After the discovery of the remains of King Richard III, it seems to be obligatory for every history blogger, Tweeter and Facebooker to have their say on the matter, so for what it’s worth, here are a few of my thoughts. First, bouquets to Leicester University’s archaeologists for a stunning piece of work; second, brickbats to Channel 4 for producing such a dire documentary about it, analysed in this perceptive and funny account of ‘Richard III day’ . (As one Tweeter noted, though, the C-list status of some of those involved in the programme can probably be explained by the fact that no-one actually expected the dig to find anything, so why deploy the big guns for what was almost certain to be a non-event?) But no sooner has the dust settled on the previous set of big questions – is it really him? was he a hunchback? just how big was his parking fine? – than battle is being joined over the next set, notably where and how should he be buried.
Before I jump on the bandwagon and join the massed ranks of those who’ve been pontificating on these matters, I should issue a few disclaimers. Firstly, I am not and never have been a member of the Richard III Society, to coin a phrase. I think members of the society have done a tremendous job both in funding the successful dig and, in the longer term, in revising historical assessments of many aspects of the fifteenth century. But as the documentary demonstrated, there’s sometimes been a tendency for some of its members to reject the historical record, to twist the facts, and to indulge in unhistorical wishful thinking; maybe there’s already a fundamentalist breakaway group out there who still can’t accept that their hero really did have a curved spine and are convinced that the skeleton must have been planted by a conspiracy of David Starkey, the Illuminati and Barack Obama. On the other hand, and despite sharing Welsh origins with them, I have little time for the Tudors, too. Frankly, I spent far too many years teaching the long haul from Henry VII to Elizabeth I to have much residual affection for any of them (besides, I’ve always preferred the Stuarts anyway). Moreover, the unwillingness of many Tudor historians to even consider new thinking about Richard III is, alas, typical of the complacent arrogance that characterises too many university history departments, whose members are often unwilling even to consider left-field thinking from outside their own ranks. For example, many years ago I used to show my students a televised trial of Richard III. The most convincing witnesses, and the most compelling evidence, came from the prosecution; but the jury acquitted, and as my students invariably said, that had to have been due largely to the unfortunate performance of the selfsame Dr Starkey, whose formidable command of the evidence was offset by his brusque manner, now a little (but only a little) mellowed by age, and unconcealed contempt for the defence case. So with all of that said…
1/ Where should he be buried? Within the last couple of days, the citizens of York have launched an e-petition insisting he should be buried there, and unsurprisingly, Leicester, already designated as the burial place by the Ministry of Justice, has launched a counter-petition. (A shame that Leicester City and York City are in different divisions of the Football League, really: it would be quite jolly to watch their fans arguing over their relative claims to bury a medieval monarch – ‘One Richard of York! There’s only one Richard of York!’ – rather than querying the eyesight and parentage of the referee.) Of course, Leicester and York can deploy formidably big battalions on their sides – large populations, ferocious civic pride, local councils keen to boost tourism, several MPs each, and so on. No such resources are available to another potential candidate for the royal burial, the tiny village of Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire, although a very few advocates for its case can be found on Twitter. Arguably, though, Fotheringhay has a better claim than either of the heavyweight cities: it’s where Richard was born, and where his parents are buried. The church was enlarged partly to serve as the mausoleum of the House of York, and although half of it disappeared in the reign of Richard’s great-nephew Henry VIII, it’s still a remarkably impressive and beautiful building. So before it all ends in tears, with enraged Yorkists rampaging through Leicester and vice-versa, might it not be worth at least considering the merits of an attractive and highly appropriate neutral location?
2/ How should he be buried? The debate over whether Richard should be buried according to Anglican or Catholic rites began almost as soon as the press conference at Leicester ended. I have no agenda here – again, I’m not and never have been an Anglican or a Roman Catholic. However, I think it’s worth pointing out that there is a precedent, which so far seems to have been almost entirely ignored or forgotten. In 1982 the remains of the Tudor warship Mary Rose, lost in 1545, were raised from the seabed, and the bones of one sailor were later reburied in Portsmouth Cathedral. I watched the service, and it was remarkably moving. But he was given a Catholic burial, according to the medieval Latin Sarum Rite (thanks to the Portsmouth Cathedral Twitter account via Ian Mortimer for that last piece of information). So if that was felt to be appropriate for an ordinary citizen of pre-Reformation England, why should it not be thought appropriate for an English head of state who was known to be deeply devout and who unquestioningly acknowledged the supremacy of the Pope?
3/ Should it be a state funeral? At the end of the day, this is all a question of semantics, although no doubt many in the Richard III Society won’t regard it as such. After all, if you did a straw poll in any high street in Britain and asked people if they thought Princess Diana had a state funeral, I suspect the vast majority would say yes. But she didn’t: she had a public funeral with royal honours. It’s entirely likely that politically correct and historically illiterate politicians and civil servants will oppose a state funeral, partly on grounds of cost and partly because of negative perceptions of Richard’s reputation. (If you think I’m being too harsh on our leaders, I refer you to the Deputy Prime Minister’s recent display of woeful ignorance about the history and significance of the Duchy of Lancaster.) However, there is no absolutely incontrovertible evidence of Richard’s guilt on any charge – and state, or at least full royal, honours have been accorded many times to more conclusively awful individuals. There is also a long royal tradition of showing respect to the remains of deposed or discredited predecessors: Richard himself had Henry VI reburied in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, while George III paid for a spectacular Canova monument to the Jacobite pretenders in St Peter’s, Rome, and Queen Victoria paid for new tombs for her undistinguished ancestors Robert III and James III of Scots in Paisley and Cambuskenneth Abbeys respectively. (The exceptions to the rule were the Tudors and Charles II, although there were obviously extenuating circumstances for the latter’s violence towards the remains of Oliver Cromwell.) Other countries provide many other potential parallels: the remains of Tsar Nicholas II were buried with full honours in the Peter and Paul Cathedral, St Petersburg, in 1998, while in 2011, and despite the fact that Austria had been a republic for 93 years, the Archduke Otto, last Crown Prince of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was given the traditional funeral rites of the Imperial Habsburgs in Vienna. Ultimately, too, Richard III was the last King of England to die in battle, so to deny him at least a significant level of royal and military honours would be both an injustice to him and an act of singular disrespect to the history of the country itself. Thus, and regardless of whether one is a Ricardian or a ‘Tudorista’, anyone with a love of history should be supporting a spectacular royal funeral – a Catholic one, with the Latin mass – for King Richard III.