From Car Park to Amusement Park: The Meaning of Richard III’s Reburial

Richard III

Although it has recently published a number of posts associated with the Cuba trip led by Professors Pajakowski and Masur, One Thing after Another has been otherwise silent on historical topics for the last month. This silence is the result of the press of business–grading papers, cranking out letters of recommendation, service to the college, writing articles and books, as well as a host of other tasks associated with the professoriate. One Thing after Another promises, however, to be more active in the future, and a first installment on this promise is this post which begins with the following question:

Should Richard III have been reburied in Leicester Cathedral after a lavish ceremony?

Surely, you have been following this event as assiduously as One Thing after Another has! If not, perhaps some background is in order. . . .

Our story begins with the War of the Roses (ca. 1455-1487), a series of dynastic conflicts between two branches of the Plantagenet royal family, the houses of York and Lancaster. The wars more or less came to an end when Henry Tudor, the Lancastrian claimant, defeated and killed his Yorkist rival, Richard III, at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

Richard III met a bad end. Hoping to win quickly at Bosworth Field, he and his household charged a group of knights surrounding his nemesis. Richard III fought manfully and killed or wounded several of Henry Tudor’s bodyguard. However, Henry’s knights turned the charge away and pushed Richard’s men into a bog. It was while negotiating this bog that Richard was killed by blow from a halberd or poleax to the head. The fight was violent; Richard suffered eleven wounds, eight of them to the head. His body was eventually buried in the church at Greyfriars, a Franciscan monastery in nearby Leicester.

Henry Tudor, on the other hand, became Henry VII and founded a new dynasty that would hold the throne of England until the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. In an interesting twist, when Henry VII’s son, Henry VIII, dissolved England’s monasteries in 1538, Greyfriars was demolished.  Over the centuries, many structures were built and taken down in the area, and knowledge of Richard III’s final resting place was eventually lost. In the meantime, Richard III obtained a terrible reputation, largely because Shakespeare, who spent much of his career under a Tudor monarch (Elizabeth I), vilified the king in his play, Richard III.

Interest in rediscovering the location of Richard III’s body really gained momentum around 2009. Several academics, the Richard III Society, the Leicester City Council, Leicester Promotions (tourist marketing), the University of Leicester, Leicester Cathedral, and Darlow Smithson Productions (which hoped to make a TV show about the exhumation of Richard III’s body) all collaborated to find the grave. Leicester Promotions provided most of the money while Leicester University Archeological Services conducted the dig. On August 25, 2012, excavation began in a car park on the former site of Greyfriars. That first day, a skeleton was discovered, but it was not removed until early September. Over the coming weeks, several pieces of evidence were used to identify the skeleton as Richard III’s:

  • The skeleton was of an adult male in his 30s–Richard III was almost 33 when he died.
  • It had been buried under what had been identified as the church’s choir, which matched with contemporary accounts.
  • The skeleton suffered from scoliosis of the spine, which also matched with contemporary evidence of Richard III’s physical stature.
  • The skull suffered from a series of wounds that were consistent with contemporary accounts.
  • DNA evidence taken from Richard III’s descendants were a match with the skeleton.
  • Radiocarbon dating placed the date of the burial somewhat earlier than Richard III’s death. However, mass spectrometry results revealed that the bones belonged to somebody who had consumed a great deal of seafood which often makes radiocarbon dating samples appear older than they are. Further analysis concluded that there was a high probability that the bones were buried between 1450 and 1550.

In February 2013, based on this evidence, the University of Leicester identified the skeleton as belonging to Richard III.

Richard III Skeleton

Determining where to rebury Richard III proved time-consuming and controversial. British law suggested that the king should be buried in the nearest consecrated ground. In this case, that was Leicester Cathedral. The Canon Chancellor of Leicester Cathedral believed Richard III ought to be interred in a “Christian-led but ecumenical service.” It would not be a formal reburial but rather a service of remembrance. These plans were contested by a number of figures and organizations, including the Plantagenet Alliance, a group of people claiming to be Richard III’s descendants who argued that they best represented his wishes (burial at York Minster). The Plantagenet Alliance eventually filed a law suit that delayed but in the end could not stop Richard III’s reburial in Leicester Cathedral on March 26, 2015. Among other highlights at the reburial was Benedict Cumberbatch reading a poem written by the United Kingdom’s poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy.

We are now brought face-to-face with our original question: should Richard III have been reburied in Leicester Cathedral after a lavish ceremony?

Even a rather polite article by the New York Times cannot help but refer to several controversies associated with the event:

To some, it seemed not quite right that Richard III, a Catholic (like all Englishmen in the late 15th century), should be reburied in an Anglican ceremony. Then there was Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster and the ranking Catholic prelate in England, who delivered a few words at the service and referred disapprovingly to Richard III’s blood-splattered life. And Queen Elizabeth was a no-show because she wanted to avoid controversy. She also probably did not want to be associated with an event that highlighted the bloody and unstable history of the English monarchy. One cannot help thinking of Thomas Paine’s words in Common Sense: “The plain truth is, that the antiquity of English monarchy will not bear looking into. . . . Monarchy and succession have laid (not this or that kingdom only) but the world in blood and ashes. ‘Tis a form of government which the word of God bears testimony against, and blood will attend it.’”

One of the arguments that has generated much heat revolves around what manner of man Richard III was. As this article from the Discovery Channel site asks, “Does Richard III deserve such a special and somewhat bizarre honor? Was he ‘that poisonous hunchback’d toad,’ as portrayed by Shakespeare, or was he unfairly maligned?”

The National Post gives three very different historical assessments of Richard III: serial killer, maligned hero, and . . . we’ve got the wrong body!

After briefly surveying the conflict, the Deutsche Welle (a German news organization) argues that there are political reasons for this celebration. Emphasizing British history, Deutsche Welle asserts, allows the British to stress their singularity and reinforces the British tendency to act apart from Europe. The news organization claims “the singularity of British identity is also supported by its cult of history. By celebrating a dead king, Great Britain reaffirms its values.”

The following article by the Daily Mail (which sits on the conservative end of British politics) seems to confirm that the reburial has important political overtones. After all, the headline stresses that the reburial “will make you proud to be a monarchist” while the article glides over the debate concerning Richard III’s character by claiming simply that his reputation “has been transformed” for the better:

It is precisely for this reason that the Guardian is infuriated with the reburial—because it seems to reaffirm values that this new organization finds obsolete and positively pernicious. It has attacked the event with a barrage of opinion pieces:

The Guardian’s attacks proceed from a variety of related directions:

  • In “austerity” Britain, where so many budget cuts have taken place, it seems rather inappropriate to spend so much money on a monarch whose contributions to the well-being of the British people are unclear.
  • The only reason Richard III has received such a lavish reburial is because he is a king; this point highlights the extent to which social inequality persists in Britain.
  • All of the hullaballoo surrounding the reburial does not serve as an appropriate symbol for contemporary, multi-cultural Britain. The third article asks, “Is a ceremony about a defunct monarch, laden with Christian ritual and attended by a clutch of minor royals, not in danger of projecting a rather exclusive and backward-looking message?”

However you look at Britain’s commemoration of Richard III, many commentators see it as a political event. Such an interpretation should come as no surprise to regular readers of One Thing after Another; we have repeatedly pointed out that history and memory are constantly shaped by contemporary forces and needs. But what did the attendees of the reburial think? Were they humble masses tugging their forelocks? Were they strong and proud monarchists? Were they Englishmen asserting their uniqueness in the face of Europe?

History Extra, the BBC’s history magazine, provides us with some insight into these questions:

As always, a mixture of motives seems to characterize those who attended the ceremony and parade. And prominent among the motives was a desire to witness an interesting as well as unique spectacle.

We can learn two important lessons from the controversy concerning Richard III’s reburial. First, as we have already noted, to quote Benedetto Croce, “All history is contemporary history.” In other words, our views of the past are invariably shaped by our opinions of current developments. Second, what elite commentators think they see from above is not necessarily what everyday people perceive from below.

So what’s next for Richard III? How will this story continue? f Historyextra is to be believed, there are apparently plans to create a Richard III-inspired theme park!

You can imagine that the arguments over his reburial will be renewed in the battle over a theme park. . . .


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