I spent the morning watching the burial of Richard III in Leicester Cathedral, live on tv, an amazing 530 years after his death. His remains were discovered during an archaeological dig in a council car park. They were found, implausibly, beneath a letter ‘R’ printed on the tarmac.
You couldn’t make it up.
Beneath the ‘R’ lay the long lost Richard. The ‘R’ indicated a reserved parking space for the Director of Social Services. It also stood for, as it turned out, X marks the spot.
In the very first trench, archaeologists discovered a skeleton. The very first skeleton, in the very first trench, was a skeleton which was found to have a marked curvature of the spine. In Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard, he was a hunchback. Having been hidden for so long, the archaeologists had hit the jackpot straight away. (Examination would later reveal the King was not a hunchback, but had Scoliosis.)
It was like everything was being engineered favourably in Richard’s favour. He was rediscovered in a remarkable window of opportunity. A window where the technology was available to test his DNA against surviving descendents. A window where his last two descendents, neither of whom have children, were still living and available for comparison.
I’m not a monarchist, in fact I’m quite ambivalent when it comes to royalty. I’m neither pro, nor anti. But I do love history, and the place the Kings and Queens fit into our nation’s past. Richard is an important figure. He was the last of the Plantagenet Kings, and the last ever English King to be killed in battle. Lines come to an end in him. New beginnings occur after him.
The last few days, from when the body of Richard was taken to the Cathedral along crowd-lined streets, to today’s service of burial, there has been many symbolic moments. Soil from three different places was placed in the coffin:from the place he was born, from the place he spent much of his childhood, and from the place where he suffered his final end.
Even after being found, there was conflict: Leicester and York laid claim to him, battling for the right to hold his remains, with Leicester eventually winning. There were arguments about what type of man he was:was he the murderous uncle who killed the Princes in the Tower? Or should he be remembered as the man who in his short reign introduced aspects of law and justice which are still with us today? The odds are that both are applicable. He was a man, a King, of his time.
There were other symbols used in the ceremony, especially symbols of peace and reconciliation:in the coming together of the Roman Catholic and the Anglican Churches, in the use of white and red roses representing both sides in the War Of The Roses. Being buried in an Anglican place of worship, Catholic rosary beads were placed in the coffin with him. Laid before his coffin was the actual prayer book that Richard used in life.
The service was solemn and dignified, and, yes, historic.
I loved the poem written by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, commissioned by the Cathedral, and read by actor, Benedict Cumbersnatch. I share it here for you to read:
My bones, scripted in light, upon cold soil,
a human braille. My skull, scarred by a crown,
emptied of history. Describe my soul
as incense, votive, vanishing; you own
the same. Grant me the carving of my name.
These relics, bless. Imagine you re-tie
a broken string and on it thread a cross,
the symbol severed from me when I died.
The end of time – an unknown, unfelt loss –
unless the Resurrection of the Dead …
or I once dreamed of this, your future breath
in prayer for me, lost long, forever found;
or sensed you from the backstage of my death,
as kings glimpse shadows on a battleground.