Richard III’s Reinterment

Today is the beginning of Richard III’s reinterment; the beginning of an end to the tumultuous journey that began when the skeleton was discovered two and a half years ago. Watching this on a range of media (from news sites to social media like twitter) the most interesting thing about it all is the modern day reaction to it all. From the grumpy (‘he should’ve been in York!’) to the breathless (‘history in the making!’) to the spoof (‘Get on with it……it’s bloody cold out here and there’s a large warm Jaguar hearse waiting for me’) to outright jokes (‘A hearse! A hearse! my kingdom for a hearse!’) everyone seems to have something to say about it. [Me included.]

As a historian, my hackles immediately rise when I hear the phrase “history in the making”. This reinterment changes nothing about Richard III’s past. His body may have revealed new information about the man he was (e.g. his health, his diet) and how he died, but the reinterment itself? No. All it is doing is placing some bones into a position of respect, so that they can rest in peace. Surely most people would agree that the reinterment, and the battle for it (Leicester vs York) has been far more about the modern day than the man himself, regardless of which location one feels he should have been reinterred in.

I’ve seen too, the comment that ‘today for Richard‘, but watching this event is making me think anew about history: about the wider issues. Who does today belong to? Is today really about Richard? The Dean of Leicester Cathedral has commented that funerals are about goodbyes. Having attended far too many funerals of close relatives in the last few years I am inclined to very much agree. On the other hand, as David Monteith says: today, ‘the dominant motif is much more hello‘.

If one argues, therefore, that history belongs to all, then it should be recognised that for many people, history is indeed in the making in one sense. It is extremely unlikely that a king will be reinterred in quite the same way again, certainly in this country. It’s one of those seminal events where people will remember – particularly people who have any sort of connection with the event, such as local people, students of the university, Ricardians, and so on – where they were when they heard, when they saw, what they thought. And while this isn’t world changing in the same way that it was when (for example) JFK was shot, it has a meaning to the individual. That meaning is going to be largely redriven by one’s social identity and how they connect to what Richard represents to them. We’ve already seen the local, regional response: how people from York associated strongly with Richard, identifying him as one of their own; how Leicester claimed him as theirs because of modern-day regulations stipulating reburial in the nearest consecrated ground; other places such as Gloucester and Fotheringhay were even briefly mooted as suggestions because of associations that Richard himself had with the places in his lifetime. In Leicester and the towns and villages surrounding today we’re seeing people paying their respects in a way that certainly wasn’t done after his death: people carrying white roses, ringing the bells as the cortege moves around the county, laying flowers at his statue outside the cathedral. There seems to be a celebration of the local, of Leicester and Leicestershire, as well as Richard himself. Connections being made that were certainly never forged when he was alive. As a result, there are real oddities: no royal standard, as this flag post-dates his life, yet his coffin is being moved around in a modern funeral hearse with modern day pallbearers. While we are only, at this point, less than half way through the initial day, the dominant motif seems much less “hello Richard” and much more “Hello World, we’re Leicester!”. Here, what is being celebrated is popular history, encouraging people to learn about their past, their cultural history, and part of me sees that as wonderful, as a way to encourage future generations of historians. Part of me, a very little bit of me, the stuffy, dry academic bit that cherishes a more scholarly approach, shudders – as unpopular as it may be to admit that, because the idea of having history as a preserve of those in the ivory towers of academia have long disappeared. These days academic proposals, particularly for history, must include popular dissemination. The Charnwood Roots project is a classic example of how this is done very well. But then, Richard III’s reinterment isn’t history in that sense: there are no documents being read; no digs being conducted; no surveys; no interviews; no reports.

I think too that today opens up bigger questions. How to handle human remains with respect is one that has been oft discussed in both news media and academic texts. How much involvement do the greater public have a right to, in situations like this, especially when it is something that the individual concerned cannot consent to. Richard III cannot consent to either his reinterment in Leicester; or the events of today, or even his manner of initial burial and eventual (temporary) burial place. Who has the right to decide what happens to an individual after death? Richard himself made plans for a tomb, as most kings did, but they were never carried out. Henry VII, the man who beat him, rests in Westminster Cathedral. In history, the resting place of a monarch has often been decided by their successor; Henry VIII completed the tomb of Henry VI, for example, but Edward III made sure that the tomb of the somewhat disgraced Edward II was tucked away out of (what was then) public view at Gloucester. Others have had their resting places determined by those who controlled them in life: Catherine of Aragon was buried at Peterborough on the orders of Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots in the same place on the orders of Elizabeth I. Bring that forward to the modern day. Diana’s death showed, very clearly, the right that the general public felt they had to grieve, and to access the royal family at a time of immense sorrow. In the first ‘funeral’ (which is what everyone is calling it, although it is strictly speaking, a reinterment) of a King of this country since 1952, one has to wonder: what will happen when our present queen dies? How much ‘right’ will the general public have to her funeral ceremonies? Will her coffin, disasteful as the idea may sound, be carted around the world for all to pay their respects? What differences will be shown because of the immediacy of her life, and her death?

It will be very interesting to keep watching the events of this week, and to consider the questions raised by the events, and what they mean for historians working in various fields.  If I’m quite sure about anything, its that far from settling anything, the discovery of Richard’s bones, the study of them and popular reaction to him, this journey and his reinterment has and will only serve to keep discussion about him, his life, and his implications alive for quite some time to come.