Richard III is far and away my favourite monarch. I find his character compellingly fascinating: a pocket-size bad-ass who achieved a great deal in his life, (with back-ache, to boot), and who would, I believe, have made a good and effective king given the chance. So naturally I was delighted by the unearthing of his remains in 2012, and felt profoundly grateful to Philippa Langley for driving the project through to fruition, to Leicester City Council for allowing their site to be excavated, to Richard Buckley and the University team for their work, and to everyone else whose efforts contributed to this momentous discovery.
At the time, as a former archaeologist, I took it as read that any finds from the excavation would be kept and displayed in Leicester, and that any human remains would eventually be reinterred in that parish, as is normal practice. So I was at first surprised, then selfishly pleased, when the York campaign was launched, and added my name to the petition (although by no means anti-Leicester; I studied there, and I love the place).
Subsequently, the grotesque behaviour of some members of the York camp caused me to regret doing this, as did certain infuriatingly inaccurate claims broadcast in support of their argument. York Outwood MP Julian Sturdy has recently added to this, saying, ‘it’s only right that King Richard should return to his home city of York (my italics) even if on a temporary basis’. Now, Mr. Sturdy has constituents to serve, some of whom may have lobbied him vigorously on the matter, but that doesn’t make his remark correct. Richard III was a Midlander, born at Fotheringhay. His childhood was spent at family residences including Ludlow Castle in Shropshire and Baynard’s Castle in London. He had no particular association with Yorkshire until his adolescence at Middleham and later career as Lord of the North; and his itinerary as king makes plain that he spent more time in and around London and the Midlands than he did in York. His partiality for the northern capital may be clear; it was after all the heart of his late father’s duchy (Richard himself never held the title of Duke of York); he reduced its civic taxes and had his son invested as Prince of Wales at the Minster, where he planned to found a major college of priests; nevertheless, York can by no stretch of the imagination be called his ‘home city’.
Ill-informed, emotive guff like this made me feel spitefully pleased when I heard last week’s announcement that the reburial would not take place in York; but on a more mature level, my main emotion was overwhelming relief that a decision had been made, plans for the ceremony could at last go ahead, and next year I will be able to visit King Richard’s tomb and pay my respects.
Alas, my relief was short-lived, thanks to the furore that instantly kicked off, and suggestions that the Plantagenet Alliance might appeal against the decision. It made me feel sick to think that the whole agonising process might be repeated, at God knows what cost, while Richard III still lay unburied – and I am strongly opposed to any such appeal taking place. Whose interests would it serve, I ask myself: the king about whom these people purport to care so much, or their own egos? Then in trawling for more information as to whether an appeal could/would actually happen, I came across some staggering stuff. I won’t post the links or name names because they don’t merit the oxygen of further publicity; suffice to say that I saw wild conspiracy theories concocted by people with no connection to, or understanding of, the archaeological process; allegations that the Leicester dig was a ‘hoax’ (what? How? The University somehow sneaked a fake skeleton into that trench before the eyes of the world’s media and pretended it was Richard III?); threats to disrupt the interment ceremony; and the following astonishing statement: ‘[it] shows how angry everyone is about this miscarriage of justice and the evil plans of Chris Grayling and his cronies to deny justice to the ordinary people – before we know it the judicial system will have no juries and no right of appeal’.
The thrust of the above is the writer’s conviction that ‘ordinary people’ have not been listened to, and that the Justice Secretary has ridden rough-shod over our democratic rights to dictate where King Richard should lie. OK, so let’s do a reality check. Yes, the finding of his remains is massively important for medieval history. (If you believe it’s him, of course. That arch anti-Ricardian Professor Michael Hicks isn’t convinced by the DNA analysis – apparently this might be just A.N. Other scoliotic 15th century noble battle casualty found exactly where documentary sources say Richard III was buried, and bearing an uncanny physical resemblance to him). It has literally re-written history, proving that he was not a hunchback with a withered arm; put paid to the myth that his bones were dug up during the Dissolution and chucked in the River Soar; and shown exactly how he died (ie not hit over the head so hard that the crown was driven into his skull, as poetic tradition would have it). Yes, millions of people at home and abroad have followed this news story with avid interest, and many of them will undoubtedly flock to the tomb and Richard III-related attractions in and around Leicester. Yes, 60-odd thousand people cared enough about where he should be buried to sign one or other of the petitions; and yes, 60,000 does sound like a lot of voices that should be listened to.
However, of a total UK population of c. 64 million and an electorate of c. 48 million, 60,000 represents, respectively, 0.094% and 0.125%; or, to put it another way, nearly 99.9% of voters weren’t bothered enough to sign a petition. No matter how hugely important Richard III’s reburial seems to some of us, no matter how passionate our feelings about it, the brutal reality is that we are a very tiny minority – the overwhelming majority of the population doesn’t give a rat’s ass. I might ask, ‘since when have the common masses had any say over the burial place of monarchs anyway?’ – but it’s irrelevant when said masses have indicated their opinion (or lack thereof) with a resounding silence.
So to the folk still throwing their teddies out of the pram over the Leicester decision, I can only say, ‘get over it’. Look at the wider perspective – given the social and economic problems this country is facing, the cuts in public spending, the loss of jobs and front-line services, there’s no way that expenditure on a wider debate can be justified. Meaning no disrespect to my favourite king, further consultation on his final resting place seems very small beer in comparison to, say, a referendum on whether Great Britain should leave the EU… so please, accept the decision with good grace, stop abusing everyone and everything connected with it, and go visit King Richard in Leicester next year – take him a nice bunch of white roses. That’s what I’ll be doing.