Richard III: History or Histrionics?

One of my pet hates is hysterical hyperbole, the sort of thing frequently indulged in by sports commentators – for instance, a tragedy is when somebody loses their life, not a ruddy football match.

So the other day I found myself unable to feel sorry for a person who, apparently, will carry the scars of recent experience to their grave. Now, I would have sympathised if the writer had been a Syrian refugee, or bereaved in the recent spate of mass shootings in America and France, or had endured any of the other myriad horrors that would justify someone claiming to be scarred for life; but the source of this individual’s trauma is – yes, you guessed it – the treatment of Richard III since the unearthing of his remains three years ago.

Oh, to live in a world where the worst thing that happened was the analysis of a 530-year-old skeleton, publication of the results, and a reburial in a location some folk don’t like! A world where no-one has to flee their home for fear of being raped, enslaved or murdered by a vile apocalyptic death-cult; where no children or animals are tortured and abused; where people suffering painful or distressing illnesses are allowed to die with dignity in their own homes at a time of their own choosing- I could go on, but you get my drift. Alas, that’s not our world – and given the terrible reality of so many people’s lives, I find Scarred Writer’s melodramatic self-indulgence utterly repellent.

Hang on, you might say. Everyone’s entitled to their emotional responses; if this person feels permanently scarred then scarred they indeed are. Yet there can be a fine line between the average, ‘normal’ response to a situation and a gross over-reaction which merits being treated with a metaphorical slap round the head and a crisp, ‘Get over yourself.’ Trust me on this – I speak as a recovered depressive who once had to be physically restrained by my then partner in a dispute over- um, ownership of a slice of toast (blushes). My feelings might have been very real to me at the time, but that doesn’t mean they were appropriate or proportionate to the circumstances – which I suggest is the case here.

This puts me firmly in Scarred Writer’s camp of half-hearted, patronising Ricardians – that is, anyone capable of taking a more moderate stance on events since 2012, or who dares to say that it’s time to move on rather than nurturing that grievance and whipping up yet another tedious war of words to spread and perpetuate ill-feeling within a small community of interest. Actually, I’d go further: I’m not half-hearted, I’m hard-hearted enough to be glad that Richard III’s physical being is now so intimately known, and that he has a nice tomb which isn’t prohibitively expensive for me to visit (as it would be in Westminster Abbey or York Minster). I’m also hard-headed enough to recognise that he would have been a hot commercial property wherever he was laid to rest, and to find nothing dismaying in a provincial city’s delight that they’re making a few quid from being catapulted onto the historical tourism map.

Yes, I care more about history than hysterics… which is why, if Scarred Writer represents the prevailing view within this particular Ricardian community, I shall quietly bow out of it. It isn’t an environment I wish to stay in… and somehow I doubt that they’ll miss me!

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The Wars of the Roses Refought over Richard III’s Re-burial

As anyone watching the news, reading the press or visiting social forums will know, the discovery of Richard III’s remains under a car-park in Leicester last year has sparked a war of words as bitterly waged as any medieval battle. Practically from the moment his skeleton was unearthed, the tides of invective began to flow. An early target was Philippa Langley, a long-standing member of the Richard III Society whose years of research, lobbying and fund-raising had enabled the excavation project to go ahead in the first place. ‘Only in it to big herself up and get on TV,’ sniffed some folk of Ms Langley’s painstaking historical detective work. Hmm… is that the rank whiff of sour grapes I smell? Me, I think she deserves a medal for her efforts and the contribution she’s made to Ricardian history.

Worse was to come when the vexed question of where to re-inter the king’s remains arose. The poor Dean of York and President of the Richard III Society received abusive communications from the pro-York camp simply for trying to take a neutral, objective stance on the issue. The Chief Executive of the American Richard III Foundation was derided for her passionate advocacy of York because ‘what’s it got to do with Yanks, anyway?’ The Richard III Society was accused of Machiavellian plotting, cover-ups and withholding information from members. The motives of many individuals concerned with the project, including the Mayor of Leicester, were publicly impugned in such terms that it’s a wonder nobody ended up in court for slander or libel. Venom has dripped from the pages of Facebook and sundry news sites. Altogether, it hasn’t been pretty – and frankly, I’m amazed I’ve escaped the vitriol after some of the stuff I’ve blogged on here.

But now, at last, someone has effectively presented the case for a York re-burial. Yes – in the latest Ricardian Bulletin, (journal of the Richard III Society), David Johnson lays out the reasoning in a well-researched, eloquent letter mercifully free from the inaccuracies and hysterical over-statements that have bedevilled the arguments of some other York supporters.

I might challenge his statement that there is an ‘overwhelming public view that Richard should be laid to rest in [York] Minster’. It depends on the public you’re asking. The Plantagenet Alliance’s on-line petition for a Parliamentary debate on the matter closed with 31,260 names – almost 70,000 short of the 100,000 it needed; another petition for a York re-burial closed with 31,340 names – I’d call that distinctly under-whelming. Meanwhile a rival petition for Richard III to remain in Leicester has 33,247 signatories with three days left yet to run… so I think it’s fairer to say that public opinion is divided.

Otherwise, David Johnson’s letter is highly persuasive. It draws on the Privy Seal Register and Fabric Rolls of York Minster to argue that Richard III’s intention to found a college for 100 chantry priests, with six altars erected within the Minster for their use, parallels his brother Edward IV’s creation of St George’s Chapel at Windsor, and for the same reason – to make a new royal mausoleum. That the sources contain no mention of a tomb, or plans for a chapel to house a tomb, can be explained by the fact that the project was still in its infancy at the time of King Richard’s death.

It’s the best justification I’ve yet seen, and Johnson may well be right that if Richard III had lived out his full span, he would have expected to lie in York Minster. However, one problem is that it still doesn’t prove this was the case; we’re still second-guessing the intentions of someone who died over 500 years ago. And what might those intentions have been on the eve of Bosworth? Richard had the advantage, the ordnance and the larger army of home-grown soldiers to pit against Henry Tudor’s Welshmen and foreigners. I assume he expected to win, kill his rival and hang on to his crown; but it would seem strange if a soldier so experienced in the uncertain fortunes of war hadn’t at least considered the alternatives: that the battle might be indecisive, leaving them both alive to re-group and continue the campaign; or that he would himself die, if not on the field then later, as a defeated captive.

What then of his posthumous fate? Could he trust a new regime to honour his last wishes, if he made them explicit – or to take spiteful pleasure in thwarting them? To what degree, under those circumstances, did Richard III actually care what became of his body, beyond a conventional hope that it would lie in consecrated ground rather than in a mass pit on the battlefield? If he made a will, or issued any form of instruction, it either has not survived or has not yet been found. If he did not, what does that say about his state of mind – that he was sublimely over-confident of victory? That he didn’t want to ‘tempt fate’? Or that if he could not live as King of England, he was not greatly concerned about anything else?

David Johnson ends his letter by saying, ‘one assertion we can make with absolute certainty is that Richard III never chose to be buried in Leicester’. Or can we? It may not have been a positive choice, but one by default; he may have assumed that, in the event of his death, he would end up in a nearby village churchyard (like Lord Dacre of Gilsland, killed at Towton and buried in Saxton) – or in the nearest major settlement to Bosworth…

Of course, I don’t know – but the point is, nobody knows, conjecture as we will. The only things I am certain of is that the battle for Richard III will go on, ironically fought by larger armies than he or any other king could have commanded at the time; and that whether the decision goes with Leicester Cathedral or York Minster, I’ll be shedding no tears (except a few for Richard himself) – I’m just too pleased that he’s going to get a proper tomb somewhere, at last.

History Matters: Richard III

I admit it – I’ve never got over 1066. I might love our Norman castles and cathedrals but I still wail and gnash my teeth over what they represent: the grinding of Anglo-Saxon England under William the Bastard’s boot-heel. Call it race-memory or barking madness, it still hurts… though I’m reconciled to the Norman kings by the 1400’s, a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of the House of York. Weird. When I started Wars of the Roses re-enactment, it wasn’t like choosing a football team to support; somehow, deep in my core, I just knew I was a Yorkist.

So recent events in Leicester have filled me with joy and amazement. Yes, from an obscure grave in a long-demolished friary under a car-park to global mega-stardom, it’s been a funny old week for Richard III – the last English king to die in battle and the first to be subjected to full analysis by modern forensic archaeology. Let’s hope it’ll put an end to the parade of ludicrous caricatures to lurch and hobble across the stage in Shakespeare’s notorious play. Richard III wasn’t a hunchback; he had scoliosis, which made his shoulders uneven but didn’t disable him – he was an active soldier from his late teens. And it’ll certainly end the ignominy of his resting-place – at last, he’ll join our other monarchs with a proper tomb we can visit to pay our respects.

But where should it be? Arguments wax hot and furious between re-interring him in Leicester versus ‘repatriating’ him to the old northern capital, York, where he was well-loved in his lifetime and deeply mourned at his death. Naturally, Leicester want to keep him. He’s been there for 528 years; he was the most famous casualty of the history-changing Battle of Bosworth that took place on the city’s doorstep in 1485; and now he’s the British archaeological find of the century, excavated and analysed by staff from Leicester University. No wonder the mayor and council are rubbing their hands in unconcealed and rather tasteless glee: Richard III has put their city on the map in a BIG way, and will boost local tourism tremendously. Well, hell, these are hard times, and as a former heritage professional I can see where they’re coming from. Even as I sympathise with the other camp – the folk for whom King Richard means far more than filthy lucre. Folk for whom his death, the dishonour of his physical remains and the trashing of his memory by the bloody Tudors remain an open wound; folk who want him back in Yorkshire for love, rather than his tourist-pulling-power. Folk who still mourn, half a millennium later – and that includes me.

So, what’s the answer? Well, it’s a pretty safe bet King Richard wouldn’t have chosen to lie in Leicester, a city with which he had no particular connection except the negative one of having died nearby. But the argument for York Minster is pretty thin: he made provision for a chantry chapel there. Big fat hairy deal. Endowing chantries where masses would be said for their souls was something kings and noblemen routinely did at that time; Richard made benefactions to many religious houses including the lost chapel of St Mary at Towton, and made provision for a collegiate church at Middleham, where perpetual masses would be said for his family – so the chantry at York is no proof of his wish to lie there. The truth is, without a will or definite statement of intent, we’ve got no idea where Richard III wanted to be buried (I suspect Westminster Abbey, alongside his wife Anne and fellow-monarchs). And I’m torn. My head says, keep him in Leicester near the battlefield where he fell and where, against all odds, the University archaeologists have rediscovered him to the great interest of many local people. But my heart says, please give the North back our late lamented King, and re-inter him in York where we love him…