As a nation we set great store by how and where we display the things that are important to us. The bride and groom on the top table, granny’s picture on the mantelpiece, the Union Flag on Buckingham Palace. We even have a name for it: pride of place.
So it’s quite something when the location of one of the most legendary monarchs among the (roughly) 52 we’ve had over the past 1000 years – the last Plantagenet King of England and arch-Northerner Richard III – is in the hands of people with vested interests amid allegations that he’s involved in a conspiracy with left-wing serial campaigners to drain the public purse.
Even a ‘D’ in O level history (thank you) tells you the last bit is an unlikely scenario – what with the first Lord President of the Council of the North and Lord High Admiral of England not being noted for his socialist tendencies (he was a duke and a knight of the realm twice over by the age of nine) and also having been dead and buried for 528 years, most recently under a car park in Leicester.
What the situation makes clear is that while the last 12 months of Richard III’s 560 years on earth have been the most public (there were fewer than five million people in England when he died in 1485, while a Google search for ‘Richard III found’ returns 66 million pages) they have certainly not been the most edifying.
Ironically what led the Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling to drag King Richard III into the politics of public spending was the lack of public debate he questions:
“The most bizarre case I have come across is that … we must have a public consultation on where the remains of Richard III … should be buried,” he wrote. “Is that really a sensible way for public money to be spent?”
He was objecting to the judicial review held to determine whether Richard should stay in Leicester. But if public money is being wasted now, it is because too many of us have demonstrated by our inaction that we believe Britain’s history – our place in it, the story it tells, the lessons it can teach us – is not really worth bothering with.
The Wars of the Roses
Briefly we must skim through our school history books: Richard Plantaganet, son of Richard Plantaganet 3rd Duke of York, lost his father and brother Edmund in the Wars of the Roses in 1460. Richard was instrumental in securing the crown for his eldest brother Edward. On Edward’s death in 1483 his children were, ahem, declared illegitimate and Richard assumed the throne (what then happened to the princes in the Tower, M’Lud, has never been established.)
Alas, King Richard III lived in tumultuous times and he lost the House of York’s long-running battle with Lancaster on 22 August 1485 at the age of 32:
“Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, who was a Lancastrian claimant to the throne living in France, landed in South Wales. He marched east and engaged Richard in battle on Bosworth Field in Leicestershire on 22 August. Although Richard possessed superior numbers, several of his key lieutenants defected. Refusing to flee, Richard was killed in battle and Henry Tudor took the throne as Henry VII.”
But it’s the details that make history so fascinating. The dead king was dragged from the battlefield and brought to Leicester, and as the historian David Baldwin explained:
“One of Henry’s first acts on entering Leicester was to have Richard’s body exposed, naked, to the gaze of the populace so that no Yorkist sympathiser could doubt the certainty that the former ruler was slain.”
After Leicester’s inhabitants had gazed for a while the Grey Friars “requested or were charged with, the responsibility of burying his remains” in their abbey :
“Henry VII’s court historian … recorded that the deceased monarch was ‘buryed two days after withiout any pompe or solemne funeral ‘ … the friars, Lord Bacon tells us, subsequently treated the King’s body with less than exemplary reverence.”
Ten years later a marble tomb was erected, but when the church was eventually flattened the last English monarch to die in battle was tarmacced over and parked on. His remains saw daylight for the first time in five centuries when he was uncovered by a mechanical digger last year.
It is a pretty impressive CV, and I’ve missed out quite a lot. If he wasn’t dead, this is a man who would have us all incarcerated in a dark part of the Tower while bits of our anatomy were removed as rightful punishment not only for the bit about the Leicester car-park, but for not being fussed about what happens to him now.
In a burial ground in which interments may legally take place
The discovery of the body was undoubtedly inspirational. The University of Leicester, the Richard III Society and Leicester City Council worked to identify the site of the church Richard had been buried in, found a body, and in February this year identified it using the mitochondrial DNA of a known relative.
But then the problems began. The exhumation licence from Chris Grayling’s Department of to the University of Leicester under the Burial Act of 1857 was to dig up not Richard III, but “remains”. They were to be buried in the city “or in a burial ground in which interments may legally take place.”
When Richard was identified, instead of a national debate about what we should do, it was announced, by Leicester, that he would be buried in the city where a Richard III visitor centre across the road would bring in £4.5m a year.
Cue (limited) outrage – from Yorkists who have gathered 30,000 signatures to have him buried at York Minster (in a petition which manages to mis-spell the village where his son is buried), and then from The Planagenet Alliance, a campaign group set up in March 2013 by the 17th great-nephew of Richard III, Stephen Nicolay to represent a group of Richard’s relatives.
To be determined by the staff of Leicester Cathedral
With Leicester insisting it not only had Richard’s bones, but the legal right to keep them too, things got heated. Liz Hudson-Oliff, from the Diocese of Leicester, was quoted as claiming Richard had to be buried in Leicester, apparently contradicting the licence wording:
“Under the terms of the exhumation licence issued by the Ministry of Justice, the remains should be reburied in Leicester.
“It would require a legal challenge to alter this. We would like the remains to come to us and the presumption is that they will come to us.
“The type of ceremony which takes place in Leicester Cathedral is to be determined by the staff of Leicester Cathedral.”
Hence the judicial review last month when Mr Justice Haddon-Cave said the Government failed to carry out a consultation, and that as a responsible public body the university should not have begun preparations for the interment before an appropriate consultation had been carried out.
“I would strongly recommend that parties immediately consider referring the fundamental question – as to where and how Richard III is reburied – to an independent advisory panel made up of suitable experts and Privy Councillors, who can consult and receive representations from all interested parties and make suitable recommendations with reasonable speed.”
And if I die no soul will pity me
And that means the cat is out of the bag – King Richard III is too important a part of our history to be left to vested interests in York or Leicester or anywhere else. What we should do with the only scientifically-validated skeleton that can boast a Shakespeare play named after it is a national issue – not one best left to interest groups or cities which would stand to earn millions from tourism.
So where should Richard end up? It’s true he passed through Leicester a few times before they covered him over ‘withiout any pompe or solemne funeral’, but the fact that I’ve been to Seaton Sluice doesn’t mean I’d like to be buried there, and they didn’t strip me naked and gawp at me for two days.
Richard’s brother King Edward IV, the one he helped to bring to power, is buried in Windsor Castle, but it costs £17.50 to get in, while York Minster (£10) is now ‘neutral’ on whether they want him at all, after calling in the police following less enthusiastic overtures earlier in the year. Meanwhile Westminster Abbey (where Richard was crowned) would be the most prestigious resting place, but at £18 to get in, also the most expensive.
It was William Shakespeare who gave King Richard III the words:
“I shall despair. There is no creature loves me,
And if I die no soul will pity me.”
If we get a public consultation, move over Leicester, move over York. It will be up to us to prove Shakespeare was wrong.