Richard III earliest surviving portrait.jpgA unique, once-in-a-lifetime event, occurred last week in Leicester.

Richard III, England’s second — and last king — to die in battle was reinterred in Leicester Cathedral. The last Plantagenet king, he lived from October 2, 1452 to August 22, 1485, weeks short of his 33rd birthday.

Channel 4 covered the event live in nearly seven hours of broadcasting. Well done to the station’s management for viewing this as newsworthy (unlike the BBC), to the cameramen, the production teams for arranging the many live interviews and to the Channel 4 News team, especially Jon Snow, for covering the event so engagingly.

Our memory of Richard III is marred by the question of what happened to the young princes, his nephews and mere boys (one of whom was heir to the throne), who were held in the Tower of London before Richard became king. This tragic episode in history has not been resolved conclusively for many people. It continues to enliven historical discussions and will do so for some time. The princes mysteriously disappeared from the Tower. Were they kidnapped or killed? Everyone has an opinion, including one on whether Richard was directly involved in their disappearance.

Richard III’s legacy

The last of the Plantagenet monarchs is the only British ruler to have his own dedicated fan club, for lack of a better term: the Richard III Society.

His supporters are called Ricardians.

More importantly, for those of us who live in English-speaking countries, is the legacy this young king left us after his 26-month reign.

Phillipa Langley, the Ricardian historian who led the search for the king’s remains, told Britain’s Radio Times (21-27 March 2015, p. 25, emphasis mine):

In his two-year reign, he began the presumption of innocence, he introduced bail and he translated laws that were written in Latin and French into English so that everybody would understand them.

Prior to that, only the wealthy or well-connected could be released pending trial. Richard’s reforms provided justice for the rest of the population. Langley explains:

It was the time of the 99 per cent and the one per cent — and Richard was saying to the 99 per cent: ‘I am listening to you even thought I’m in the one per cent’.

That these reforms took place in the late Middle Ages during the prolonged War of the Roses is remarkable.

The war is so called because the Yorkists, of whom Richard III was one, identified themselves with the white rose; the Lancastrians had for their emblem the red rose.

Even today, people from both east and west in northern England culturally identify themselves either with York or Lancaster, respectively.

Richard III the man

From the six hours of Channel 4 coverage that I watched, which included the procession of his casket from the University of Leicester to the Cathedral and the ceremony of his reinterment, the following highlights emerged.

Richard III’s life was marked by death, survival and few triumphs. There was nothing in between. His father died when Richard was eight years old. His mother, the Duchess of York, hurriedly sent him and his elder brother George to the Low Countries for several months. It was for their own protection.

Richard and George’s older brother Edward defeated the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towton in June 1461. In that one-day battle 28,000 men died. Richard and George returned to England to see their brother crowned as King Edward IV.

Richard became Duke of Gloucester, a Knight of the Garter and a Knight of the Bath. George was given the title of Duke of Clarence. Richard went to live at Middleham Castle (Wensleydale, Yorkshire) with his cousin Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick — the famous ‘Warwick the Kingmaker’.

Neville taught his young cousin the finer points of knightood and the art of war. Although Richard suffered with scoliosis, a condition which involves curvature of the spine, he held that it was his duty to be able to join his Yorkist relatives and supporters on the battlefield. After all, he would have to be able to lead his own men from the front once he became an adult.

In 1472, Richard married Neville’s younger daughter Anne, a recent war widow whose late husband was a Lancastrian. Wikipedia explains that this alliance had to undergo family and papal approval. The subsequent Church dispensation meant that no consanguinity issues were involved. However, to rectify matters with his own family, Richard had to forfeit his right to certain titles of the nobility as well as much of Warwick’s land and property.

Richard fought with the Yorkists both at home and in France. In the 1470s, he was also given rule over the north of England and was based in York.

Edward IV died on April 9, 1483. His 12-year old son Edward — Richard’s nephew — was seemingly the rightful heir. Richard was young Edward’s Lord Protector. Royal advisers told him to take the boy away for his own safety. Richard took Edward and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, to the Tower of London. From this point onward, the story becomes complicated for most readers, myself included; it involves political intrigue and various machinations.

While they were in London, a clergyman declared Edward IV’s marriage invalid, meaning that the two boys were illegitimate. On June 22, 1483, a sermon preached at St Paul’s Cathedral — a huge, Gothic structure prior to the Fire of London in 1666 — proclaimed that Richard was the rightful king. A petition soon made its rounds in the city, supported not only by noblemen but also commoners, asking Richard to be the next monarch. He accepted and was crowned at Westminster Abbey on July 6, 1483. Parliament ratified his title to the throne in January 1484.

Meanwhile, the princes were still in the Tower of London before disappearing or dying. The mystery lingers.

On August 22, 1485, the Battle of Bosworth Field changed the course of history. It meant the end of the Plantagenets and the beginning of Tudor — Lancastrian — rule. This episode is also marked by political complexity with Yorkists switching allegiance to the Lancastrians and Tudors. Richard was left exposed politically and personally.

In short, when Richard encountered Henry Tudor, the future Henry VII, he was confident he could strike him off his horse. However, Richard’s calculations went wrong and Henry’s allies — Sir William Stanley and his men — surrounded the king. Their brutal blows with swords and other bladed weapons brought the monarch off his horse to his death.

The 2012 archaelogical dig, which brought Richard’s skeleton to light, showed that a lateral chunk of the lower part of his skull is missing, which could only have been achieved by someone hacking away at it with a blade.

Richard’s enemies on the battlefield stripped him naked, threw him on a horse and paraded his corpse from Bosworth to Leicester. Once in the heart of the city, where great crowds had gathered, he was paraded along Bow Bridge. His head struck a stone on the bridge, causing further injury. An angry spectator also stabbed him in one buttock, to the crowd’s approval.

The Franciscan Greyfriars quickly and quietly buried the king at their friary, which was next door to the Parish Church of St Martin, the present Cathedral.

Henry VII’s son Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. His men lay waste to the Greyfriars friary. In our time, a car park and Leicester’s offices of Social Services occupy the site.

The ‘bonkers’ request

In 2012, The aforementioned historian Philippa Langley requested permission from Leicester City Council to dig under one of the spaces in the car park.

Oddly enough, it had the letter ‘R’ painted over it. It was ‘Reserved’ for the Director of Social Services.

Langley told the Radio Times:

I said: ‘Give me permission to dig your land — I want to go in search of a king.’ They said: ‘You’ll get permission but if you find him, he’ll stay in Leicester’.

Channel 4 interviewed one of the men who dug up the space. He said that, at the time, it seemed completely ‘bonkers’ (crazy).

Yet, once the first few feet of tarmac and ground had been excavated, Dr Jo Appleby, an osteo-archaeologist, found the skeleton which also had a curved spine.

Genetics testing

In 2004, well before the dig eight years later, historian John Ashdown-Hill used genealogical research to trace matrilineal descendents of Richard’s sister Anne of York.

He managed to find an Englishwoman who had emigrated to Canada after the Second World War. A sample of Joy (Brown) Ibsen’s mitochondrial DNA was taken around 2004 and tested. It matched with the Haplogroup J of Richard III’s family. Mrs Ibsen died in 2008. Her son Michael gave a mouth-swab sample to researchers when the car park dig began. His DNA was used to establish that the identity of the skeleton found was indeed that of Richard III.

The newest painstakingly recreated likeness of this mediaeval king — a bust only recently completed by Liverpool University researchers and geneticists — shows us that the king would have had blue eyes and dark blond/light brown hair (see halfway down the page). It was probably the same colour as Michael Ibsen’s, in fact. However, generally speaking, the facial features depicted are consistent with the portraits done during his lifetime and posthumously.

Preparations for reburial

Michael Ibsen is a carpenter and joiner who makes cabinets and bookcases. He was commissioned to design and construct a casket and a small coffer to hold three soil samples from significant places in Richard’s life: his birthplace at Fotheringay Castle in Northamptonshire, his time spent at Middleham Castle in Wensleydale and Bosworth Field in Leicestershire.

Ibsen was able to use oak from Prince Charles’s Duchy of Cornwall estate.

His design for the casket is very plain by today’s standards, but Ibsen told Channel 4 that such simplicity is more in keeping with Richard’s era than our own. One of the commentators later added that, during that time, the coffinmaker carved a second interior casket shaped to the person’s body. Ibsen’s has a similar interior inlay.

The coffer for the three cubes of soil is of a similar design and construction.

Meanwhile, historians and Cathedral clergy were working on church ceremonies that Richard III would have recognised from his own time.

By all accounts, he was a devout Catholic (this was the pre-Reformation era) and asked priests and other religious around the country to pray for him. He had a number of chantries set up for this purpose and wrote a brief prayer for them to say which ended in ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord, our only Mediator and Advocate’.

He also had a thick leather-bound Book of Hours — an illumination from the early part of the 15th century, elaborately painted and penned — which researchers believe was passed down to him by family. It has been at London’s Lambeth Palace, home to the Archbishops of Canterbury for centuries, and was on loan for the reinterment (see below).

Compline — Sunday, March 22, 2015

The clergy of Leicester Cathedral invited England and Wales’s most senior Catholic clergyman, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, to give a brief sermon during Compline on Sunday, March 22.

Richard’s skeleton, in Michael Ibsen’s casket, was taken in a horse-drawn procession — complete with armoured men of arms — from Leicester University through the city centre to the Cathedral. (Earlier in the day it had been part of a ceremony at Bosworth Field.) Crowds of all races and creeds lined the streets. A number of them had white roses to lob onto the bier bearing the casket.

Leicester is Britain’s most multicultural city. In Richard’s time, it had a population of 3,000 and was England’s centre of the wool trade. Today, 300,000 people live there. Once the dig began, everyone began to take this king to their hearts. The adults and children interviewed live on Channel 4 really felt that this was a time when English history intersected with their own lives.

Once at the Cathedral, clergy received the casket in a brief ceremony with University officials. It was carried inside and placed in front of the baptismal font, where clergy said prayers reminding us of Richard’s own baptism and the religious meaning of that sacrament.

A pall, depicting Richard’s life as well as some of the people who helped to find his remains, was respectfully laid over the casket. Historian John Ashdown-Hill had designed a gold, bejeweled crown in keeping with the original. A local Brownie was given the responsibility for carrying it and placing it onto the pall.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols gave a brief but moving sermon, mentioning the deep religious significance that Baptism would have held for Richard. He added that Baptism alone does not make a person holy and that, in Richard’s life as in all of ours, there are elements of saint and sinner. He gave thanks that today’s conflict resolution starts with diplomacy rather than war.

After the Cathedral choir sung a choral interlude written for John F Kennedy’s funeral Mass, customary Compline prayers for temporal and spiritual safety concluded the service. The Cathedral was open from Monday through Wednesday evening to allow well wishers to visit the coffin to pay their respects.

Before the service, Channel 4’s Jon Snow asked the Cardinal, Anglican Synod member Christina Rees and the Cathedral clergy if there were any difficulties involved in Anglicans and Catholics co-ordinating the service. All said that everything went very well. Everyone understood that Richard was a Catholic, so it was only natural that a Catholic prelate should be invited to participate in this unique Compline.

We also discovered that stone from Greyfriars friary was used to repair part of the Cathedral through the ages, therefore, Catholic stone is in an Anglican church.

Church of England clergy held soil blessing ceremonies at the three collection sites earlier that day. They were attended not only by nearby residents but also by those most closely involved in the excavation and research. Michael Ibsen and Wendy Duldig, a distant cousin of his originally from Australia, also related to the king, attended.

Reinterment — Thursday, March 26, 2015

By the time of Richard III’s reinterment on March 26, over 20,000 people had paid their final respects. They came from all over the world, including Brazil and India.

This had far exceeded everyone’s expectations. Cathedral clergy opened the doors much earlier and closed them much later than anticipated every day.

This reburial, although not unique to the English monarchy or to the Church in general, did involve different circumstances and had to be organised accordingly.

Theologically, reburial can be done to transfer remains from one resting place to a rightful one. The tradition comes from the Israelites’ taking Joseph’s bones from Egypt for reinterment in the Promised Land. The current Duke of Gloucester — also named Richard, coincidentally — read the appropriate Scripture passage for this: Exodus 13:19-22.

In Richard III’s time, people were consumed by the thought of ending up in Hell, a place of everlasting torment, fire and brimstone. Funeral rites of the day would have lasted for several hours and would have had Bible readings which referred to Hell. These were warnings to those in attendance that their eternal life was in danger if they did not repent and lead godly lives.

One researcher uncovered a mediaeval manuscript documenting one of these services. The general pattern and readings were noted and discussed by the reinterment committee in an effort to make the ceremony more readily understood by those in the congregation.

The invitation-only ceremony lasted 45 minutes. It included a censing of the casket, which six Army officers, assisted by two more, took to the choir of the Chapel of Christ the King in the Cathedral.

Psalms 114, 138 and 150 were arranged to music. The Cathedral choir sang each of them beautifully.

Cathedral clergy recited prayers, the Public Orator of Leicester University gave us a life history of Richard III and the Bishop of Leicester, the Right Revd Tim Stevens, delivered the sermon. The Bishop spoke of ‘the Richard effect’ which went global, the tens of thousands of people coming to Leicester to pay their respects ‘confounded sceptics’. He added that such an interest was remarkable in today’s day and age in that Richard was a king and a Christian.

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch, also related to Richard III distantly, read ‘Richard’, a poem written for the occasion by the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy.

The Archbishop of Canterbury presided over the reinterment and scattered the consecrated soil over the coffin once it was in place.

Sophie, Countess of Wessex, represented the Royal Family. King Harold, the only other English king to have been killed on the battlefield, held the title Earl of Wessex when he died in 1066.

Everyone interviewed afterward agreed that the reburial was a fitting religious ceremony for a king whom historical novelist Philippa Gregory calls ‘the people’s Plantagenet’. Indeed. It transpires that, because the Plantagenets married exclusively into English families, millions of Britons — and others living around the world — could have Plantagenet blood.

Everyone whom Jon Snow interviewed said the week’s events, especially the Cathedral services, were ‘a lot to take in’. Richard’s descendants Michael Ibsen and Wendy Duldig, both of whom now live and work in London, said that they were still processing everything. They are very dignified people and one cannot help but wish them all the best for the future.

Richard’s new resting place in Leicester Cathedral will be open to the public.

The Richard III Centre is adjacent to the Cathedral for anyone wishing to view exhibits about this much-maligned king. The Centre also has information about the archaeological dig from 2012.

Research continues, particularly into the fate of the young princes, as a new archive has become available. The coming years might give us more insight into Richard III. I look forward to it.

Advertisements