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Cathedral prepares to receive King's body

Posted on: July 30, 2013 1:35 PM
The Battle of Bosworth: re-enactors take King Richard III's body to Greyfriars Monastery
Photo Credit: Paul Benjamin Tebbutt
Related Categories: England, Leicester, Richard III

The burial of a king is usually a significant event: full of pomp and pageantry, ritual and ceremony. And the same will be true when England buries its king in Leicester Cathedral in the coming months – despite the fact that the king in question, Richard III, died more than 500 years ago and that his first burial in what was then the church of the Greyfriars' monastery was anything-but ceremonial.

A facial reconstruction from the rediscovered skull of King Richard III
A facial reconstruction from the rediscovered skull of King Richard III
Photo Credit: University of Leicester

History records Richard III as a child-killing despot; but his reputation as the killer of the "Princes in the Tower" has more to do with rumour, gossip and Shakespeare than any accurate historical account.

His two-year reign came during a turbulent period in English history. When Edward IV died in 1483, his 12-year-old son should have inherited the throne as Edward V. In view of the young king's age, Richard was named Lord Protector. He moved the young king to the Tower of London, which was a royal palace as well as a prison, along with Edward V's younger brother, also called Richard.

The coronation of Edward V was to have taken place in Westminster Abbey on 22 June 1483; but Edward IV's marriage had by then been ruled invalid. This made the young princes illegitimate and their succession unlawful. Richard, as the brother of Edward IV, became King. The young princes were never seen again, leading to speculation that Richard had them killed.

But the tribulations within this branch of the royal family were nothing compared to the wider battles in the Plantagenet dynasty. The House of York, with its white rose symbol, of which Edward IV and Richard III were a part, fought a series of battles with the rival House of Lancaster, known for its red rose symbol.

The Wars of the Roses, as they became known, culminated in the Battle of Bosworth Field near Leicester, on 22 August 1485. It was here that Richard III was killed and the leader of the Lancastrians, Henry Tudor, took the throne of England, becoming King Henry VII, at the start of what became the House of Tudor.

Richard III was buried without pomp and ceremony in the Greyfriars' monastery. Archaeologists have been able to ascertain that he was buried in a badly prepared grave, in an "odd position" with "minimal reverence". His torso had been crammed in and his hands had been bound. To make matters worse for Richard III, Greyfriars was one of the monasteries dissolved by Henry VII's son, Henry VIII, and by the time archaeologists had rediscovered his grave, in September last year, it was underneath a municipal car park.

The Greyfriars Monastery stood opposite Saint Martin's parish church. This remains to this day and, in 1927, was designated the Cathedral of the new diocese of Leicester. The Home Office licence that authorised the exhumation of any human remains discovered during the archaeological dig stipulated that they should be reinterred within the Cathedral.

The remains of King Richard III are found in a Leicester car park
The remains of King Richard III are found in a Leicester car park
Photo Credit: University of Leicester

The discovery of the remains, and the confirmation through skeletal analysis and comparisons of mitochondrial DNA, that the skeleton was that of Richard III, caused great excitement in England and throughout the world; but the decision to reinter his remains in Leicester Cathedral has not proved uncontroversial.

Some have argued that Richard III died a Roman Catholic – the Reformation hadn't taken place at the time of his death – and that he should be buried in accordance with Roman Catholic funeral rites of the time.

The Catholic journalist William Oddie wrote: "Whatever he was, he was England's anointed king: and he was of course a Catholic. He was, in fact, austerely religious, a public benefactor and protector of the Church, a founder of charities, who throughout his life upheld a strict code of sexual morality, in marked contrast to many of his fellow courtiers. Had he not been toppled by the wretched Henry Tudor, there would have been no Henry VIII and no consequent apostasy of the Ecclesia Anglicana, we might still be a Catholic country, with a Catholic monarchy."

But the Roman Catholic Church takes a different approach. Fr Andrew Cole, private secretary to the Roman Catholic Bishop of Nottingham, the Rt Revd Malcolm McMahon OP, said: "The Bishop is pleased that the body of King Richard III has been found under the site of Greyfriars Church in Leicester, in which it was buried following the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, and that it will be reinterred with dignity in the city where he has lain for over five hundred years.

"Richard III was one of the last Catholic monarchs of England and his death was a decisive moment in British history, but the ultimate decision as to what form the interment takes lies with the Government and the Church of England, since he will be buried in Leicester Cathedral. In accordance with long-established ecumenical practice, Bishop Malcolm will be happy to take part in any form of ceremony which takes place to mark his final burial."

Another controversy surrounds the decision to bury him in Leicester at all. Some descendants of Richard III's distant family (he has no direct descendants) have called for his remains to be returned "home" to York Minster. They have begun a legal challenge to the Home Office licence on Human Rights grounds; but the English courts have previously ruled that Human Rights legislation does not protect the dead; and that challenges to burial disputes can only be made by close family relatives. A decision isn't expected until the autumn. The Cathedral has asked the High Court to expedite its decision so that the plans and work necessary for the reburial aren't disrupted.

Canon Peter Hobson said: "The Cathedral note that the Judicial Review may consider the process involved in the issuing of the licence but cannot make determinations about other matters, in particular about the final outcome of that decision. Therefore Leicester continues to plan to ensure that the King is buried with dignity following the requirements of… Law and in compliance with the best archaeological and ecclesiastical practice."

The Cathedral at Leicester had already been developing plans for a re-ordering scheme before work started to discover the remains of Richard III. These have now been amended to make space for the new royal tomb. The grounds outside the Cathedral will be re-modelled and will include a new statue of Richard III. The burial will be within a raised tomb inside the Cathedral, in the space between the altar and the choir.

In search of a King: archaeologists begin their work
In search of a King: archaeologists begin their work
Photo Credit: University of Leicester

The cost of the alterations, preparations and ceremony will cost £1 million (one million British pounds). This includes a new floor, special lighting and new stained glass windows. The plans are being refined before an application for permission is made to the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England.

The Dean of Leicester, the Very Revd David Monteith, said "We are committed to reinter King Richard with honour and we have listened carefully to the different views that were expressed. We want to create a really wonderful space in the cathedral for him and the many thousands of people we know will want to come to visit and pay their respects."

The Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, hopes the plans will please everyone involved: "This is an immensely complex project and we are determined to get it right. Inevitably that means considerable expense but we are confident that with the support of the Church and the public, we can honour Richard and his story". 

The reinterment of King Richard III will be the climax to a week of events in the city celebrating Leicester's history. The Mayor of Leicester, Cllr Peter Soulsby, said: "This amazing chapter in the story of Richard III's life, death and rediscovery has been a partnership between the City Council, the Cathedral and the University of Leicester. The reinterment itself will be another historic moment which we want to share with the nation, which we hope will join us in celebrating this unique occasion."

The cost of the burial is expected to come from contributions from the Cathedral's partners and from public donations. The Cathedral does not charge a fee for admission and says it won't start a public appeal for funds. Neither will the scheme detract from the purpose of the Cathedral for worship.

A spokesman for the Cathedral said: "It is vital that neither the Christian message nor the unique role of the Cathedral are submerged under commercial, heritage or civic pressures. Recent research on the mission of cathedrals has shown that visitors cannot be neatly divided between tourists and pilgrims, but can be touched on many levels when they encounter sacred space.

"Locating the remains of Richard III in the Cathedral provides an opportunity for Christian witness and service to all our visitors, so the agreed scheme will be designed to reinforce this… Experience from other cathedrals, such as those in Manchester and Southwark, shows that it is possible to retain an atmosphere of worship while welcoming many visitors in the heart of a busy city. One of the reasons people visit cathedrals is to experience the spiritual atmosphere and we want to preserve that special sense of peace and prayer for all our visitors."

The Dean of Leicester has prepared a video message in which he talks through the plans for the Kings' tomb, which you can watch here.