The missing monarchs . . .

Although I studied botany and geography as an undergraduate, and then went on to complete graduate degrees in botany, I have often hankered to become an historian. For the past decade much of my reading material has been history – I devour almost anything that looks interesting, and I actively seek out books by authors who I have already enjoyed. And when I retired I did consider taking another undergraduate degree in history.

I find the 18th century a particularly interesting one, because of the significant social changes and transition from an rural-agricultural society to an urban-industrial one. But I don’t focus on that century exclusively.

I have begun to find medieval history rather fascinating, and it comes to mind that the 15th century must be the most violent perhaps in our history. The century began with the usurpation of Richard II’s throne by Henry IV, there was a continuation of the wars with the French, with remarkable success under Henry V (despite the success at Agincourt in 1415, all was lost less than a generation later under the more pacific Henry VI), and of course the Wars of the Roses between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians.

The most brutal and bloody battle of those wars was the Battle of Towton in March 1461, when Yorkist Edward IV defeated the troops of Henry VI. It’s said that more than 28,000 soldiers lost their lives. But despite its tragic cost, I read somewhere that there was proportionately greater loss of life during the English Civil Wars from 1642-1651 than in any other conflict in these islands. No doubt the Black Death of the late 14th century must also have been a serious genetic bottleneck for the population at large to survive.

But I digress. We know the burial sites for all English monarchs from William the Conqueror until the accession of James VI and I in 1603, for the Stuart kings and queens of both England and Scotland, and monarchs of the United Kingdom from 1714 onwards when George I (great grandson of James VI and I through his eldest daughter Elizabeth of Bohemia, the so-called Winter Queen) came to the throne.

With the exception of two – but that may be about to change.*

Richard_III_earliest_surviving_portraitI refer of course to Edward V (never-crowned elder son of Edward IV, and one of the Princes in the Tower) and Richard III.

It’s always thought that the princes, Edward and his brother Richard, were murdered on the orders of Richard III when he, shall we say, extended his powers as Lord Protector, and had himself crowned king in 1483. Although skeletons thought to be those of the princes were found in the Tower in 1674 and later re-interred in Westminster Abbey on the orders of Charles II, we cannot be sure that these remains are theirs.

Our image of Richard III – who was widely admired, and loved even, in his northern lands during his lifetime – comes down to us from Shakespeare and Tudor propaganda. After the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, when Richard III was killed, Henry Tudor (who became Henry VII) established the Tudor dynasty on the flimsiest of claims, and he and his son, Henry VIII, did their best to eliminate any possible Yorkist rivals (and any others who might have a better claim to the throne than themselves). Best not to think of Laurence Olivier’s cinema portrayal of Shakespeare’s Richard III, although I fear that’s the wicked image many of us continue to carry in our minds.  Of course there are those who have always felt that Richard III was maligned.

Now although there’s a tomb for Richard III in Leicester Cathedral, there’s no body – it was lost after Bosworth, but reportedly buried in Greyfriars priory in Leicester that was subsequently destroyed, and now the site of a car park.

And that’s what we hope to find out very soon. Bringing together the best of modern science: GIS, geophys (as Time Team‘s Tony Robinson would say) to explore underground structures, carbon dating, and DNA analysis (presumably of mitochondrial DNA), a team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester descended some months ago on Greyfriars car park in the city. Very soon they discovered a skeleton that had obviously undergone some trauma, as well as showing a deformation of the spine, or scoliosis, that Richard was reported to suffer from.

Could these be the remains of Richard III, and if so, where should he be reburied? Soon we will find out, once the carbon dating and DNA analysis are completed by the beginning of February. How exciting! Reports leaking to the media are definitely supporting the Richard III identity. Here’s a link to a recent interview given by the project team.

If we have found our last remaining monarch, where should he be buried? The Ministry of Justice will make a decision, it’s said, next week. In any case, one of the conditions of the excavation and exhumation of the skeleton was that any remains would be re-interred in Leicester. And as I mentioned earlier, he already has a tomb in the cathedral, albeit empty. The residents of York would like him buried in York Minster, and there are those who argue he should be buried alongside other monarchs in Westminster Abbey in London. After all, that’s where Richard’s queen, Anne, is buried.

So, fingers crossed, we’ll soon have an answer to a long-standing mystery, and one that modern science is helping to solve.

* Today (4 February 2013) the archaeologists at the University of Leicester have announced that the skeleton unearthed in the Greyfriars carpark in Leicester is indeed that of King Richard III.

Orcas are social animals . . .

Surprisingly, there are many cetacean (that’s whales, porpoises and dolphins to you and me) visitors to British waters. One of the largest is the killer whale (Orcinus orca), also known as the orca (of Free Willy fame). Here’s a map where you can see whales in the UK.

Over the past three nights The One Show (BBC, at 19:00) has aired a series of films, presented by naturalist Mike Dilger about a pod of resident orcas off the coast of west Scotland, between the mainland, the Inner and Outer Hebrides. These are not listed on the map I mentioned before.

Filmed several months ago, during much better and calmer weather – in some shots the sea was as calm as a millpond – the film crew caught up with a pod of four orcas, and took some stunning footage.

North Uist

The Outer Hebrides, with Lewis and Harris to the north, with North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra to the south. The northern tip of the Isle of Skye, and other islands of the Inner Hebrides are shown on the right of the map.

Now what’s particularly interesting is that not only is this pod resident in this region (and also ranges as far as the west coast of Ireland), but the individuals have also been identified. One of the bulls is thought to be at least 40 years old. And, based on some observations of their teeth (conical and not worn down to the gum) this pod could have originated from Antarctic populations that visited the west coast of Scotland, and stayed.

Orcas are stunning, beautiful, and highly intelligent animals, and have been featured in at least two David Attenborough series, the most recent being Frozen Planet.

In the Dilger reports, he travelled with his crew on a chartered vessel owned by someone who knows the waters around the Isle of Skye, and the Inner and Outer Hebrides, yet he’d never ever seen an orca. And this reminded me of my first visit to the Outer Hebrides in the summer of 1966 at the age of 17.

I was a keen birdwatcher, and decided to visit a newly-opened reserve, Balranald, run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) on the island of North Uist. Packing my tent and sleeping bag on my back, and other supplies, I hitch-hiked from my home in Leek to Scotland, where my eldest brother Martin and his wife Pauline lived in Rutherglen, just south of Glasgow. I stayed with them for a couple of nights or so, then took my first ever flight, on a British European Airways (BEA) Vickers Viscount turboprop from Glasgow (then Glasgow Abbotsinch Airport) to Benbecula, the island between North and South Uist, and connected to each by a causeway. The flight must have taken an hour.

That first night I actually camped by the side of the road on Benbecula, but the next day I hitched my way over the causeway to North Uist and the village of Hougharry on the west side of the island where I understood the newly-appointed and temporary RSPB warden was living. I don’t remember his name; he’d just graduated in geography from the University of Hull, and was lodging with a Mrs MacDonald (MacDonald is rather a common name there). I set my tent up in the centre of the village, and spent three or so very happy days tagging along with the warden on his rounds. I was even invited to dinner on a couple of occasions by his landlady.

Red-necked_PhalaropeThe main reason for visiting Balranald – and why the reserve had apparently been established in the first place – was to observe two particular bird species: the corncrake (one of the few breeding sites in the UK then) and a rare summer visitor, the red-necked phalarope (which, it seems, is no longer on the Balranald list). I heard the corncrakes, but never saw them, nor the phalarope, more’s the pity. But there was plenty else to see.

And one day, I was invited to join the warden and a local fisherman to visit a small rocky island (maybe Causamul), a mile or more from the shore. And as we were passing through quite choppy seas we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of a large (maybe 10-15 individuals) pod of killer whales. I was dumbstruck, if not a little concerned. There we were, in a small boat, surrounded by water and whales, and all I could think of was their (undeserved perhaps) reputation for aggression and ferocity. But what a wonderful sight! Was this a family pod just passing through, or were they related to the pod of orcas that’s now resident in the area? Who knows? After the last of the film reports on The One Show last night, Mike Dilger told the viewers that orcas had been seen recently on the north coast of North Uist. Knowing how rare any sighting of orcas is these days, I feel privileged for my 1966 experience.