So it won’t be at York Minster, or a state funeral at Westminster Abbey as many people wanted; but make no mistake, this is a very big deal in Leicestershire. Richard III’s re-interment will last a full week, starting on Sunday 22nd March when he travels to Fenn Lane Farm, near the site of his death, for a private ceremony in which a casket made by his collateral descendant Michael Ibsen and containing soils from Fotheringhay, Middleham and Bosworth will be laid with his coffin. Accompanied by a guard of honour, he will then travel via Dadlington and Sutton Cheney to the Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre where the Bishop of Leicester will lead a ceremony followed by a ripple gun salute and the lighting of a beacon. His cortege will then go to Market Bosworth for a short ceremony, progress at walking pace through Newbold Vernon and Desford, and continue to Leicester past a cascade of 5929 white roses at the Bosworth Academy (representing the number of missing persons in Leicestershire in 2014, just as Richard himself was ‘missing’ for so long). At Bow Bridge, he will be met by the City and Lord Mayors, be placed upon a horse-drawn carriage, and process to the Cathedral escorted by mounted police in full ceremonial regalia. Various services will be carried out as he lies in repose from Monday to Wednesday while visitors pay their respects; on Thursday he will be lowered into his final resting-place; and on Friday 27th, there will be a service of reveal of the tomb and a thanksgiving for his life in the Cathedral Quarter, culminating in a volley of fireworks from the Cathedral roof – not to mention all the other services, exhibitions, tours, lectures and special events scheduled in Leicester, York and elsewhere over the coming weeks.
Reading about these plans gave me a lump in the throat. Bells will peal. People will flock in their droves, in some cases travelling thousands of miles, to be part of this. The televised proceedings will be watched by millions more, all round the world. Altogether, it’s a lovely big ‘yah boo sucks’ to haters who say he should’ve been chucked back in the hole in the car-park, and seems to me a fitting and thoughtful way to lay our king to rest.
Of course, not everyone agrees. Some people believe that the initial procession along Richard’s probable route back from Bosworth Field amounts to a calculated insult and humiliation, which raises an interesting question: can the dead be humiliated? I’d say not – that any ‘humiliation’ exists only in the eyes of a few beholders. Richard didn’t feel humiliated in his last moments; he was too busy ‘fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies’ and screaming in fury about treason. What remains of his physical body doesn’t care one whit; neither does his soul, which has transcended far beyond such earthly feelings. (At least, I sincerely hope so – otherwise it implies an eternity like Mount Olympus, full of squabbling spirits still prey to the gamut of human emotions). Besides, this time he will ride in the privacy of his coffin, blessed by clergy, honourably escorted and witnessed by thousands – millions, if you count TV viewers – it couldn’t be more different to his ignominious return in 1485.
The whole proceedings have also been derided as a money-grubbing circus devised by venal politicians who don’t give a damn about Richard or history in general, as long as it makes Leicester a buck. Well, I don’t know or care whether their personal interests lie in sport, culture or elsewhere – but I know about the realities of heritage management in local government, and consequently am not surprised or upset by the attitudes expressed. Of course Leicester made vigorous representation for Richard III to remain in the city where (as someone has observed) his body has become literally part of its fabric – it would have been a dereliction of duty if they hadn’t. Of course Sir Peter Soulsby has emphasised the economic and tourism benefits – he has to convince the constituency of council-tax payers who don’t give a damn about history either, and would rather all this time and money had been spent on care homes, education or mending the roads. And what local politician wouldn’t be delighted to have their city put under the global spotlight, its prospects and fortunes improved, as they juggle with their ever-shrinking budgets? They’re just people trying to do their jobs in a challenging environment – so good on ‘em, I say. I hope Leicestershire makes a bomb from King Richard’s presence (as no doubt York would have done) – and since, alas, I can’t be there, I’m looking forward to watching it all on TV!