The Case of the Peppered Potato

As a student historian, I’m always juggling projects in various stages, some related to specific assignments, others are more vague, not connected to my MA or PhD. One of the things I do as part of this is to manage the social media page of a local history related group, which involves researching local history stories.

In the course of doing that, I stumbled across one newspaper story that rather surprised me, and that I wanted to dig into further (although it’s not really suitable for use on the local history social media group, so I’m doing it here instead). I think this quite often happens for historians, by the way – something small, a spark, that triggers a question or a sense of curiosity that sends us chasing down the research tunnel. It was a small story, reported in The Illustrated London News, from Saturday April 26th, 1862. A lad had been hauled into court; he’d given a potato to two children and forced them to eat it. It eventually transpired that what the two children had been told was ‘pepper’, sprinkled on the potato, was actually arsenic. Bit gruesome, bit unusual, attempted murder via poisoned potato, but so far, not unduly eyebrow-raising. Then I read the unusual bit. ‘The boy was taken before the magistrates and discharged with an admonition’.

Uh…. discharged? He committed what amounted to attempted murder and he was discharged?

Naturally, I had to dig further! Delving into newspaper reports via the fabulous British Newspaper Archive, further details soon came tumbling out‡. The lad in question was ten years old, with the surname of Letts. The two children he poisoned were listed as being the Hales children, a boy, aged 5 and a half, and a girl, aged 2 and a half, who were on their way home from school down Harvey Lane, around midday. The Letts boy told the Hales boy that it was a nice potato and that he was to eat it there and then. Hales did, and gave a little to his sister, but when they got home, they began to vomit so their mother went for the doctor. He applied the usual remedies. When they recovered, they told their mother about the potato and the boy and she went looking for the Letts boy, and met a girl with the surname of White, aged 8 years old, who told her that the Letts boy had earlier offered her the same potato and when she refused, he struck her on the nose and made it bleed. This led to the discovery of the Letts boy who admitted giving the Hales children the potato but could not say why he gave it to them. It turned out that the mother of the Letts boy had bought arsenic coloured with soot to kill vermin, and he had put it on the potato to make it appear peppered. The children being ‘quite recovered’, he was released with the already mentioned admonition.

This story was reported in a number of newspapers around the country – the Glasgow Herald, 19th April, 1862; the Nottinghamshire Guardian, 18th April, 1862; and the London Evening Standard of the same day, and the Glasgow Herald reported that it got the story from the Daily News, and the London Evening Standard that it got it from The Leeds Mercury. It was clearly well, and widely reported.

Thornton_Lane_1965

Thornton Lane from Harvey Lane, copyright Dennis Calow, part of the University of Leicester ‘Vanished Leicester’ Special Collection, shared under a creative commons media licence. More information can be found at the Vanished Leicester homepage.

No further news sources were found, so I turned to the census to see if I could obtain christian names for the people involved. I was delighted to find that I actually could: It soon transpired that the Letts boy was in fact Oliver Letts, the son of John and Sarah Letts; he was a foundry man and she was a baker, and he was part of a large family living on 42 St. Nicholas. The two Hales children I soon identified as Francis and Mary Emily Hales, the children of Edwin and Elizabeth Hales, a labourer and seamstress respectively, living at 51 Thornton Lane. This, and Harvey Lane, the scene of the ‘crime’, no longer exist – they were part of the old parish of St. Nicholas in Leicester, and they were possibly taken out by the development of the ring road in the 1960s. They probably lay somewhere around what is now the Holiday Inn on St. Nicholas Circle, near the Jewry Wall. The picture, which shows Thornton Lane from Harvey Lane in 1965, prior to their destruction, shows how close they were. Sadly I was unable to conclusively identify the White girl – there are five possibilities living in Leicester at the time.

The ‘coloured with soot’ part of the articles intrigued me, so I kept digging further, and came across a book called The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work and Play by James C Whorton (Oxford, 2010). In it, he described the easy availability of arsenic for multiple purposes, including killing vermin, from pharmicists, and the way that society seemed to accept its readily availability and use as a tool of murder (and suicide). It was the March, 1849 murder of Henry Marchant in Bath that seems to have been the trigger for the removal of this ready availability. He was murdered by his wife, through colourless arsenic, but three days after his funeral, she married another man, which aroused suspicions. Eventually Marchant was exhumed and inquest carried out; the wife was tried and convicted by August. Pleading pregnancy, the death sentence was commuted to transportation for life. The 1851 Arsenic Act followed; pharmacists were required to keep a register of sales of arsenic, and arsenic sold in quantities of less than ten pounds in weight was to be coloured with soot or indigo to prevent accidental consumption. The thought of it being used as a ‘pepper substitute’ seems not to have occurred to lawmakers!

So the soot question was easily settled. The motive, however, was much less clear cut. Was the arsenic employed because Oliver Letts was trying to make the potato look like it had pepper on it, and he didn’t understand that arsenic was so deadly, i.e. a prank? Or did he fully understand that arsenic would make someone ill, and was trying to pass it off as pepper? The newspaper reports are less than illuminating on the subject, and sadly, a search for Oliver Letts after the date proves less than illuminating. An Oliver Letts is found in the 1871 Census, ‘visiting’ the Doores family with a Robert Letts – both were  described as ‘Shoe Finishers’. He doesn’t hit the news again – at least, as far as I was able to find in the British Newspaper Archive – and there is no Oliver Letts listed in the 1881 Census. No Olivers are listed as having died, but there is a William O Letts who was born in the same year, who died in Wednesbury in June 1937, which raises the possibility that Oliver, perhaps tired of his notoriety, or perhaps for more nefarious motives, changed his name and moved on. Regardless; the fact that he offered the potato to more than one child, and thumped the girl who refused, suggests that this was important to the ten year old Oliver for some reason, and it goes beyond a mere joky type prank. It also suggests that it wasn’t the Hales children themselves that were in any way a particular victim, although the fact that Elizabeth Hales, the mother, was able to find Oliver Letts with no real difficulty suggests that perhaps the White girl and Francis Hales knew Oliver Letts – by sight at least. It may have been a cruel-type prank; perhaps Oliver wanted to make his ‘victims’ vomit in the street or something like that, which would explain why it seemed so important to him that someone ate the potato. From here, we can move into the area of Victorian working class children; how much were pranks a prevalent part of their culture, and what type of pranks prevailed?

But for The Case of the Peppered Potato, there it ends. These research quests quite often end this way because of the limitation of documentary sources. Sadly, the reality of documentary historical research is that unless you have a diary or some similar document where the writer has poured out their heart and soul, questions of inner motive and emotions and ‘whyyyy?!’ quite often remain unanswered. The historian can speculate, sometimes with some accuracy when they’re able to build up a solid picture of a person and their life, but no more. To some, perhaps, that’s deeply dissatisfying. Like a crafty, mystifying whodunnit with no answer. To me, it speaks of the enormous variety of human emotions and human lives. The reasons why we do anything are always myriad, and although it can be tempting to think that emotions largely do not change over time (we all love, feel sadness, anger, and so on), and therefore can be detected in the documentary record, the Case of the Peppered Potato shows quite clearly that it can’t. I don’t know why Oliver Letts did what he did. For that matter, even HE might not know what he did. But part of me wants to have faith that that Victorian Mayor, who let Letts off with a ‘stern admonition’, Mr Samuel Viccars, knew what he was doing. That the Peppered Potato was accidental, a prank gone wrong, rather than the ugly alternative, a glimpse of a ten year old psychopath-to-be.

 

‡ The British Newspaper Archive has a £1 offer on for a month till 2nd April this year – well worth a mooch around!

Edit: typo on the dates corrected. Thanks due to my eager proofreader!!

Advertisements

planning research: the early thought processes and decisions

In any research project larger than, say, 8-10,000 words, from an academic article, or an undergrad dissertation, right through to a PhD thesis or monograph, have a number of required elements which need to be considered at the beginning of the research project.

I’m actually starting the research for my 20,000 word MA dissertation now. I’m in a funny position because I’ve known for some months (since early last summer) what the subject would be, and I’ve been collecting source material for it for a while – it’s researching something that has already been covered by another historian, but I’m going to be tackling the same material, with totally different questions, so it makes for an easy beginning to the project, because all I need to do is to follow the other person’s references to the source material (to begin with, at least). But only now am I actually considering the planning of it, which is quite the wrong way to do things. I was struck by this yesterday, as I drove to pick up my partner at the end of the day from the station (good thinking time that, driving), and it occurred to me that knowing the subject, and having that list of references and source material making it easy, meant that I’d not really stopped to think about really key elements that do have to be considered in any research project, and at a fairly early stage.

First up – its not enough to say, for example, that you plan to research XYZ. Anyone can say that, can say, oh, for example, that they plan to research the impact of the Queen on British Society in the twentieth century. However, attempting to research a project with only a topic like that will struggle to succeed – at least, at academic levels – partly because it’s a huge topic that would be difficult to do well in a smaller project (e.g. dissertation) and partly because it’s unlikely to undertake the critical analysis that is required at these levels. A good way to do that is to have Research Questions (caps intentional!). These serve to both limit the project so that more indepth analysis of the subject is possible, and to prod critical thought. One way to think of research questions is to think about the wider themes that the material or subject includes. So, to take the Queen again, these could be women, fashion, monarchy, society, economics, politics, political structures (there are more), then slowly narrow the themes down till at a point where its sufficiently narrow that a question can be constructed. So, going with our previous example, Research questions for this might be: Did the Queen have an ongoing impact on what society thought was socially acceptable during the period (politics, political hierarchy)? How much influence did her style of clothing have on British fashion (fashion, economics)? It is possible to see the expression of her own opinion in her Christmas broadcasts (politics)? These kinds of questions lend themselves well to further restriction and definition, such as – what’s ‘socially acceptable’? what period of British fashion are we discussing? Should we include, for analysis, the audio-visual material that is presented as part of the Christmas broadcast as well?

In addition, further elements need to be decided on. A line of argument is absolutely critical – whether a simple one, which you might have in a smaller essay – through to a much more complex piece of work, a line of argument is what keeps you focused on maintaining a tight thread all the way through. In the former example it might be that the Queen had a massive impact on British Society – but it could also be that the Queen only had a massive impact after a certain date, or before a certain date, or that she had no impact at all. Whatever your line of argument, every point, every paragraph has to contribute to that argument, even if you temporarily take another perspective to show why an alternative argument just won’t wash.

In larger projects, an extension of the line of argument is how you’re going to break it down – what chapters are you going to have, how many, how big will they be, what are their individual lines of argument, how do those individual lines contribute to the larger whole? Some academics correlate a key research question to each chapter, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. In the Queen example, the book could take a chronological approach, discussing her contribution to social mores, fashion and the christmas broadcasts in first the 1950s, then the 1960s, then… you get the idea. It could also do a chapter on each – the social mores, then fashion, then the christmas broadcasts.

Needless to say, I’m not researching the Queen’s impact on British society in the twentieth Century! I’m actually examining the case of a vicar who, in the post-Restoration period, had an affair with a parishioner. His other parishioners found out, and took him to court to try to get him removed from the parish as their clergyman. There are a number of different ways in which this material can be approached, exploring different themes. In writing and thinking about this blog post, I’ve had the themes playing in my mind, and I’ve been slowly writing ideas down in a seperate file. I still don’t have all the answers, but I do have a better idea of how I’m going to take this material forward. Suddenly, my 20,000 word MA dissertation doesn’t seem quite so daunting after all!

[I think it’s important to say – I don’t claim to have all the answers when it comes to doing research. I’m still learning myself! I just enjoy the process of learning by writing: by explaining here, to some imaginary, nebulous blog reader, I’m also explaining to myself. If, however, you are interested in reading something by someone who does know what they’re doing when it comes to research, then these two books may be a good starting point:

I hope they’re of use!]

 

Catch up and plans

I blinked… and suddenly, it’s January.

Last I knew I was giving a paper at a conference, and then it was a case of … well, head down, and keep on charging through. I didn’t really get time to think, let alone think about writing here. I have missed it though, which is why I’m back here today: things have cleared enough that I’m no longer impersonating a bull determined to get through that red cloak if it kills him, and I can put my head up and breathe…. and think, reflect. Continue reading

Jackanapes to historical self-awareness

I’ve mainly been wading through a book by David Cressy, Travesties and Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England: Tales of Discord and Dissension (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000), which covers a range of case studies, including the fantastic tale of a woman who gave birth to a cat. If you want to know more you’ll have to read it yourself, but it’s a great book, which touches on my research interests in a number of places. At the moment I’m reading a chapter on the language that was used by the laity towards the clergy – usually because the person was cross with the clergyman, for a number of reasons. Such incidents, where clergymen were told they were a ‘scurvy rascal knave!’ or a ‘jackanapes’, or even compared to an ‘ass’ (as in donkey, rather than the current equivalent of a backside, all found on page 138 of his book), could be very upsetting to the clergyman concerned, undermining his authority and it could mean that the person spitting the insults was taken to court (the church courts), which is how the records of these incidents have survived.

I was reading this in the bath (I do my best reading in the bath – I just read, obviously you can’t take notes, and that frees up the process, I think. Churchill did the same – working in the bath, that is) and as I put the book down I got to thinking. We are all products of our time. There is a school of thought in History which says that it is impossible for us to truly understand the past, as we are not of their time, but of ours, and which is why we study History, and not the past. I see the world – and the past – differently to how my mother sees it, and differently to how her mother saw it.. and so on. But it isn’t even a generational thing – someone just 5 years younger than me will see the world differently – have largely grown up with the internet, with mobile phones, whereas someone older than me will remember, even more clearly than I do, a time without those things.

The world has changed a great deal in the last 15 years. 9/11 had a massive impact. Terrorism, which in the UK, at least, seemed to have gone away (since the Irish question had been… well, not sorted out, but at least the various sides were no longer resorting to terror to solve it), surged back into people’s awareness. I remember, vividly, in the pre 9/11 years, working with someone who was Muslim, asking her questions about Islam, with no sense of worrying that she, or her family, might be extremist. It never crossed my mind at all. I just learned, and when I was asked if I would consider marrying into her family, I took it as the compliment it was intended (although I said no). The rise of al-Quaeda, and then of ISIS, is shaping a whole new generation of historians. I grew up with the threat of IRA bombings in my life. It never changed what I did, I never came close to them, but it was still a presence. Just going to the museum, having your bags searched. Things like that. I went to a boarding school – with children from all over the country – including 2 from Northern Ireland. One Catholic, one Protestant. And I learned, from them, about the enmity of the two groups for each other. I experienced – at a remove – that dichotomy, and it shaped my understanding, as an adult, of history. Where I differ, I think, from those who are growing up now, who experience the terrorism of ISIS, of other extremist Islamic groups, is that I saw – rightly or wrongly – that what was going on in Northern Ireland, and to a certain extent in the UK, as a war that we were caught in the middle of, waging war on the innocent, yes, but also with each other, and the British Government. Both sides were resorting to this. It didn’t make it okay, but it was different to what is going on now. With ISIS, with what is going on with the attacks in France.. there is only one side, them, waging war on the innocent. Sure, there were extremist Muslims in the seventies, and I remember the fatwah against Rushdie, but it didn’t register on my radar in the same way as the Irish terrorism did.

My time, as it were, has turned me into someone who sees ‘sides’, polarity, dichotomy, very readily. I don’t think its any co-incidence that I’m studying relationships – dichotomy again – or religion, and how people have experienced it. Will someone growing up now, see the Reformation differently? As a group of extremists – early Protestants – doing all in their power, to force the masses to worship the way that they wish? They wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, just different. This is why in studying History, we study not only the facts of the past, which are relatively straightforward – e.g. Henry VIII died in January 1547 – but also the shifting theories, the shifting histories. Never mind ‘Who do you think you are’ … ‘WHEN Do you think you are’ becomes important too. It shapes your thinking, and that self-awareness is critical when developing a history. For that reason, I think, all historians should have an awareness of modern history, at least as it pertains to their own lifetime. The idea that scholars can live, oblivously, in an ivory tower, has long gone. And good riddance too.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A quick catch up on the last few weeks…. they have been busy. Unfortunately, not so busy with my studies! Between housework (or work to do with the house, to be more accurate), home admin stuff (the car needs MOTing, for example), other admin, work that I’m doing for Leicestershire Victoria County History – and voluntary research for Charnwood Roots… I have done my own work but not so very much of it. This will be changing though – next week, I will be heading into the archives in Hereford and I am thoroughly looking forward to it!

source material – the ethical issues

This morning’s lazy wakeup read through the BBC News website over my first coffee (which I do every day, as part of my wake up routine) made me sit up in startlement this morning. The BBC was reporting that The Sun had published a clip of the Queen, as a child, larking around in the garden, with her mother, sister and uncle, and who had, along with her mother and uncle, given the nazi salute. It was in 1933, at the time of the Nazi Party’s rise to power, and she was around six to seven years old.

Regardless of whether The Sun was right to publish this or not, or the public response, as historians, the whole issue – and The Sun‘s approach to it – raises important questions about source material – the the appropriate use of it, and what we, as historians can learn from the incident.

I think the first thing that can be learned – or, perhaps, re-emphasised – is that as historians, we largely deal with source material pertaining to people, and that it is important to consider, when we use that source material, if we are doing so ethically. Journalists work to a different set to criteria (arguably, including ethical standards) but as historians, it should always be asked: are we behaving in a way that is ethical? Certainly my own university, and, I would imagine, most others, have a set of ethical standards, which, as academics, we are bound to comply with. To use an image like this in one’s research, several important things would need to be satisfied, but amongst them must be authenticity and context. While the figures in the video are recognisable and there is no doubt that it is them, every historian must be aware that audio-visual material can always be edited to imply a different story than the original. I remember as a first year undergraduate being shown photographs that showed quite a different impression when viewed one way, than if you viewed them in their original setting. Context is crucial, as is critical questioning of that context. The full context of the video (and its source) is unknown. The Sun itself admits in it’s editorial that it believes the Queen and her sister were ‘larking around’, and, having viewed the video, it is entirely possible that the Queen Mother, seeing the Queen wave to the camera in a way that mimiced, inadvertently, the nazi salute, picked up on that and mockingly gave it as well – and that this was then laughingly joined in with, by the Queen and her uncle, the man who would go on to be Edward VIII (and, if you believe The Sun, a Facist sympathiser). The editorial of The Sun suggests this… but their headline ‘Their Royal Heilnesses’ – does not suggest this at all.

Context is everything.

But, perhaps, more importantly, is the concept of ethical use. All Historians, but particularly historians working with the more recent past, have to remember that the material they use often comes from people. Sometimes, those people are either themselves still living, or people who have close family members still living, and it is important that source material is not used in ways that harm those people. Academic historians conducting this kind of research have to abide by a complex set of ethical rules handed down by their university. This does not necessarily mean that source material like this should not be used – as the Guardian has explained, this video is of genuine historical interest and could be crucial for someone exploring, for example, the social impact in England of the events in Germany in the 1933-39 period. For a historian researching this, how would they ethically deal with the video, so as to use it in their work?

Let’s, for argument’s sake, pretend for a moment that the video is of a middle class, suburban family, with no journalistic sensationalism attached to who they are. In this case, the historian would have a number of options. Assuming the historian knew who they were, and had traced modern day descendents, then he/she could obtain written permission to use a still from the film, perhaps with the faces anonymised. He/She could obtain permission to refer to the film, but the actual film or images from it, not to be included in any written work arising from the project (e.g. a thesis or journal article). Or permission could be refused, and that would be that.

[To demonstrate how scrupulously academic historians abide by the no permission element, there are actually oral histories (that is, people talking on audiotape about their memories, their life experiences) on file at a number of institutions that cannot be transferred to digital media because the original participants have since died, and the original agreement that they signed did not ask for permission for their recordings to be used in a different format or to be made public, e.g. on a website. Although agreements now are including this kind of permission, to allow for different formats/use in future, it doesn’t help those old recordings – since the original particpants have died, nothing can be done except looking after the old tapes as best as possible.]

If – again, for argument’s sake – a social historian was wanting to use this clip, of the Queen and her family, having come across it in the royal archives at Windsor, and it had not been published before, what would they do? Ask permission. Offer anonymisation, as above – it could quite easily be anonymised and presented as a family from “the aristocracy” and still demonstrate the impact that the nazis were having in the west – this was never made public at the time, so in that sense, this is a private family responding to public events, exactly as it would be if it was Mr and Mrs Suburbia, and can be reflected so in any argument – who they were, prescisely, is, to a certain extent, irrelevant. And if it was denied, again, that would be that. End of.

Having said that, now that the material is in the public domain, what now? As ethical researchers, should we shy away from using the material because it was (possibly) obtained and published in ways that are less than ethical?

Here, the answers are less clear. Someone researching the role of the media in affecting the image of the royal family, for example, or the impact of the phone hacking by the News of the World, cannot really ignore material that was less than ethically obtained – it is, after all, the whole point of their research. How, then, as an ethical researcher, can you ethically research these types of question? [and which tips into the field of ‘using unethically obtained data, ethically – and this is a well studied subject – as a simple google will show.]

Perhaps the best way to do it is to take extra care to use source material ethically. Yes, the material is in the public domain, but this does not mean that it has to be used unethically yourself. It would certainly be possible to quote them, reference them (as public domain material), but not use images yourself in your work. You could even try to obtain permission for one or two images to be used – from both the copyright holder AND the person in the photograph, although you may be less than successful at that, as they may fear issues being dragged up again – this is, after all, the basis on which EU citizens have a Right to be Forgotten). But even this is not always possible. Images of people who are dying, for example – the faling man or the falling soldier. How do you behave ethically then?

Sometimes, it may not always be possible to meet the ethical standards as completely as one might wish. Sometimes, there just aren’t any right answers. But I do believe that it is possible to at least personally behave ethically. For example: part of the research ethics standards concern treating people with respect. Even if you don’t have the permissions to use material in your research (and, I freely admit, I do not have any permissions to refer to any of the material I have supplied links to here, although everything is in the public domain) you can write about people with respect. This can be as simple as referring to people correctly, with respect – with their title, instead of their given name. I think most researchers would do this instictively anyway – academic language and the way of thinking as you write – usually does not allow for informalities in which disrespectful references to people might creep into one’s work (at least, that is the case for me).

I think most of all this incident shows that as historians we need to keep thinking about these issues, periodically pull them out, examine them, ask ourselves the difficult questions – and where necessary, adjust the way that we research and write accordingly. Perhaps, in the end, that is the true answer to the question of whether it is ethical to use unethically obtained information – to keep examining, to keep discussing, to recognise that there are always exceptions to the rules, and that utimately, the world around us does not share our ethical standards – but that does not mean that we should be lax ourselves.

Richard III’s Reinterment

Today is the beginning of Richard III’s reinterment; the beginning of an end to the tumultuous journey that began when the skeleton was discovered two and a half years ago. Watching this on a range of media (from news sites to social media like twitter) the most interesting thing about it all is the modern day reaction to it all. From the grumpy (‘he should’ve been in York!’) to the breathless (‘history in the making!’) to the spoof (‘Get on with it……it’s bloody cold out here and there’s a large warm Jaguar hearse waiting for me’) to outright jokes (‘A hearse! A hearse! my kingdom for a hearse!’) everyone seems to have something to say about it. [Me included.]

As a historian, my hackles immediately rise when I hear the phrase “history in the making”. This reinterment changes nothing about Richard III’s past. His body may have revealed new information about the man he was (e.g. his health, his diet) and how he died, but the reinterment itself? No. All it is doing is placing some bones into a position of respect, so that they can rest in peace. Surely most people would agree that the reinterment, and the battle for it (Leicester vs York) has been far more about the modern day than the man himself, regardless of which location one feels he should have been reinterred in.

I’ve seen too, the comment that ‘today for Richard‘, but watching this event is making me think anew about history: about the wider issues. Who does today belong to? Is today really about Richard? The Dean of Leicester Cathedral has commented that funerals are about goodbyes. Having attended far too many funerals of close relatives in the last few years I am inclined to very much agree. On the other hand, as David Monteith says: today, ‘the dominant motif is much more hello‘.

If one argues, therefore, that history belongs to all, then it should be recognised that for many people, history is indeed in the making in one sense. It is extremely unlikely that a king will be reinterred in quite the same way again, certainly in this country. It’s one of those seminal events where people will remember – particularly people who have any sort of connection with the event, such as local people, students of the university, Ricardians, and so on – where they were when they heard, when they saw, what they thought. And while this isn’t world changing in the same way that it was when (for example) JFK was shot, it has a meaning to the individual. That meaning is going to be largely redriven by one’s social identity and how they connect to what Richard represents to them. We’ve already seen the local, regional response: how people from York associated strongly with Richard, identifying him as one of their own; how Leicester claimed him as theirs because of modern-day regulations stipulating reburial in the nearest consecrated ground; other places such as Gloucester and Fotheringhay were even briefly mooted as suggestions because of associations that Richard himself had with the places in his lifetime. In Leicester and the towns and villages surrounding today we’re seeing people paying their respects in a way that certainly wasn’t done after his death: people carrying white roses, ringing the bells as the cortege moves around the county, laying flowers at his statue outside the cathedral. There seems to be a celebration of the local, of Leicester and Leicestershire, as well as Richard himself. Connections being made that were certainly never forged when he was alive. As a result, there are real oddities: no royal standard, as this flag post-dates his life, yet his coffin is being moved around in a modern funeral hearse with modern day pallbearers. While we are only, at this point, less than half way through the initial day, the dominant motif seems much less “hello Richard” and much more “Hello World, we’re Leicester!”. Here, what is being celebrated is popular history, encouraging people to learn about their past, their cultural history, and part of me sees that as wonderful, as a way to encourage future generations of historians. Part of me, a very little bit of me, the stuffy, dry academic bit that cherishes a more scholarly approach, shudders – as unpopular as it may be to admit that, because the idea of having history as a preserve of those in the ivory towers of academia have long disappeared. These days academic proposals, particularly for history, must include popular dissemination. The Charnwood Roots project is a classic example of how this is done very well. But then, Richard III’s reinterment isn’t history in that sense: there are no documents being read; no digs being conducted; no surveys; no interviews; no reports.

I think too that today opens up bigger questions. How to handle human remains with respect is one that has been oft discussed in both news media and academic texts. How much involvement do the greater public have a right to, in situations like this, especially when it is something that the individual concerned cannot consent to. Richard III cannot consent to either his reinterment in Leicester; or the events of today, or even his manner of initial burial and eventual (temporary) burial place. Who has the right to decide what happens to an individual after death? Richard himself made plans for a tomb, as most kings did, but they were never carried out. Henry VII, the man who beat him, rests in Westminster Cathedral. In history, the resting place of a monarch has often been decided by their successor; Henry VIII completed the tomb of Henry VI, for example, but Edward III made sure that the tomb of the somewhat disgraced Edward II was tucked away out of (what was then) public view at Gloucester. Others have had their resting places determined by those who controlled them in life: Catherine of Aragon was buried at Peterborough on the orders of Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots in the same place on the orders of Elizabeth I. Bring that forward to the modern day. Diana’s death showed, very clearly, the right that the general public felt they had to grieve, and to access the royal family at a time of immense sorrow. In the first ‘funeral’ (which is what everyone is calling it, although it is strictly speaking, a reinterment) of a King of this country since 1952, one has to wonder: what will happen when our present queen dies? How much ‘right’ will the general public have to her funeral ceremonies? Will her coffin, disasteful as the idea may sound, be carted around the world for all to pay their respects? What differences will be shown because of the immediacy of her life, and her death?

It will be very interesting to keep watching the events of this week, and to consider the questions raised by the events, and what they mean for historians working in various fields.  If I’m quite sure about anything, its that far from settling anything, the discovery of Richard’s bones, the study of them and popular reaction to him, this journey and his reinterment has and will only serve to keep discussion about him, his life, and his implications alive for quite some time to come.