Month: April 2015

Celebrating Fr. William J. Sullivan’s Retirement from the History Department

william picture 2

This year, 13 faculty are retiring from Saint Anselm College, including the History Department’s own Fr. William J. Sullivan, O.S.B. One Thing After Another wanted to take a moment to celebrate the many years Fr. William devoted to the study and teaching of history, as well as his many other accomplishments.

Fr. William graduated from Saint Anselm College in 1966 with a B.A in history. He went on to earn an M.A. in Divinity in 1970 from Drew University and a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Catholic University of America in 1977.

He joined the monks of Saint Anselm Abbey and served the Abbey in many capacities, including Prior and Formation Director. He also served the college in multiple roles. He was Assistant Dean of the College and Dean of Students between 1974 and 1979. This was in addition to being an Assistant Professor of History from 1976 to 1984! From 1984 to 1997, William served as President of the Woodside Priory School, a Catholic Benedictine college preparatory school in Portola Valley, California. In addition to his presidential duties, he chaired the Social Studies department and occasionally got to teach a history course. He continued to serve on the Governing Board of both Saint Anselm College and Woodside Priory School until 2014.

Obviously, no matter what else he was doing, Fr. William maintained a love of history. When he returned from California, he taught part time in the Saint Anselm College History Department for a few years. He also taught briefly at the University of Oradea at the invitation of the government of Romania! Finally in the mid 2000s, he took up full-time teaching in the Saint Anselm College History Department to the great delight of his colleagues and students.

Fr. William reveled in the freedom to teach what he loved. He taught the Civil War course, a topic dear to his heart ever since he did a dissertation on Gustavus Vasa Fox who served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy during the conflict. He also developed a course on Irish America, eventually taking a sabbatical on the coast of Ireland where he pursued the topic further (bicycling between his rented cottage and his university office). His focus on Ireland led to a broader course on immigration called Peopling North America which covered immigration from the first European migrants to 21st-century immigration issues.

Fr. William further explored the Native American communities that preceded European immigration in a Native American history course. His Sports History course was wildly popular, exploring United States history through the changing social history of sports. Finally his History of Terrorism course used terrorism as a lens to explore changes and continuities in United States history, raising questions about the changing meaning and impact of terrorism over time. The range and breadth of his courses show his curiosity about multiple aspects of United States history. His desire to create so many new courses underscores his willingness to constantly learn new material and make it interesting to students.

Fr. William continued to be active in other areas of the campus. He served as the chair of the Theology Department for one year and spearheaded a campus initiative to ensure fair and respectful treatment of all persons regardless of sexual orientation. But we in the department valued him particularly for his essential kindness, willingness to help, and endless good humor. William could see the good in any issue or student, though that did not keep him from careful thought about how to improve a situation, a course, or a student’s performance.

Fr. William’s stroke in June 2014 cost us a year of his professional company. However, his love of history continues. At last check, he was listening to an audiobook of Jon Meacham’s biography of Thomas Jefferson The Art of Power. We are very grateful for his many years of dedicated service in the History Department. His warm collegiality, popular courses, and good humor will be greatly missed.

Ben Affleck and Slavery

Affleck Finding Your Roots

Surely, you have heard something about Ben Affleck’s recent collision with history. If not, One Thing after Another is more than happy to fill you in. . . .

You may or may not have heard of a PBS show entitled Finding Your Roots, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a prominent professor of African-American Studies at Harvard University. The show uses genealogy and genetic testing to investigate the family history of celebrity guests. The research is compiled in a so-called “book of life,” and the highlight of most episodes has Gates assisting the guests in understanding their book. The second season ended in November 2014, and celebrities have included Harry Connick, Jr., Barbara Walters, Kevin Bacon, Robert Downey, Jr., Samuel L Jackson, Condoleezza Rice, Martha Stewart, Stephen King, Derek Jeter, Ken Burns, Anderson Cooper, Sting, George Stephanopoulos, Deval Patrick, and . . . Ben Affleck.

Our story begins, strangely enough, last year with the hacking of Sony by an organization calling itself the Guardians of Peace. The United States government alleges that the Guardians of Peace were really working for North Korea, but a number of cyber security experts have questioned that charge. Whatever the case, a number of Sony’s hacked emails and documents ended up on the WikiLeaks web site last week in an easily searchable database. News organizations immediately began trawling through the mass of material, and the Daily Mail eventually found an interesting exchange between Gates and Michael Lynton, chief of Sony Pictures, concerning Ben Affleck’s appearance on the show.

According to the emails (which were exchanged in July 2014, about three months before the episode aired in October), Finding Your Roots discovered that Affleck had an ancestor who owned slaves, and the movie star was putting pressure on Gates and PBS to omit that fact from the show.

Gates wrote to Lynton, “Here’s my dilemma: confidentially, for the first time, one of our guests has asked us to edit out something about one of his ancestors–the fact that he owned slaves. We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. He’s a megastar. What do we do?” Lynton responded with the following observation: “On the doc the big question is who knows that the material is in the doc and is being taken out. I would take it out if no one knows, but if it gets out that you are editing the material based on this kind of sensitivity then it gets tricky.” In other words, it all depended on how many people at PBS knew about Affleck’s ancestor. Both agreed that too many people at PBS knew about Affleck’s ancestor to keep the finding a secret. In subsequent messages, Gates recognized that editing out the ancestor at Affleck’s request would violate PBS rules. Not only that, but he understood that if the news ever did leak out, it would embarrass Affleck and compromise the show’s integrity. How prescient!

In the event, Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor did not appear in the episode (which ran in October 2014), and Gates’ worst fears came true. As a result of the Sony leak, Affleck has been embarrassed and the show’s integrity has been compromised.

You can see a preview of Affleck’s episode here:

Once the story broke, Gates offered the following explanations for his actions on the PBS web site:

The slave-owning ancestor, Gates argues, ended up on the cutting-room floor for the sake of offering “the most compelling narrative.” According to Gates, he and the producers did not accede to Affleck’s request to protect him. Rather, they sought to produce the most interesting story.

Affleck’s explanation, which appeared on his Facebook page, is somewhat different:

Affleck’s points amount to the following. He was embarrassed by his ancestor, and he tried to influence the PBS producers in the same way that he has influenced his directors in the past. He saw nothing improper in this behavior since Finding Your Roots is not a news program and therefore does not have a responsibility to present the whole truth. At the end of the day, of course, he regrets his decision.

Now that the program has blown up in everybody’s face, PBS has launched an internal investigation into the circumstances associated with the production of this episode:

A broad spectrum of reactions characterizes the web’s attitude toward this story. On one end, we have the following piece by Brian Lowry at Variety:

Lowry describes the whole incident as a tempest in a teapot. The gist of his argument is that Finding Your Roots is a “a pandering showcase for celebrities to explore their genealogy” and “a lightweight gimmick, one that PBS has given an imprimatur of quality because of its adjacency to the first-rate documentaries that the service airs.” The only reason the story has attracted so much attention, Lowry charges, is because of the way it was leaked, widespread dislike of Affleck (only compounded by his prima donna behavior), and a desire among conservatives to get rid of PBS.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Soraya Nadia McDonald at the Washington Post, making a very different argument:

It is difficult to summarize briefly McDonald’s position, but the main thrust of her argument is that when you add Affleck’s wish to protect his “brand” to PBS’s desire to obtain a larger and younger audience, this kind of thing was bound to happen. And this kind of thing, she argues, is bad. Because of its distinct mission, PBS has a duty to serve the public interest. Unfortunately, the public interest is not served by gliding over the issue of slavery and presenting what amounts to a sugar-coated version of Affleck’s family tree.

One Thing after Another, as usual, judges as a historian. While Lowry and McDonald do not see eye-to-eye on the overall significance of this Finding Your Roots episode, they do agree on one thing: PBS’s desire to obtain higher ratings by developing a show of this sort left it vulnerable to such an incident. PBS found itself confronted by an age-old question: how does one present educational material in an attractive and interesting fashion? PBS’s mission consists of creating

content that educates, informs and inspires. To do this, PBS offers programming that expands the minds of children, documentaries that open up new worlds, non-commercialized news programs that keep citizens informed on world events and cultures and programs that expose America to the worlds of music, theater, dance and art.

PBS also describes itself as “America’s largest classroom, the nation’s largest stage for the arts and a trusted window to the world.” (See and

And yet, what good was this classroom or stage if no one was watching? PBS naturally felt the pressure of obtaining higher ratings.

When it came to Finding Your Roots, the public broadcaster opted for “edutainment” (One Thing after Another’s favorite new word) which ended up being a volatile mix of education and entertainment. For this reason, the various players in the story saw their roles very differently. In his explanation of what happened, Gates the professor wrote about “editorial integrity” and unlocking “new ways to learn about our past.” In other words, Gates subscribed to the idea of the classroom. Affleck the actor wrote of lobbying Gates as if the latter were a director and reminded everyone that Finding Your Roots “isn’t a news program.” From Affleck’s perspective, the show was, well, “a show.”

Even if PBS created an unstable situation that was bound to compromise itself, one cannot help but be disappointed with the principals involved. Affleck described himself as growing up in a politically active family of “left-wing Democrats” (his mother, as Finding Your Roots revealed, was a Freedom Rider in Mississippi in the 1960s). He of all people ought to have realized how a discussion regarding his ancestor could have contributed to a dialogue about slavery—something that is still very relevant in this day and age. When compared to the reactions of other celebrities who have been informed that their ancestors were slaveholders (Anderson Cooper, to name one), Affleck’s refusal to own his family’s past seems graceless.

Gates’ role in this incident is almost inexplicable. He is literary scholar, not a historian, and he famously wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times about “ending the slavery blame-game” (i.e. African-Americans should not use their enslavement to obtain reparations from the United States government). Still, he must be thoroughly aware of the destructive role that slavery has played in American life, and he of all people ought to have seen how fruitful a discussion of Affleck’s ancestor could have been. Gates’ emails indicate that he knew Affleck’s request ran contrary to the spirit (if not the editorial rules) of the show. It seems clear that he was cowed by Affleck’s “megastar” status, and Lowry is probably not far off the mark when he describes Gates’ position as “spineless.” Then again, Gates might have felt his position was fundamentally undermined by the show’s straddling of education and entertainment.

One Thing after Another is both depressed and cheered by this incident. On the one hand, it is clear that PBS has not fulfilled its role as classroom, and an interesting opportunity to discuss slavery has been missed. Gates claimed he left out Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor for the sake of presenting a more interesting narrative. But what better captures the great paradox that is American history than the ancestry of a man whose mother was a Freedom Rider and whose great-great-great-grandfather (on his mother’s side, no less) was a slaveholder? What better encapsulation of the American experience could there be? Unfortunately, all the brouhaha about Finding Your Roots has revolved around Affleck and Gates’ dishonesty, not the issue they sought to elide.

And yet, there is perhaps some cause for hope. Affleck believed the information about his ancestor was so powerful that he had to keep it under wraps. One Thing after Another advises that in contemplating this incident, you should not seek to emulate Affleck’s attempt to suppress history. Rather, like he did, you should recognize its power.

Selma, The Imitation Game, and Hollywood’s Duty to History


No doubt you remember the 2015 Academy Awards which took place just over a month ago. There was some controversy surrounding two films–Selma and the Imitation Game–that brought up an age-old question: to what extent should Hollywood get history right?

Selma, of course, covers the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, focusing mainly on Martin Luther King, Jr. The Imitation Game is about Alan Turing’s activities during World War II, namely his participation in the attempt to crack the codes produced by Germany’s Enigma machine. Neither film did particularly well at the Oscars, and both were criticized for their historical inaccuracies. Selma received only two nominations (Best Picture and Best Original Song, winning only in the latter category) while The Imitation Game received eight but came away with only the award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Did members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences snub Selma and The Imitation Game because they had concerns about historical inaccuracies in the films? Or was it because one film was about the African American struggle for civil rights while the other was a bio-pic about a gay man? Francine Prose, writing in The New York Review of Books blog, seems to think it was a combination of these factors:

Prose argues that discussions of these films’ historical inaccuracies did undermine their chances with the Academy, but she also suggests that these discussions were a cover for critics’ discomfort with the subject matter of both movies. As she puts it, “perhaps the real source of controversy isn’t the question of truth in historical films, but rather the subjects of historical films—and how vexed those subjects are.” She concludes that “it’s so much easier and less threatening to talk about whether (or how much of) a film is ‘true’ than to confront the unpleasant—and indisputable—truth: that racial and sexual prejudice have persisted so long past the historical eras in which these films are set.”

Prose may have a point here, but One Thing after Another does not have the power to search the hearts of Academy members and determine whether their objection to historical inaccuracy are sincere or merely a blind for more pernicious thoughts. Moreover, One Thing after Another believes historical inaccuracy does interfere with the ability to engage with important questions arising from movies such as these. If a film wishes to be taken seriously as it addresses significant social issues–that is, if it seeks to educate its audience–it has a duty to get the facts correct. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is under no obligation to get the facts right because it does not have pretensions of enlightening its audience, but films like Selma and the Imitation Game do have that obligation.

Prose does not seem to believe in that obligation. In her “case for Hollywood history,” she asserts that she grew up in a period when expectations concerning the historical accuracy of films was rather low. Indeed, in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, viewers and critics did not seem so interested in this matter. She also relates her experience of watching Selma with her eight-year-old granddaughter. Much of the movie went over her granddaughter’s head, but she emerged from the theater with an appreciation of the demonstrators’ bravery and an understanding of why the civil rights movement was necessary. Prose remarks, “Later, I thought, my granddaughter and I can deal with the film’s historical mistakes.”

Among Prose’s comments, two points jump out at One Thing after Another. First, Prose’s standard for historical accuracy is rather low. She learned the following from watching films in her childhood:

What got my attention was the fact that men named Zola and Dreyfus existed, and that a woman had won the Nobel Prize in science: a concept that came as a something of shock to a little girl growing up during the height (or the depths) of the Mad Men 1950s. I recall being enthralled by the achievements of Pasteur (he saved a little boy from rabies!) and the Dreyfus case. And my fascination with Ivanhoe and Robin Hood persisted.

And then, of course, we hear about her granddaughter, the second-grader, learning some basic ideas from Selma. According to Prose, we should not demand very much from a film. It is a gateway that may lead us to history, but we should not ask it to do anything very serious in that respect.

Second, Prose assumes that everybody else has the capacity to deal with a film’s historical mistakes “later.” One Thing after Another wonders how many viewers of films have the capacity to do that. As Elizabeth Drew asks, in a post (on the very same blog) criticizing Selma‘s inaccuracies, “Is every kid who’s misled by Selma going to take a seminar on it?”

One of the big inaccuracies in Selma that has attracted much attention is its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson who is depicted as opposing the voting rights bill. Does it matter whether or not Johnson actually supported such a bill? Drew thinks so, and if we want to understand how legal discrimination was dismantled, we probably ought to know that the President and King were more or less on the same page. In other words, while the marches and King and Malcolm X were necessary to passing a voting rights bill, they were not sufficient–the president also played a significant role–an important lesson on which Americans ought to reflect in their capacity as citizens.


The Imitation Game is much more profoundly flawed, and its mistakes interfere much more with a true appreciation its subject, as Christian Caryl points out:

In the film, Turing is caricatured as a social misfit/lone “scientist” who almost singlehandedly broke German code during World War II. Such a view does a disservice to Turing while reinforcing stereotypes of how science works. To be honest, the film does not even really engage seriously with the science and mathematics behind the massive multi-national effort that led to the progressive decryption of German codes (which involved involved  significant breakthroughs by Polish and French mathematicians) . That’s a shame, because if we should care about Turing at all, it is as a mathematician. At the same time, we also ought to realize that thousands of people were involved in the attempt to read German codes, and while Turing was among the most prominent, he was still part of a highly talented team that included mathematicians, linguists, historians, chess champions, crossword puzzle experts, and military officers. That fact points to something important: while Turing was considered eccentric, he was not socially inept. Moreover, he possessed a variety of talents–among other things, he was an Olympic-level, long-distance runner. As Caryl argues, “either you embrace the richness of Turing as a character and trust the audience to follow you there, or you simply capitulate, by reducing him to a caricature of the tortured genius.” The film seems to have opted for the latter course.

In addition to these kinds of mistakes, The Imitation Game is not entirely frank about Turing’s sexuality in particular or mid-20th century British attitudes toward homosexuality in general. As Caryn puts it, the film is “desperate to put Turing in the role of a gay liberation totem but can’t bring itself to show him kissing another man—something he did frequently, and with gusto. . . . The Imitation Game is a film that prefers its gay men decorously disembodied.” Benedict Cumberbatch has responded to this criticism by arguing that the film is not an exploration of Turing’s “sex life” and that if viewers demand to see sex scenes in such a film, “all is lost for any kind of subtle storytelling.” But can a film convert Turing into a gay martyr without dwelling on the thing for which he was martyred? At the same time, the film does not really capture the context within which Turing operated as a gay man. Turing was actually quite open about his sexuality to his friends who accepted him for who he was. Such an attitude should not surprise us. England’s great public schools (e.g. Eton, Rugby, Charterhouse, and Harrow), along with Cambridge and Oxford Universities, had long tolerated gay sub-cultures. In other words, Turing’s world was not entirely homophobic. It was when his homosexuality was discovered by the police–purely by accident after his boyfriend had stolen some items from his house–that Turing ran afoul of the law and was subjected to a bizarre and barbarous punishment. However, his “treatment” via stilboestrol lasted for only a year (not until his death as the movie suggets), and by all accounts, Turing bore this burden courageously instead of falling apart as he did in the film. In other words, Turing was a complex person living in a world that expressed mixed attitudes towards his homosexuality. And if we understand that person living in that world, we come to a finer understanding of the questions that surround the relationship between the two.

One Thing after Another does not want to make a fetish of historical accuracy in films, but if films pretend to educate us on various social issues, these issues must be placed in their proper context so we can learn how to address them. Students as well as the public often perceive long-standing social issues through two lenses. One sees them as static (e.g. racism always manifested itself in pretty much the same way) while the other sees them as problems that occur elsewhere–either in the past or in another part of the world (e.g. racism only happened in the bad old days but we are fine now). What historians seek to do is restore some dynamism to these questions because in human affairs nothing stands still for very long, and everything is actually rather more complicated than it might appear at first glance. Understanding the often changing circumstances under which social issues emerge is extremely important to understanding that tension itself.

From Car Park to Amusement Park: The Meaning of Richard III’s Reburial

Richard III

Although it has recently published a number of posts associated with the Cuba trip led by Professors Pajakowski and Masur, One Thing after Another has been otherwise silent on historical topics for the last month. This silence is the result of the press of business–grading papers, cranking out letters of recommendation, service to the college, writing articles and books, as well as a host of other tasks associated with the professoriate. One Thing after Another promises, however, to be more active in the future, and a first installment on this promise is this post which begins with the following question:

Should Richard III have been reburied in Leicester Cathedral after a lavish ceremony?

Surely, you have been following this event as assiduously as One Thing after Another has! If not, perhaps some background is in order. . . .

Our story begins with the War of the Roses (ca. 1455-1487), a series of dynastic conflicts between two branches of the Plantagenet royal family, the houses of York and Lancaster. The wars more or less came to an end when Henry Tudor, the Lancastrian claimant, defeated and killed his Yorkist rival, Richard III, at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

Richard III met a bad end. Hoping to win quickly at Bosworth Field, he and his household charged a group of knights surrounding his nemesis. Richard III fought manfully and killed or wounded several of Henry Tudor’s bodyguard. However, Henry’s knights turned the charge away and pushed Richard’s men into a bog. It was while negotiating this bog that Richard was killed by blow from a halberd or poleax to the head. The fight was violent; Richard suffered eleven wounds, eight of them to the head. His body was eventually buried in the church at Greyfriars, a Franciscan monastery in nearby Leicester.

Henry Tudor, on the other hand, became Henry VII and founded a new dynasty that would hold the throne of England until the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. In an interesting twist, when Henry VII’s son, Henry VIII, dissolved England’s monasteries in 1538, Greyfriars was demolished.  Over the centuries, many structures were built and taken down in the area, and knowledge of Richard III’s final resting place was eventually lost. In the meantime, Richard III obtained a terrible reputation, largely because Shakespeare, who spent much of his career under a Tudor monarch (Elizabeth I), vilified the king in his play, Richard III.

Interest in rediscovering the location of Richard III’s body really gained momentum around 2009. Several academics, the Richard III Society, the Leicester City Council, Leicester Promotions (tourist marketing), the University of Leicester, Leicester Cathedral, and Darlow Smithson Productions (which hoped to make a TV show about the exhumation of Richard III’s body) all collaborated to find the grave. Leicester Promotions provided most of the money while Leicester University Archeological Services conducted the dig. On August 25, 2012, excavation began in a car park on the former site of Greyfriars. That first day, a skeleton was discovered, but it was not removed until early September. Over the coming weeks, several pieces of evidence were used to identify the skeleton as Richard III’s:

  • The skeleton was of an adult male in his 30s–Richard III was almost 33 when he died.
  • It had been buried under what had been identified as the church’s choir, which matched with contemporary accounts.
  • The skeleton suffered from scoliosis of the spine, which also matched with contemporary evidence of Richard III’s physical stature.
  • The skull suffered from a series of wounds that were consistent with contemporary accounts.
  • DNA evidence taken from Richard III’s descendants were a match with the skeleton.
  • Radiocarbon dating placed the date of the burial somewhat earlier than Richard III’s death. However, mass spectrometry results revealed that the bones belonged to somebody who had consumed a great deal of seafood which often makes radiocarbon dating samples appear older than they are. Further analysis concluded that there was a high probability that the bones were buried between 1450 and 1550.

In February 2013, based on this evidence, the University of Leicester identified the skeleton as belonging to Richard III.

Richard III Skeleton

Determining where to rebury Richard III proved time-consuming and controversial. British law suggested that the king should be buried in the nearest consecrated ground. In this case, that was Leicester Cathedral. The Canon Chancellor of Leicester Cathedral believed Richard III ought to be interred in a “Christian-led but ecumenical service.” It would not be a formal reburial but rather a service of remembrance. These plans were contested by a number of figures and organizations, including the Plantagenet Alliance, a group of people claiming to be Richard III’s descendants who argued that they best represented his wishes (burial at York Minster). The Plantagenet Alliance eventually filed a law suit that delayed but in the end could not stop Richard III’s reburial in Leicester Cathedral on March 26, 2015. Among other highlights at the reburial was Benedict Cumberbatch reading a poem written by the United Kingdom’s poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy.

We are now brought face-to-face with our original question: should Richard III have been reburied in Leicester Cathedral after a lavish ceremony?

Even a rather polite article by the New York Times cannot help but refer to several controversies associated with the event:

To some, it seemed not quite right that Richard III, a Catholic (like all Englishmen in the late 15th century), should be reburied in an Anglican ceremony. Then there was Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster and the ranking Catholic prelate in England, who delivered a few words at the service and referred disapprovingly to Richard III’s blood-splattered life. And Queen Elizabeth was a no-show because she wanted to avoid controversy. She also probably did not want to be associated with an event that highlighted the bloody and unstable history of the English monarchy. One cannot help thinking of Thomas Paine’s words in Common Sense: “The plain truth is, that the antiquity of English monarchy will not bear looking into. . . . Monarchy and succession have laid (not this or that kingdom only) but the world in blood and ashes. ‘Tis a form of government which the word of God bears testimony against, and blood will attend it.’”

One of the arguments that has generated much heat revolves around what manner of man Richard III was. As this article from the Discovery Channel site asks, “Does Richard III deserve such a special and somewhat bizarre honor? Was he ‘that poisonous hunchback’d toad,’ as portrayed by Shakespeare, or was he unfairly maligned?”

The National Post gives three very different historical assessments of Richard III: serial killer, maligned hero, and . . . we’ve got the wrong body!

After briefly surveying the conflict, the Deutsche Welle (a German news organization) argues that there are political reasons for this celebration. Emphasizing British history, Deutsche Welle asserts, allows the British to stress their singularity and reinforces the British tendency to act apart from Europe. The news organization claims “the singularity of British identity is also supported by its cult of history. By celebrating a dead king, Great Britain reaffirms its values.”

The following article by the Daily Mail (which sits on the conservative end of British politics) seems to confirm that the reburial has important political overtones. After all, the headline stresses that the reburial “will make you proud to be a monarchist” while the article glides over the debate concerning Richard III’s character by claiming simply that his reputation “has been transformed” for the better:

It is precisely for this reason that the Guardian is infuriated with the reburial—because it seems to reaffirm values that this new organization finds obsolete and positively pernicious. It has attacked the event with a barrage of opinion pieces:

The Guardian’s attacks proceed from a variety of related directions:

  • In “austerity” Britain, where so many budget cuts have taken place, it seems rather inappropriate to spend so much money on a monarch whose contributions to the well-being of the British people are unclear.
  • The only reason Richard III has received such a lavish reburial is because he is a king; this point highlights the extent to which social inequality persists in Britain.
  • All of the hullaballoo surrounding the reburial does not serve as an appropriate symbol for contemporary, multi-cultural Britain. The third article asks, “Is a ceremony about a defunct monarch, laden with Christian ritual and attended by a clutch of minor royals, not in danger of projecting a rather exclusive and backward-looking message?”

However you look at Britain’s commemoration of Richard III, many commentators see it as a political event. Such an interpretation should come as no surprise to regular readers of One Thing after Another; we have repeatedly pointed out that history and memory are constantly shaped by contemporary forces and needs. But what did the attendees of the reburial think? Were they humble masses tugging their forelocks? Were they strong and proud monarchists? Were they Englishmen asserting their uniqueness in the face of Europe?

History Extra, the BBC’s history magazine, provides us with some insight into these questions:

As always, a mixture of motives seems to characterize those who attended the ceremony and parade. And prominent among the motives was a desire to witness an interesting as well as unique spectacle.

We can learn two important lessons from the controversy concerning Richard III’s reburial. First, as we have already noted, to quote Benedetto Croce, “All history is contemporary history.” In other words, our views of the past are invariably shaped by our opinions of current developments. Second, what elite commentators think they see from above is not necessarily what everyday people perceive from below.

So what’s next for Richard III? How will this story continue? f Historyextra is to be believed, there are apparently plans to create a Richard III-inspired theme park!

You can imagine that the arguments over his reburial will be renewed in the battle over a theme park. . . .