Richard III: a ceremony fit for a king?

Chris Skidmore 19 September 2012 10:20

Chris Skidmore, Conservative MP and historian, explains the plans already in place for the burial of Richard III.

I, here, whom the earth encloses under ostentatious marble,

Was justly called Richard the Third.

I was Protector of my country, an uncle ruling on behalf of his nephew.

I held the British kingdoms in trust, although they were disunited.

Then for just sixty days less two,

And two summers, I held my sceptres.

Fighting bravely in war, deserted by the English,

I succumbed to you, King Henry VII.

But you yourself, piteously, at your expense, thus honoured my bones

And caused a former king to be revered with the honour of a king

When in twice five years less four

Three hundred five-year periods of our salvation had passed.

And eleven days before the Kalends of September

I surrendered to the red rose the power it desired.

Whoever you are, pray for my offences,

That my punishment may be lessened by your prayers.

So read the inscription on Richard III’s tomb, constructed ten years after the king’s death, when in September 1495, Henry VII eventually decided to give some thought the dead king’s grave, ordering that James Keyley be paid £10 1s for making ‘King Richard’s tomb’. Even in the grave, it seems, Richard would continue to cause controversy, with the payment for the alabaster monument becoming the subject of a lawsuit between two stonemasons. With the possible rediscovery of the king’s body beneath a car park at Leicester, subject to DNA testing that will take up to twelve weeks, it seems that controversy has once more been reignited.

Richard had been killed at the Battle of Bosworth, the last king to be killed on an English battlefield. After being urged to flee following the desertion of some of his followers and the collapse of his vanguard, instead the king chose to make one final desperate charge, aimed at Henry Tudor’s standard. Far from Shakespeare’s fictional portrayal of the king attempting to trade his kingdom for a horse, near contemporary sources tell a different story. According to Polydore Vergil, one of the early historians of the battle, ‘Richard could (as they say) have found safety for himself in flight. For when those who were round him saw the troops wielding their arms languidly and lazily, and others secretly leaving the battle, they suspected treachery and urged him to flee’. Believing it was obvious that ‘the battle had manifestly turned against him, they procured a fast horse’ for the Richard. ‘But Richard, who knew that the people were hostile to him, cast aside all hope for the future that would come after this, and is said to have replied that on that day he would make an end either of wars or of his life, such was the great boldness and great force of spirit in him’. ‘God forbid I yield one step’ he is reported to have told one of his commanders, ‘This day I will die as a king or win’.

In the end, after being swept from the battle by the sudden entrance of Sir William Stanley’s forces into the battle, Richard ‘ended his days iniquitously and filthily in the dirt and the mire’ apparently being struck dead by a Welsh halberd. Even once Richard had been killed, the rain of blows upon his battered body continued as his crown was ‘hewyd’ from his head ‘with dowtfull dents’ with one source describing how Richard’s head was battered to the point that his basinet was driven into his head, ‘until his brains came out with blood’. According to one chronicler,  ‘many other insults were heaped on it, and, not very humanely, a halter was thrown around the neck’; ‘stripped of all he was wearing’ Richard’s body was placed on the back of a horse and brought to Leicester ‘with his head and arms hanging down on one side of the horse and his legs on the other, a wretched sight indeed, but very worthy of the man’s life’. Henry ordered that Richard’s body should be placed on public display for two days in Leicester, ‘for all men to wonder upon’.  When Richard’s body was cut down, Henry chose to have the Yorkist king ‘irreverently buried’ without any funeral ceremony in the choir of the Franciscan Friars Minor in Leicester.

Richard’s tomb did not survive the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which brought an end to his final resting place at Grey Friars. John Speed, in his History of Great Britian, published in 1611, stated that at the suppression of Grey Friars’ monastery, Richard’s tomb was ‘pulled down and utterly defaced, since when he grave overgrown with nettles and weeds is very obscure and not to be found.’ The father of Sir Christopher Wren wrote how after the dissolution ‘the place of his burial happened to fall into the bounds of a citizen’s garden, which being after purchased by Mr. Robert Herrick was by him covered with a handsome stone pillar, three foot high, with this inscription, ‘Here lies the body of Richard III, some time King of England.’ This he showed me walking in his garden, Anno 1612.’

This is the last mention of Richard’s grave, until last week’s discovery of a skeleton, supposedly with a curvature of the spine, with an arrowhead lodged in its back and wounds to the skull consistent with the king’s brutal end. The issue now remains, if the bones are those of the Yorkist king, what should be done with them, and how should ‘Richard’ be re-buried? As an anointed king, should he therefore be granted a state funeral, and if so, where might his remains be interred? (Already the debate has begun to rage between Leicester , York or Westminster Abbey, where Richard’s wife Anne Neville is buried). There are noteworthy precedents abroad, most recently the reburial of Tsar Nicholas II in 1998, yet in Britain there are thorny issues that need to be addressed. Since the Act of Settlement in 1701, should a Catholic monarch be granted such an honour, and if so, what form would the funeral rites take? In a parliamentary motion, I have suggested that Richard be buried ‘appropriately’, yet evidently there is room for discussion.

It seems that this discussion may already be academic: apparently a ‘Reburial Document’ has been prepared by the organisers of the excavation in case Richard was found, outlining a quiet and strictly private reburial using a requiem mass, followed by a later ‘Service of Celebration’ which would be open to the public. Nevertheless, it throws up the question of how a joint funeral ceremony should be conducted, something which I intend to pursue with the Church Commissioner, Sir Tony Baldry MP.

Richard, who took his book of Hours to the battlefield with him and whose chantry foundations demonstrate his commitment to the cult of sainthood, was clearly a devout Catholic; what licence then, should be made for the king’s own beliefs, without compromising the Anglican settlement? Perhaps the closest example available is the case of St Edward the Martyr, whose remains were unearthed in 1931, yet took until 1984, when after lengthy negotiations, his bones, having been stored in a cutlery box in a bank vault in Woking, were finally buried by the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile at a site owned by the St Edward Brotherhood, on the agreement that the saint’s feast days were observed— itself testament to the problems that reburials can cause.

As for a state funeral, an honour bestowed upon anointed kings and queens, four Prime Ministers, Nelson and Darwin, the option remains an interesting one to debate; what is certain, that if the bones turn out to be Richard, we should mark a remarkable, often bloody and controversial chapter in our nation’s history, with a ceremony fit for a king.

Chris Skidmore MP’s book, Bosworth: The Rise of the Tudors (Weidenfeld and Nicholson) will be published in June 2013.

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