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The reburial of Richard III draws near

King Richard III’s bones will be placed in a tomb in a remodelled Leicester Cathedral.

I have written four articles on the ‘King under the Car Park’ – Richard III – and this must surely be my last. The juxtaposition between a car park and a medieval king is a strange one. In his wildest dreams the dead king could not have imagined such a scenario. For a start, neither he nor anyone else at that time could have got their heads round car parks, much less the horseless carriages which were stabled there. As for those carriages being able to hurtle forward at unimaginable speeds, it would all have been too much for him. Just as amazing would be the fact that almost all the future subjects of his realm would own one and would be able to travel in perfect comfort and quiet on surfaced roads from one end of his kingdom to the other in hours. His bumpety, bump, clacktity, clack journey would have taken weeks.

It was the longest of long shots that led Philippa Langley, the Scottish Secretary of the Richard III Society, to Leicester’s city centre car park. For years she had obsessed about finding the only English king with no known burial place. They knew he wasn’t buried on Bosworth Field, the battlefield where he was cut down following his Victoria Cross-like heroics. His body was stripped naked and slung over a horse and paraded the fifteen miles to Leicester. That much was known.

Rumour had it that he may have been interred in a long vanished monastery. Others said that his body had been thrown in the river Stour. Yet more, that it was a mystery which would never be solved.

Philippa Langley – the hero of our tale – backed the monastery theory. I imagined she reasoned that although they weren’t going to give him a king’s funeral – usurper and murderer of his child nephews as they alleged him to be – they were most likely to hand his brutalised remains over for burial in consecrated ground such as a monastery.

Furthermore, Henry Tudor, the Lancastrian winner of the battle that unseated him, knew that if he was going to keep his newly won crown he would need to reach an accommodation with the Yorkists. Denying one of their own, a Yorkist prince of the realm – and an anointed king at that – a Christian burial was going to make that next to impossible. There would have been outrage in the Yorkist camp. Even a sinner, if that is what he was, was entitled to the sacraments and Richard’s frenzied, pitiless killers knew that. And even the meanest in the land took their Catholic faith extremely seriously at that time. Hell and damnation awaited anyone who offended against God’s law in a matter like that.

So Philippa’s hunch had a good chance of being the right one. By great good fortune the whereabouts of the monastery – although it was entirely gone – was known to the city authorities. By equally great good fortune – since it was city centre – it had no buildings over the site. That would have totally scuppered any excavation.

Philippa set about raising the considerable sums needed for a major archaeological dig. She also set about rallying the support of city authority who owned the car park, as well as its university which had the disciplines in all the relevant fields to cover the extensive research needed if she was to succeed in finding and authenticating the missing king.

It was all not so much a ‘whodunit?’ as a ‘where is it?’ affair. Both Leicester City and the university realised that success would bring massive rewards in terms of PR and tourism and put both on the map worldwide like nothing they had ever done before.

Even so, a very big if hung over the whole enterprise and a fiasco seemed much the likeliest outcome. Heavy industrial plant moved in on the site ready for the opening day of the dig. All stood prepared to excavate the entire car park if necessary. Every square metre of ground material would have to be carefully sifted. No one expected a quick result. All were steeled for plentiful egg on their faces.

Step forward our hero. “Where shall we begin?” asked the foreman of works. “There, where it says R,” indicated Philippa, pointing her finger. She had months before said, “the first time I stood in that car park the strangest feeling washed over me. I thought I am standing on Richard’s grave.”

In a particular part of the car park was a bay with a big R for reserved marked on it and it seemed as good a place as any to begin. Minutes passed after the tarmac was lifted and the subsoil carefully brought up. And like something yanked straight out of fiction, that very spot yielded a result. At only about three feet down a femur came into view. Though gratifying, that in itself was not cause for jubilation. The evidence was strong that this was where the monastery had been and that this was the area where bodies most likely had been laid to rest.

Following the sighting of the femur, more earth was removed. This time not by plant but gingerly by trowel. Then more excitement as the spine came into view. As the troweling moved up the spine from its base, a shriek was heard. The spine was veering off to one side from the vertical. It carried all the hallmarks of scoliosis – a curvature of the spine – just like Richard was said to have.

This was all too good to be true, even though their hopes were tempered by the knowledge that scoliosis was not that rare. They had managed to establish that it was a man. But did this man die violently? Then the skull was reached and there was exultation. Clear, unmistakable signs revealed that the deceased had died in battle. It was a Eureka moment for everyone, but most of all for Philippa. Tears welled up in her eyes.

Much had yet to be done forensically to authenticate beyond all question, but she had no doubt that her long search was over. A man, born in Canada, would later prove through DNA that the skeleton was of Plantagenet origin. The rest is history. One of the greatest hunts in all of archaeology had come to an end.

Four days of ceremonies will begin on 22nd March. There will be an honour guard of mounted soldiers and a 21-Gun Salute at the battlefield; two hundred children will display medieval, pennants they’ve designed; and four horses will draw the brake on its final journey to the cathedral where it will go on display before the final laying to rest of a monarch who fell in battle 530 years before. How the Tudors would have hated it all.

As for the TV broadcaster covering the event, it has gone bonkers. It’s been said there will have been nothing quite like it since television hit the airwaves. Britain’s reputation for eccentric, yet moving, theatre will have received a mighty shot in the arm. Quite what the rest of the world will make of it no one knows. They’re gobsmacked at it all, yet captivated. And they’ll all be watching.

The present monarch should have attended the reinterment. That much will be very apparent when she sees how her people have risen to the occasion. Richard’s own vile treatment in death will at least have been washed away by a £2.5 million effort of repentance by a remorseful people.

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Queen Elizabeth II must set the seal on this final verdict of history

The bones of King Richard III are now awaiting disposal. When permission was sought for the highly speculative dig to uncover them from the Leicester city car park – where they had lain undisturbed for 528 years – the Ministry of Justice gave the nod and indicated that, if authenticated, they should be reinterred in the city’s cathedral.

A reconstruction of King Richard III based on his skeletal remains.

A reconstruction of King Richard III based on his skeletal remains.

First of all, I have to ask: who has rights over a monarch’s remains? I doubt very much if the Ministry of Justice, or indeed any of the secular authorities, have such rights. Were they to exist anywhere – excepting a ‘finders, keepers’ argument – I would have thought they rested with the monarch of the day, under perhaps advice from the ecclesiastical authorities. So, prime minister, please butt out!

Richard III, we now know, was a genuinely good king. Apart from being anointed, and therefore a totally bona fide one with a genuine claim to the throne – unlike his successor – he carried out a whole range of enlightened measures during his two short years as monarch. And forensic examination of the skeleton has told us a great deal – much of it extraordinary. He was neither a freak, as Shakespeare wrote, nor was he ugly (or ‘evil-looking’) as the Bard also insisted. He certainly died violently, but in view of his very slight – almost female-like – frame and physical disabilities, his final sortie into a melee of armoured knights to cut down his usurper rival would have won him a posthumous Victoria Cross in today’s world. So, a hero too!

Let us look at his personality and character – again, hugely disparaged by Shakespeare. Shrinks have examined his whole conduct throughout the thirty two year of his life and they paint a most sympathetic profile. They point to a sad and difficult childhood which, nevertheless, led to an empathetic man with loyal instincts who most certainly knew the difference between right and wrong – and who was extremely pious. Goodbye, we have to say, to the idea that such a man could have murdered his two young nephews, the ‘princes in the tower’.

Nowadays Richard’s disability – his scoliosis and sideways-bent spine – would have evoked great sympathy. Then, however, poor Richard would have been regarded as a pitiable object of scorn rejected by God. But his disability would only have been known to his family – and doubtless the aristocracy (people like to titter) – but not, I suspect, to the general public. Medieval attire of the time, with its raised and puffed-up shoulders, would easily have camouflaged the lower-than-other shoulder. The deeds attributed to this “accursed of God” Richard have him to be a schizophrenic psychopath, yet modern medics insist he was nothing of the sort. Clearly we are going to have to re-write our history books.

We may continue to enjoy Shakespeare’s play for its powerful drama but dismiss its history content. We should do exactly the same with Scotland’s much maligned king, Macbeth. But at least the Bard proved himself even-handed in rubbishing the kings of both kingdoms. (History, we have to acknowledge, was not Shakespeare’s forte.)

As for Richard’s treatment after his heroic death in action, on that occasion the victor, Henry Tudor, let himself down very badly. No chivalric generosity from him to his fallen foe brought down by treachery, but vilification and humiliation. When was ever a king of England stripped naked and slung over an ass for all to see on a fifteen-mile journey from the battlefield to the nearest town, in this case Leicester? Along the way, ignorant locals were encouraged to insult the former king and one went so far as to plunge his dagger so deep into the king’s buttock that it went right through and damaged the pelvis.  And when was a king of England was dumped unceremoniously into a hastily dug hole without so much as a shroud to cover his nakedness, much less a coffin? I am sure that the friars who attended had never seen a burial quite like it in their friary – or anywhere else for that matter – and would have wished it otherwise. But they would have been scared stiff of the mailed ruffians who dumped the body on them and of showing the proper respect which was due. They obviously were told to get rid of it quickly and were not minded to disobey or show any form of reverence. Just a few whispered words of the sacraments would have been permitted. Only such a scenario could account for the utter disrespect of it all.

We have much to apologise for to that fallen monarch whose character we then went on to impugn for a full five hundred years with a litany of the most dreadful lies. But now we have a God-given opportunity to make amends, and the eyes of the world are on us.

The dig’s success has excited a worldwide level of interest, with some saying it is among the greatest archaeological finds in the last hundred years.  No English king since Richard the Lionheart is better known abroad, and unlike the alleged wickedness of the third Richard, the first (Lionheart) really did do terrible things – like massacre hundreds of Muslim children. There’s an element of black comedy here: one is seen as a hero (he’s even got a statue outside Parliament) and the other as a villain. Yet the truth is that the Lionheart cared little for his English kingdom and preferring his French realm. He didn’t even speak English, and out of his eleven-year reign he spent only months in England. On the other hand, Plantagenet Richard was a first-class administrator who set to with gusto in making England a much more agreeable place for the common man to live.

It seems to me that our Queen is the one best placed to set the seal on this final verdict of history. She is, after all, his successor, and a devout Christian, like him. It will not do for a lesser royal than her to attend the re-interment. To do so would be to suggest that she does not accept the forensic and psychiatric evidence which has exonerated Richard. That would be ungracious, to say the least – even unwise. I feel she is duty-bound to close this final chapter with the dignity it deserves. 538 years is a long time for her ancestor to stand falsely accused.

When the murdered Tsar’s remains were found, the Russian state decided to do right by him by ceremoniously re-interring the bones in the St. Petersburg home of Russian Tsars and the then president, Boris Yeltsin, attended. England can do no less for the last of the Plantagenets, its longest reigning dynasty. This great saga of English kingship can only be brought to a fitting conclusion, in my view, by burial in Westminster Abbey – the most ancient and hallowed resting place of England’s kings and where most of Richard’s ancestors lie. A final, powerful argument for the Abbey is the fact that his beloved wife and Queen – Anne Neville – whose loss he is said to have caused him to cry at her funeral (strange behaviour for a psychopath!) is buried there.

Our Queen is said to have not much liked the Duchess of Windsor, and her mother positively loathed her. But neither denied her right to have her body brought back from exile and laid to rest beside that of her husband, the former Edward VIII. Richard has that right, too.

Finally, the Richard III Society are to be congratulated for their steadfastness over the generations in believing that England never had such a wicked king and that Richard was a good man with the right instincts. Most of all, the young woman who spearheaded the efforts to find Richard, Philippa Langley, is the true heroin of it all.

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