Chris Skidmore is the Member of Parliament for Kingswood and a Member of the Health and Education Select Committees. He is also is author of Bosworth: The Birth of the Tudors (Weidenfeld and Nicholson) published on 23 May 2013. Follow Chris on Twitter.
The tombs of our kings and queens are difficult to miss. Encased in grand monuments of marble or bronze, in death as in life, they represent the glory and greatness of the royal bones gathering dust in the coffins beneath the ground. Westminster Abbey is full of them, including the Renaissance tomb of the first Tudor king, Henry VII, depicted as an old man staring piously to the skies, his hands clasped in prayer. It is tempting to imagine him giving thanks to God for placing him on the throne at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485 when, having landed at the westernmost tip of Wales with his band of foreign mercenaries and Welshmen just two weeks before, Henry had managed to steal victory against his enemy, Richard III.
In contrast, the tomb of England’s last Plantagenet king has long been lost to history. After the battle, Richard’s naked body, ‘besprinkled in mire and filth’, had been carried into Leicester the afternoon after the battle. Trussed over the back of a horse, with his ‘privy parts’ barely concealed by a loin cloth, members of the public stood by the roadside, gazing in bewilderment at the body of a man who that same morning had rode into battle King of England. For two days his body was placed on public display to banish any rumours that he had survived, before being buried in a pauper’s grave in the nave of Greyfriars Church in Leicester. It was not until ten years later that Henry decided to spend a paltry £10 on a gravestone, which eventually was broken up along with the monastery during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. The site became a country house, before the ravages of progress witnessed the expansion of the city, and the location of Richard’s final resting place was turned into a council car park. Since then, any notion that Richard’s body might be one day discovered has been the stuff of legend — until now.
Last year, when news of the possible discovery of Richard’s body was made public, I tabled an EDM half in jest, calling for a state funeral for Richard III. I’d only just finished a book I’ve been working on for the past three years in my spare time, Bosworth: The Birth of the Tudors, so I’d become fairly familiar with the king and his downfall. With the discovery of the bones, I now had to revise the ending of the book, something which I’m having to attempt once more after Monday’s announcement. After calling for the state funeral, I’d ended up getting more press coverage than I think I’ve had for any other campaign I’ve run as an MP, being asked to give interviews for Dutch television, USA Today, Australian radio among others. Now, with Richard ‘rediscovered’, one gets the sense that the hysteria over Richard III, with the dead king trending on twitter over the past few days, is likely to go away anytime soon.
Already the calls over where and how Richard’s body should be buried are becoming ever louder. Discounting Labour MP John Mann’s ingenious suggestion of Worksop (I haven’t yet found any evidence of Richard’s fondness for the place), the battleground lies between Leicester, York and Westminster Abbey.
York Minster would have a strong claim, especially given that Richard was from the House of York and fond of spending time in his northern patrimony, especially at Middleham Castle or Sheriff Hutton. The citizens of York lamented on hearing the news of the king’s death at Bosworth, claiming that he ‘was piteously slain and murdered, to the great heaviness of this city’. What they forgot to mention was that they had delayed sending the four hundred men Richard had requested to fight in the battle – the citizens of York never made it to fight by Richard’s side.
Westminster Abbey, the traditional burial ground of kings and queens, is the location for where an ‘official’ state funeral might be held. The Abbey is also where Richard’s wife Anne Neville is buried – and the location of the urn containing the possible bones of the Princes in the Tower, discovered in the seventeenth century.
But in all likelihood, it seems that the destination of Richard’s remains is already a done deal. When the University of Leicester applied for an exhumation licence last year, issued by the Ministry of Justice, there was a specific requirement to state where the body, if discovered, would be re-interred. This is standard practice, so in effect the University of Leicester hold all the cards: Leicester Cathedral has been chosen as the king’s burial place. As the old adage in politics runs, never run a campaign you can’t win, so it seems best that Leicester remains the most appropriate location for Richard III’s tomb, though I’m sure that won’t stop passionate advocates from either side continuing to stake out their claims.
But the debate over Richard’s burial need not end there. Returning to my call for a ‘state funeral’- I think there could be a possible compromise that would satisfy the competing claims of York and Leicester. Why not allow Richard to ‘lie in state’ at York, before translating his bones to be finally buried at Leicester with all the appropriate pomp and circumstance? As for the costs, there is no reason why Richard couldn’t have the first austerity state funeral, with those wishing to view the coffin being charged at the same time as looking for private donations.
As to the funeral itself, consideration needs to be given to Richard’s own Catholic faith. I understand that some kind of multi-faith ceremony is being planned at Leicester that may involve Catholic rites. But it’s important to realise that the ceremony Richard would have know – the Sarum Rite – was phased out by Pius V in 1570 in his Tridentine reforms. While the Sarum Rite is no longer used in Catholic services today, should it not be brought back for Richard III’s burial? It should be carefully considered if it hasn’t been already.
Fortunately, there will be plenty of time to get it right: it probably won’t be until 2014 until, after further rounds of testing on the body, Richard III finally gets to lie in rest. Emerging from his pauper’s grave, it seems that the dead king will continue to prove just as controversial as his reputation in life.