Richard III in Leicester: A People’s Burial-place for a ‘People’s Prince’?

What follows may cut no ice with folk who believe that King Richard III should be buried elsewhere; but since exploring the locale, I’m convinced that St Martin’s Cathedral in Leicester is an appropriate, indeed special, place for him to lie.

It may lack the grandeur of York Minster, Westminster Abbey or St George’s Chapel at Windsor (and it also lacks their hefty admission fees); but unlike these places, St Martin’s actively wanted the honour of housing the king’s remains – and the area dedicated to him does not end with the new ambulatory being constructed to accommodate his tomb. The cathedral gardens have been newly landscaped and a sculpture ‘Towards Stillness’ installed; and whether or not the latter is to your taste, it is nonetheless a work commemorating Richard’s final charge, his death fighting bravely at Bosworth, and his chequered posthumous fate.

Immediately beyond, the bronze statue of Richard III by┬áJames Butler, relocated from nearby Castle Gardens, provides a link between St Martin’s and the new Visitor Centre which incorporates the king’s burial site in the lost church of Greyfriars, giving visitors a unique opportunity to pay their respects at both his new tomb and his original grave.

The environs in the heart of the medieval city are also more significant to Richard’s life and reign than I had hitherto realised, despite having lived in Leicester for three years. The area, known (then as now) as The Newarke, comprised a religious precinct adjoining Leicester Castle, where the king stayed shortly after his coronation in 1483. The religious and secular areas were separated by a wall pierced by two gateways: The Magazine, (so-called from its use as a Civil War weapons store), dating to c. 1410; and the Turret Gateway dating to 1423, which gave access to the north entrance of the castle’s inner bailey. Both still stand, and it is likely that Richard III passed through these portals on a number of occasions (the last being when his body was returned to Leicester from Bosworth). Also standing is the beautiful Norman church of St Mary de Castro which, as its name indicates, once lay within the castle walls; here, Richard’s father, Richard, Duke of York was knighted in 1426, and the king himself may have heard Mass before leaving for Bosworth. A short distance away, sadly lost apart from two arches in the basement of De Montfort University’s Hawthorne Building, was the Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where his body is believed to have lain for three days prior to burial; the site of the Blue Boar Inn, where he lodged on his last night in Leicester; Bow Bridge, built in 1863 to replace the medieval bridge over which he rode out to battle and his body subsequently returned; and adjacent to the Cathedral, the fine half-timbered Guildhall which would have been a familiar sight to him in life. Cumulatively, this makes for a highly poignant ‘pilgrim trail’ for Ricardians, and arguably offers Richard III a far greater degree of prominence than he could receive among the myriad other cultural riches of York and London.

Leicester is also a great deal more accessible than these cities for many people, thanks to its position as England’s geographical centre, its position beside the M1 and its good rail links. This is particularly true for the millions living in the vast Birmingham conurbation and Midland towns and cities including Coventry and Northampton; but visiting is also substantially cheaper than a trip to London for those of us based in Yorkshire, and cheaper than a trip to York for residents of the south. Moreover, King Richard’s presence means that a provincial city will henceforth share some of the heritage tourism largesse already enjoyed by York and London, both of which have been firmly on the ‘tourist trail’ for many years.

This seems fair enough to me, as well as being apt for a king who, inasmuch as any noble of the period could be, was a ‘man of the people’. I believe that Richard III always sought to emulate the father he had lost at the age of eight and whose memory he must have been raised to revere. Richard of York was an able administrator who, as Lieutenant of France, showed himself as willing to heed and address the concerns of people in Normandy as he was to enforce Henry VI’s authority upon them; and who, during the Cade rebellion of 1450, allied himself firmly with the commons’ cause. Like his father, Richard married a Neville – Anne, the Earl of Warwick’s younger daughter – and, like his parents, seems to have enjoyed a close and probably faithful union. (His two acknowledged bastards, John and Katherine, both arrived in the years before his marriage; and as John Ashdown-Hill observes, prior to Anne’s death it was a matter of note when Richard ceased sharing her bed, implying that previously this had been his normal habit). He showed considerable┬áskill in managing the offices and vast estates entrusted to him by Edward IV, practising ‘good lordship’ and administering justice fairly, even when this conflicted with his own tenants’ interests; and as king, he swore his coronation oath in English, outlawed forced benevolences and established a court of claims for indigents (among other reforms designed to benefit the common weal).

Would this ‘people’s prince’ therefore scorn to lie in the heart of his country, a day’s ride from his birthplace, in a cathedral the less well-off of his affinity can freely visit to pay their respects? I can’t claim to be Richard reincarnate, nor to have received spiritual messages from him regarding his desires, but on the whole I think not… I think as a progressive ruler who cared about a fair deal for ordinary folk, he might even be quietly pleased.

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.