Now that the body of King Richard III has apparently been found in the ruins of a monastery under a parking lot in Leicester, what shall we do about the historical injustice he suffered? I know that may sound like a ridiculous question; unless you are a member of the Richard III society you probably don’t have strong feelings in favour of the last Yorkist monarch and unless you are a fan of Shakespeare’s portrayal you probably don’t have strong feelings against him. But the fact is that that there’s a strong case that Richard was unjustly deposed and killed, that his reputation was then mercilessly trashed without foundation, and that the course of English history would be quite different if it had not happened.
Why should you care? Because there are plenty of lively public issues where people are demanding that we somehow rectify centuries-old injustices. And precisely because most of us have no horse in the battle of Bosworth field, its outcome lets us consider dispassionately whether it’s reasonable to insist that history be repaired.
I say not. We need to understand the past, and learn from it, but it’s not our job to fix it. Nor, crucially, is it within our powers to do so. We can rectify specific injustices on the basis of legitimate legal rights. But we cannot unpick the fabric of social, economic and political developments over hundreds of years; they are too complicated for us and fixing one thing would require ruining another, violating legitimate expectations in order to fail to help people now long dead.
Personally I’m holding out for a Catholic state funeral for Richard. But not restoration of the House of York.