with that. Everyone is an individual.

Q10. Leicester Council have put a figure on the financial potential of tourism from the Richard III Project. How would you draw the line between fair exposure for those interested in the dig and sheer commercial exploitation?

A. Personally, I don't have any problem with this really. Kingship is a public role, and when Richard took it on he accepted the public exposure that went with it. Of course he wouldn't have been able to anticipate what that means in our day and age, but I think he would have preferred being in the public eye to lying in an unmarked grave under a car park. Also, the publicity he is getting today is helping his cause. He is more famous, and better-known today than he ever was.

Q11. There has been nothing but controversy since the remains were identified as those of Richard III, firstly surrounding the geographical location of the reburial and now regarding the style of the reburial, whether in a tomb or beneath a slab. What are your thoughts on the matter?

A. For me, in a sense, the controversy started even before he was found. You see, like Richard, I am a Catholic, and in the past I regularly organised annual Requiem Masses for Richard III and Anne Neville. But Philippa Langley and others assumed that Richard would be reburied in Leicester Cathedral, which is an Anglican church. I always had some difficulty with that. However the former Dean of Leicester was very open to discussion on this subject, and was happy to involve members of the Catholic hierachy, and to use a Catholic liturgy for the reburial, which Richard would have recognised. So at that time I was happy to go along with what was proposed.

Certainly I never thought there was any case for burying Richard in York.  It's true that Richard made religious foundations in York, but he also did so elsewhere. I think that if he had been able to choose his own burial site, Richard III would have selected St George's Chapel, Windsor. But he's been safe in Leicester for 500 years, so it now seems fair enough to me that he should be reburied in Leicester.

However, I think the recent behaviour of Leicester Cathedral has been extraordinary. I am totally against burying Richard underground, without a tomb, and if the cathedral feels it doesn't have room for a tomb I would gladly ditch the cathedral. I think they have shot themselves in the foot. Reburial in Leicester doesn't mean it has to be in Leicester Cathedral. There is a huge Dominican Catholic Priory – Holy Cross Priory – in Leicester, and the Prior approached me last year about holding a Requiem Mass at the priory for Richard at some stage. So given the cathedral's appalling behaviour (which has included casting aspersions on Richard III's morals) I would now like to ask the Holy Cross Priory whether they would have room for Richard's tomb in their church.

Q12. What possibly unites you and Philippa is surely your respect for Richard - as King and man. Many people have been frightened by the suggestion that the remains could become a public exhibition rather than being laid to rest. This seems to me to go beyond Richard III's duty, as you mentioned before, as an important figure in history and is worrying. From what you know, how seriously is it being considered?

A. I have heard the idea mentioned, but I don’t know how seriously it's being considered. But even Henry VII – who was Richard's enemy – never thought of leaving his remains exposed to view and unburied. I think if such an idea were ever seriously advanced, it would then be time for the government to take account of the fact that we are dealing with the remains of a former head of state, and to take command of the situation. After all, the general modern ethos, as I understand it, is opposed to the exhibition of human remains. 

Q13. Behind all the furore, is a real man. Can you tell us why you are so interested in Richard III and the history that surrounds him?

A. It began with the word "usurpation", which I found was applied to Richard III. To me this seemed extraordinary. After all, Richard was offered the crown by the estates of the realm, and his title was enshrined in a very open act of Parliament. Yet his brother, Edward IV, and his second cousin, Henry VII, both of whom seized the crown, were neither of them called usurpers! So I felt that the historical playing field was very far from level. I don't want to pretend that Richard III was a saint, I just want him judged fairly – and by the same standards as other fifteenth-century kings. For example, it has always struck me as totally unfair that Richard – accused (on very little evidence) of having killed his nephews - has been considered a monster by the verysame historians who have described Henry VII’s deliberate Plantagenet genocide as 'strong kingship'!

Q14. How do you think that the discovery will change our view of Richard III? Obviously people are talking about him, but we still can't get away from the idea that a twisted body held a twisted mind and soul?

A. I really think we should be able to get away from that. In the modern world no-one, surely, would accept that it is OK to regard people with some kind of disability as inferior, let alone evil. I think what has happened so far has succeeded in taking us behind some of the myths about Richard. The myth of 'the body in the river' - which people in Leicester were quoting to me even on the day the dig began, as evidence that we were wasting our time – has now bitten the dust forever. In the same way the story of Richard's withered arm has been dismissed. It may take a bit longer to get to grips with the precise meaning of his scoliosis, but I believe that we'll get there. Because now we are dealing with informed opinions based on real evidence, rather than merely with unfounded speculations.

Q15. Given the importance of your work in this monumental project, where do your future ambitions lie? What is left for you to discover in history?

A. For me, finding Richard's body is only one part of what is an ongoing project. First, the 'Search for Richard' had TWO goals – find Richard’s body – and retrieve the REAL Richard III from behind all the later myths and legends. The second task is still ongoing. Then my search for the DNA link was originally focussed not on Richard's remains but on possible remains of his sister, Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy. We still have to get to the bottom of what happened to Margaret's body. Also, in my bedroom I have a sealed container which holds strands of hair of Mary Tudor, Queen of France (sister of Henry VIII – because HER mtDNA was identical to that of her uncles, the so-called 'princes' in the Tower. I’d still love to establish that mtDNA sequence – and I hope that one day the urn at Westminster will be reopened and its contents re-examined – this time scientifically. We need to know are they boys or girls? How many of them are there? What period are they from? Roman? Anglo-Saxon? Medieval? Are they related to one another? And do they have mtDNA compatible with that of Elizabeth Woodville?

Q16. Wow! Your ambition knows no bounds! We have to ask ... what is your favourite castle in the British Isles and why?

A. Framlingham. From outside it looks intact. Inside there is almost nothing left, but because of all my work on the Mowbrays and on John Howard, for me it's a bit like medieval Colchester. When I stand inside the walls I can visualise all the lost buildings which stood there in the fifteenth century. I can even see the furnishings and fabrics – thanks to the surviving inventory taken when the second Howard Duke of Norfolk died. Thomas Howard was more or less an exact contemporary of the last Mowbray duke, and the inventory tells us that a lot of the stuff at Framlingham was old – so I'm sure it dated back to the time of John Mowbray and Elizabeth Talbot.

Framlingham Castle

Framlingham Castle

Q17. So we come back to Eleanor. You seem to have a soft-spot for the forgotten figures in history. If you could meet just one of them, who would it be?

A. I feel in many ways as if I have met Eleanor Talbot, and her sister, and John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, and Richard III. And right now I’m getting to know George Duke of Clarence. But one person I haven’t met yet, and whom I would really love to meet one day is the man whom most history books call 'Perkin Warbeck', but whom Henry VII (when he forgot himself) referred to as 'the Duke of York'.

Dr. John Ashdown-Hill, thank you for your time.