On Thursday, a king of England will be buried for the second time in his green and pleasant land.
This time, however, as a nation, we’ll be doing it right.
More than 500 years after his death in August 1485, King Richard III, the last Plantagenet king, will once again be laid to rest on Thursday in the grandeur of Leicester Cathedral, surroundings undoubtedly more suited to a king than the unmarked and forgotten grave under a municipal car park from which he was exhumed a little over two years ago.
Although Richard is arguably the most maligned monarch in British history, something extraordinary has happened in the last few days—the British people have fallen back in love with the royal arch-villain, King Richard III.
Thousands lined the streets on Sunday, creating a poignant scene as they rained showers of white roses—the symbol of the House of York—on to the simple horse-drawn bier that carried his coffin through the streets to its new and final resting place.
By the time Richard is formally reburied on Thursday—in a ceremony to be conducted by the most senior churchman in England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby—over 15,000 people are expected to have queued for up to three hours at the cathedral just to pay their respects to his coffin.
All in all, its an impressive rehabilitation for a man who up until now has been most widely known by the deeply negative description of him by that master of the well-turned insult, Shakespeare, who described Richard as a “poisonous bunch-back’d toad”.
A crowd psychologist might see in the nation’s devotions a textbook expiation of collective guilt, a sudden mass awareness that Richard may have been unfairly reviled for generations.
James Dolan, 25, landlord at Leicester’s oldest and most famous pub, The Globe, which dates from the Middle Ages (“there is the smallest chance that Richard may have had a pint here,” he chuckles) described the atmosphere in the town as being celebratory.
“There is a strange atmosphere, almost like a party—not boozy, but exciting and different and unique. I think it’s a good thing that people are taking an interest. People are taking the opportunity to witness the funeral of a British king—that’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, to see a British king’s coffin and all that history brought to life. It’s caught the imagination, and there is a sense of pride that he is being reburied here.”
There is also an undeniable sense in the UK that Richard may not have been the monster he has been painted as, but rather the unfortunate victim of history being written by the victorious.
There is actually no evidence that he was guilty of the most ghastly crime attributed to him, the murder of the Princes in the Tower, as the Tudor PR machine first contended.
There is, by contrast, ample evidence that he was in fact a fair king, a “good lord” as the contemporary historian John Rous described him. He was also the king who invented the first form of legal aid so that the poor could have access to justice, and he was also the last British king to die in combat, so we know he never asked his soldiers to face risks he was unprepared to face himself. Can we say that about any revered leader of modern times?
So, here is a moment to right that historic wrong. As his descendant, the present Richard, Duke of Gloucester, patron of the Richard III Society, eloquently contends, “It is proof of our sense of civilized values that something as esoteric and as fragile as reputation is worth campaigning for.”
Well said, that man.
The unexpected national mood of the last few days has also confirmed the extraordinary affection that the British people still have for the very idea of monarchy, even if sometimes the actual members of the royal family let us down or disappoint us.
To be fair to the haters, there is no doubt that King Richard came to the throne by a roundabout route. He was named Lord Protector of the Realm when his brother King Edward IV died in April 1483, and he was supposed to be only an interim regent of sorts, holding power for Edward’s supposed son and successor, the then-12-year-old Edward V.
However, in June 1483, just months after he had been crowned, young Edward was declared illegitimate (on fairly strong evidence) and locked in the Tower of London with his brother Richard. They were the famous, fair-haired “Princes in the Tower” who subsequently disappeared and whom Richard has long been suspected of having killed.
On 6 July 1483, Richard III began his short and controversial reign. He was the last British monarch of the House of York, and in 1485 Henry Tudor (later Henry VII) led a successful rebellion against Richard which culminated in the Battle of Bosworth Field in Leicestershire.
Richard was struck down in the conflict, making him the last English king to die on the battlefield since King Harold II was killed, by means of an arrow in the eye, at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Richard’s body was reportedly paraded through the town of Leicester slumped over a warhorse before being interred in the graveyard of an old monastery.
It was a shabby way to treat an anointed King, even by the standards of the day.
It was not till 2012 that his remains were discovered, although the original monastery had been razed to the ground and in its place stood a municipal carpark.
One of the persistent rumors about Richard III was that he was hunchbacked. Thomas More (later Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor) described him as being “deformed”, with “one shoulder higher than the right.”
This had often been assumed to be mere propaganda by the Tudors, who argued that his physical deformity mirrored his spiritual corruption. The exhumation of his body proved this story to be true—the skeleton showed clear curvature of the spine consistent with severe scoliosis.
The Tudor characterization of Richard culminated in Shakespeare’s eponymous play but Richard was not without his historical defenders. The most prominent of these is Horace Walpole, who in 1768 published a pamphlet entitled, “Historic doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard The Third,” in which he disputed the alleged murder of the Princes in the Tower.
The decision to bury Richard in Leicester Cathedral has been controversial, and many of his descendants argued that he should have been returned to his spiritual home, York.
However, the British legal system—which Richard himself did so much to strengthen—ensured that he would be buried in the town where his body was exhumed.
All day Monday and Tuesday crowds queued up to see King Richard the Third’s coffin at Leicester Cathedral. It is estimated that around 15,000 people will have viewed the coffin before the reburial ceremony takes place on Thursday.
A cathedral spokesman told the Guardian, “We have been surprised and delighted by the number of people who have turned out. We extended the opening hours today to help accommodate that interest and we look forward to more people turning up tomorrow. Everyone has been very patient and very respectful.”