Tim Koch has spent a day in Leicester:
Perhaps the above picture brings to mind the opening lines of Shakespeare’s Richard III:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
It could have escaped few people’s notice that in 2012 the remains of Richard III, King of England from June 1483 to August 1485, were found under a car park in the English East Midlands city of Leicester and have just been reinterred in the city’s Cathedral. Between 23 and 25 March, the coffin holding the remains was ‘in Repose’ in Leicester Cathedral for the public to view and over 20,000 people, including myself, filed past the casket during this time. Earlier, more than 35,000 people turned out to see the cortege parade through parts of Leicestershire. A group called The Plantagenet Alliance, made up of distant relatives of Richard, had previously got a High Court review of the licence to reinter the bones in Leicester as they wanted the remains buried in York but they eventually lost their case.
I was the only weirdo who thought it appropriate to wear a suit to a funereal occasion held in a cathedral for a king. I chose the purple tie as it is the colour of kings and bishops while the white rose is the symbol of Richard’s House of York. Despite this sartorial effort, I, like most of those present, was compelled more by witnessing a unique event than by honouring a long-dead monarch. It is not often that you can attend part of the internment of a medieval king. It was a slightly surreal experience with a dash of eccentricity thrown in.
Until very recently, most of us probably knew only a few things about Richard. From the mnemonic to recall of the colours of the rainbow, British people who went to school in the olden days may remember that ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain’. What else? He was an inherently evil schemer, he was a hunchback, he offered to exchange his kingdom for a horse and he murdered his young nephews, ‘the Princes in the Tower’. The rediscovery of his body, lost for five centuries, has led to a lot of people questioning these and other supposed facts.
The Richard III Society was founded in 1924 ‘in the belief that many features of the traditional accounts of the character and career of Richard III are neither supported by sufficient evidence nor reasonably tenable, the Society aims to promote…. research into (his) life and times … and to secure a reassessment of… (his role) in English history’.
I do not intend to present the cases for and against Richard, save to say that it is likely that history has misrepresented him to a greater or lesser extent for at least two reasons. First and famously, ‘history is written by the victors’. The Tudors who defeated and succeeded the Plantagenets were anxious to secure their tenuous claim to the throne and soon established their self-serving version of events as ‘the facts’. Secondly, Shakespeare’s play may be a literary masterpiece but the Bard did not let the truth get in the way of a good story. Even the famous ‘Kingdom for a horse’ line (which was not intended to mock Richard) has been commonly interpreted as the offer of a foolish swap by a foolish man. In fact Shakespeare’s Richard means that for the want of a horse from which he can rally his troops, the battle (and hence the Kingdom) will be lost.
As we entered the Cathedral, a long suffering official told us that we could take photographs but ‘….one only please and no selfies or group pictures with the coffin’. This was a disappointment for some, perhaps. Filing past the casket, everyone around me was holding up their smart phones but, while accepting the fact that the deceased had been cold for 500 years, I could not bring myself to take pictures. I was clearly in a minority, even though the queue was largely middle-aged, middle-class and middle-England.
How a King of England, the last to die in battle and the first to be DNA tested, ended up lost under what became the Leicester Social Services car park is a long and complex story, one that I will attempt to make short and simple.
Richard was born in 1452 and his entire life was dominated by what later became known as the Wars of the Roses, a series of conflicts for the throne of England between Richard’s House of York and the opposing House of Lancaster. It was never expected that Richard should become king; indeed he was a loyal supporter of his older brother, King Edward IV. When Edward died unexpectedly in April 1483, his successor was his 12-year-old son, also Edward. The late king’s will designated Richard to rule as Protector while the boy was still underage but his widow, the queen, and her family moved to crown the boy Edward V at once. This would have rendered Richard’s protectorate unnecessary and would have enabled the queen’s family to rule on the boy king’s behalf. However, before Edward’s coronation he was suddenly declared illegitimate by an assembly of lords and commoners and was thus ineligible to be monarch. This legal authority then invited Richard to assume the role of King and he was crowned in July 1483. A month after Richard’s coronation, Edward and his younger brother were not seen in public again and rumours circulated that the new king had ordered the murder of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ (though it should be noted that the Tower was a palace, not a prison). While Richard is an obvious suspect, nowadays many consider the case against him ‘not proven’ and point out that there were others with at least as good a motive, if not better.
Richard made a number of progressive reforms in his 777 day reign, particularly to English law, including the presumption of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. However, his taking of the crown, the disappearance of Edward’s sons and the execution of several leading nobles lead to discontent and rebellions. In August 1485, the Lancastrian, Henry Tudor defeated Richard in battle at Bosworth Field, just outside of Leicester. The victor became Henry VII and the Tudor Age began. Richard’s body was publicly displayed in Leicester and then given to a group of Franciscan friars for hasty burial. With the dissolution of the monasteries fifty years later, all records and markers pertaining to Richard’s grave were lost for the next five centuries.
I am not too well-read on this period but I will venture the opinion that it was a positive thing that Richard was defeated at Bosworth as this led to the Tudor era, a period of great and important change, most notably the break with Rome.
Today, the original grave has been left open but covered with a sheet of glass. This in turn is enclosed by a specially constructed room which connects to the building pictured on the left above, an old school which is now the Visitor Centre. It has all been done exceptionally well and the architects responsible for the transformation of this uninspiring scene explain their work here.
The Richard III Visitor Centre is not a museum as it has nothing contemporary with Richard to display. Apart from the grave site, it has two levels. The first, dark and atmospheric, tells the story of Richard and his times. The second is bright and airy and tells of the science behind the project and of Richard’s reputation and legacy today. The idea is that people make up their own mind about the man and the myth.
Richard’s skeleton clearly shows his scoliosis, a curved spine and some twisted and misshapen vertebra. He was not a ‘hunchback’ but he would have had one shoulder higher than the other. This did not stop him leading his troops in battle and fighting in full armour. Even today, up to 3% of the population have scoliosis, including the fastest man in the world, Usain Bolt.
Although the four pictures below may give another impression, Leicester has not been too crass in exploiting the Richard connection and most of the commercial and commemorative activities have been reasonably restrained and/or tasteful. On the ceremonial front, the problem must have been that there was simply no precedent for such an occasion. Because of this it was probably inevitable that some of the rituals may have been a little forced or even downright peculiar but the British are particularly skilled at giving the impression that something invented recently has in fact existed forever.
In conclusion, few would deny that, until very recently at least, history has not been kind to Richard III. Strangely, it is another Shakespeare play, Julius Caesar that may sum up his fate:
The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.