History Matters: Richard III: Bought and Sold?

‘Jocky of Norfolk be not too bold, For Dyckon thy master is bought and sold’.

So went a contemporary rhyme; and in the wake of the announcement that seats for Richard III’s re-interment are to be effectively sold for £2500 apiece by Leicester Cathedral, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s happening all over again. (Strictly speaking, ‘benefactors’ will be asked for a £2500 ‘donation’ to attend).

The news has, predictably, given rise to expressions of shock, dismay and disgust for reasons I can appreciate without necessarily sharing. Some of the people affronted believe that, as a devout man, this is not what the king himself would have wanted. I question this on two counts. Firstly, (an issue which has vexed me throughout the arguments of the past months whenever someone has claimed to be speaking for Richard III): no matter how well we might think we know him through exhaustive study of his life, we don’t. We can’t. The only mind one ever reliably knows is one’s own (and even that’s debatable). We might be able to predict the reactions of our nearest and dearest with varying degrees of accuracy, but we still can’t fully know them; we can never experience what it’s like to be inside their skin, looking out through their eyes and feeling their emotions; the best we can do is guess. How much less possible is it to guess right with someone more than half a millennium dead, who lived in a very different world and context to our own? Richard III was a nobleman of his time, typically concerned with wealth, power and advancement; so maybe he’s now snorting, “Pah! I’m a king! They should charge ten grand to see me at least.”

Secondly, while the ‘donations’ may seem distasteful for a house of worship, this is nothing new. The medieval Church didn’t balk at making money. It sold indulgences. It sold relics and pilgrim badges. It charged people for saying masses to speed the souls of their loved ones through purgatory (King Richard, like many of his contemporaries, forked out sizeable sums to various religious houses for this very purpose). And like it or not, churches need money. This is why York Minster (the rival choice to house the king’s remains) charges £15 for adult admission, St Paul’s in London charges £16.50, and Westminster Abbey a whopping £40 (all valid for 12 months’ visiting). Is this also thieving, extortionate and disgraceful? Or is it simple economic reality when you have an historic building to maintain at colossal expense?

For once, I’m not having a dig here, I’m just asking questions and making observations; nor am I outraged by the news from Leicester. At worst, I’m mildly irked. Yes, the seats are very expensive, making this highly elitist and excluding everyone who isn’t on the benefactors list and/or doesn’t have two-and-a-half grand to spare. BUT… there are many more people who would want to attend the re-interment than Leicester (or any) Cathedral has space for. So you could view this as an effective way of limiting demand and raising some valuable funds at the same time. After all, how else could places be allocated? By public lottery? As prizes in a ‘Who’s Done Most for Richard?’ competition? On a ‘first come, first served’ basis, with hundreds (thousands?) of people in sleeping bags queuing in the cathedral precincts? However it was done, it would cause upset to those who disagreed with the method, and disappointment to the majority who didn’t get in through the door.

Personally, I’m not disappointed, having resigned myself long ago to the knowledge that I didn’t stand a cat in hell’s chance of getting into this service anyway. My only hope is that it’s televised – although I guess that too would be criticised as unseemly and exploitative in certain quarters…

Post-script: I see today that this seems like a storm in a teacup, brought about by misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the Cathedral’s actual plans. According to a communication sent by Peter Hobson to JoeAnn Ricca, CEO of the Richard III Foundation, Inc., seats will not be sold at all; instead invitations will be sent to benefactors and a wide cross-section of the community.