Richard III Reburial and that Leicester Decision

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.

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21 thoughts on “Richard III Reburial and that Leicester Decision

  1. We have this general problem in the US, too, at the moment — the widespread sentiment that if the court doesn’t decide in my favor, what it decided was unjust and possibly illegal. Hey folks, that’s why we have courts — to make decisions. You’re not going to love every single one, but that doesn’t mean a travesty of justice is occurring.

  2. As an “interested bystander” I’m amazed at how passionate some people have become about this and how the finding of the remains has started off so many discussions about the events during Richard’s reign. To me it’s more confusing than “Days Of Our Lives”. I would just like to see him recieve a dignified burial which surely, after so many centuries, he deserves.

    • Well said, Taswegian. I’m so excited about having a tomb to visit I don’t much care where it is – although I’m glad it’s not Westminster Abbey or Windsor, because it’s cost me a bomb to travel there.

  3. Whilst I supported the call to have Richard interred in York it was because I believe it’s majesty and grandeur were fitting for a King and Lord of the North. I did get somewhat disillusioned by the political element that crept in, an element of possession to reinforce the North South divide. I truly hate the thought that hIs remains are to remain in Leicester for all eternity, where he was subjected to such humiliation and has remained undiscovered despite Leicester being perfectly aware of where he lay. Better to return him home to lie with his family in Fotheringhay. Loyalty me lie.

    • true, Beverley – Fotheringhay didn’t get a look in; nor did Gloucester, a city for which Richard himself had a declared fondness; nor Middleham, where his son was born and died; nor any of the other places which can claim a connection.

  4. I pretty much agree with everything you have written here and it’s good to see the arguments put forward so clearly and sensibly, though they will not sway the pro-York fanatics who have vowed to never rest until ‘their king’ is where they want him (although even the most fanatical shuffle their feet and look away when that one individual repeats her gloriously offbeat ‘hoax’ claim). Also very interesting to see the views of someone who switched sides during the debate.

    Beverly Archer’s reply illustrates just three of the problems/misconceptions which have arisen. Whatever else this may be, at heart the debate is over in which Christian church to reinter the mortal remains of a devout Christian, but religion has never been mentioned in the pro-York arguments. The whole “majesty and grandeur” thing is antithetical to Christian belief. All churches are alike in the eyes of Christians and their God, from the biggest cathedral to the tiniest village church. Christianity teaches humility, not vanity and pride.

    Then there’s the idea that Richard “was subjected to such humiliation” in Leicester. It’s not enough for the pro-York lobby to exaggerate Richard’s connections with York, they have also to run down Leicester (both 15thC Leicester and the modern town). There is of course no evidence that Richard was humiliated in Leicester or by Leicester folk. We know that the town was very strongly Yorkist in 1485 because Richard gathered his troops there and rode out from there. He had a free choice of where to muster his troops and would have been insane to select anywhere where he wasn’t absolutely sure of local loyalty. Yet time and again over recent months we have read accusations that the people of Leicester were his enemy and they hated him and abused him after death.

    The post-mortem wounds discovered on the skeleton could only have happened in the immediate aftermath of the battle, carried out by Henry’s soldiers, miles from Leicester. One doesn’t need to be a historian to see this, one only needs to apply common sense. Henry needed Richard’s body intact and recognisable and would have put a stop to the battering as soon as he could. Common sense also reinforces the idea that Leicester was a fiercely pro-Richard town since Henry selected it from several towns nears Bosworth and would only have done so if the inhabitants were Richard’s supporters as it was they who needed to be shown the body. And while Henry could have had the body buried (or later reburied) anywhere he wanted, he knew – as a devout Christian – that the humble church of a group of mendicant monks was no less a House of God than the biggest gothic cathedral.

    Finally we see the extraordinary revisionism of “Leicester being perfectly aware of where he lay”! Before this dig nobody knew where he lay.. It was known he had been buried in the church at Greyfriars but the precise location of that church was not known (a look at any map will show how large the ‘greyfriars’ area actually is), a lot of people still believed the ‘chucked in the river’ story and even if he was still in his grave there was every chance he had been destroyed during 18th/19th/20thC building work. Furthermore, if the archaeologists had dug their first trench 50cm to the left, he would be there still. The idea that the Leicester authorities somehow mistreated Richard by deliberately keeping him under a car park is one more part of the anti-Leicester propaganda put about by the vociferous pro-York lobby in lieu of any actual solid arguments.

    Still, it all came right in the end and Richard will be buried in Leicester not because of any conspiracy, not for tourism purposes but simply because, as you say, it is normal practice.

    • Thank you for this most excellent reply, M Simpson. I think at least some of the ‘humiliation’ idea is based on the hasty squashing of his body into a too-small grave – although whether a corpse can be humiliated is a point on which I am unclear. I would be fascinated to know (and maybe the archaeologists will be able to answer this) whether there were any features/furnishings in the church which prevented the monks from digging a full-length grave. Or whether their haste was simply due to the grisly fact that they were dealing with a body with its head stoved in/brain hanging out, which had then lain exposed/decaying for 3 days – in August. I guess it is redundant to speak of flies. It must have been a most hideous task, and I can only pity the poor Greyfriars charged with carrying it out, rather than condemning them for not doing a better job.

      • Absolutely agree. Also, John Ashdown-Hill made the extremely sensible observation that, when digging the grave, the friars would have had absolutely no idea how tall Richard III was!

    • An excellent post, M Simpson. I can only hope that things will quiet down and the ranting and slanders will stop and people’s attention will be focused on the reinterment next spring.

  5. What do you think his ties to Leicester are? All kings in the fifteenth century held council there, but as you correctly pointed out Richard was born in East Anglia and grew up among Richard Neville’s Warwick estates. As Duke of Gloucester he loyally served his brother Edward by securing the north and it depends on how strong you believe his influence was/how much he depended on his northern affinity when you call him a ‘King of the North’. I know you’d prefer him not to be buried at Westminster or Windsor, but surely these locations would be better suited for a king?

    • I don’t think he had particular ties with Leicester, although it was a place he visited several times as king before the Bosworth campaign. And forgive me for contradicting you, but he was born in the Midlands, not East Anglia; also I call him ‘Lord’, not ‘King’ of the North. My reasons for not wanting a London burial are purely selfish – I agree that either Westminster or Windsor would be appropriate locations.

      • I agree with you with the ties in Leicester. The fifteenth century kings had council there but that’s it really. Sorry, that was an error! I know he was born in Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire, forgive it. Do you think the reasons for him being buried at Leicester are to do with revenue for the area? I would also argue against his title of ‘Lord of the North’ as there were no official titles of such, which i’m sure you are aware of. In my opinion, he was just a very loyal servant of Edward who secured the north for him and had trusted allies there.

      • The legal decision was that there were no grounds to interfere with the Licence as issued. The Licence followed current archaeological practice – reburial in the nearest consecrated ground. There has been a lot of talk about Leicester only wanting the reburial in order to make money. To my mind, this is unfair. Wherever Richard III was reburied, there would be an explosion of interest and an increase in tourism. To pretend otherwise is naive.

  6. I think the reasons for the Leicester burial are as Jasmine says. There was no masonic conspiracy, no shady deal in a darkened room – just a group of academics and local authority officers following bog-standard professional practice for an urban excavation with the likelihood of unearthing human remains. Of course, a discovery of this magnitude can’t help but generate massive public interest and associated money-making possibilities, but I don’t see Leicester Council as being unusually venal or reprehensible in wanting to capitalise on this ‘asset’ – they’d be failing in their duties to the city if they didn’t. As to ‘Lord of the North’ – I recently came upon a reference to Richard holding precisely this formal title, but now to my great irritation I can’t find it again to quote. If anyone who reading this can enlighten me, I’d be grateful!

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