By Catherine Bateson |
Unless you have been under a metaphorical car park, you will know that King Richard III was recently reburied in Leicester Cathedral. I have more than a scholarly interest in this event. Thanks to having ardent Tudor historian parents and my own self-confessed historical nerdiness, I have been a member of the Richard III Society for a decade. Dubbed ‘the only fan club in the world for a dead monarch’, the Society promotes the life and times of Richard III, arguing for a reassessment of his reign and striving to balance/criticise persistent notions that he was a bad king.
One of the perks of being a Richardian was that I was invited to a special service for Society members held ‘in the presence of the mortal remains of King Richard III’. The service included a sermon from the Bishop of Leicester, readings of contemporary writings about Richard’s good character and a recital from one of his prayer books. This was all conducted in front of a small coffin, adorned with an embroidered funeral pall that told the story of Richard’s life and death from reign to rediscovery, a Bible and a crown which shimmered in the cathedral’s candlelight.
As ever with Richard III, there was an elephant in the cathedral. Or rather two baby elephants called Edward V and Richard, or ‘The Princes in the Tower’. They are responsible for the stain on the king’s historical record. In essence, the Society is a direct counter to claims that he was guilty of infanticide. As Richard’s spectre hovered over proceedings, his young nephews were also present in the shadows, bound up in clergy and Richardian addresses about ‘historical truth’. I am well aware I was attending a service where the preaching was directed at an already biased congregation. I have my own views on Richard’s kingship, the fate of the princes and their uncle’s role in the story. Contrary to what my membership of the Society would suggest, I do not share the ‘white rose whitewash’ version of the king that fervent members propagate. When the subject of historical truth is raised in a Richardian context, it really means history has wrongly remembered Richard and they present a more balanced view.
Except they do not. The fact that the phrase ‘that Welsh bastard’ appeared in the service reveals much about the Society’s views on Henry VII and Tudor propaganda against Richard. The discovery of the body proved contemporary sources were accurate about the king’s wounds from Bosworth, where he was originally buried and his scoliosis. The Society has done little reassessment of the veracity of all historical records on Richard in light of his bones’ discovery. This includes stories about his connection to the princes’ disappearance. We will probably never find out what really happened and the truth will change little. Nevertheless, taking these sources at face value will re-establish the contextual voice of historical reason in the wake of Richard’s re-internment.
While Richardians must be applauded for their passion and interest in the king, it adds strain on debates about the relationship between public and academic history. The Richard III Visitor Centre is a case in point. The museum divides into sections on Richard’s kingship, Bosworth, historical portrayals, the archaeological excavation and DNA verification, combining public history with academia, forensic science with media studies. However, the pervading message is that Richard III was denied ‘dignity and honour’. Reburying him will supposedly return both. There is not even the slightest historical flirtation with controversy, a marked difference from the Bannockburn Visitors Centre where the issue of Scottish independence is not shied away from.
I have concerns about what the reburial teaches the public about Richard III. After the service I overheard a rather depressing conservation about the way historians have treated events, concluding that academics should keep quiet. Why continue to criticise and reassess Richard now? I agree he should be left to rest in peace, but it is still important to question historical selectiveness when searching for historical truth. The conversation raised an issue that the reburial highlighted: at what point does academic historical engagement cease to impact public knowledge of history? I left Leicester with the sense that a wall has been built to protect Richard the man and good king, depictions that the public I saw lining up around the cathedral to see his coffin were prepared to accept.
Undoubtedly, Richard’s reburial was historic. A phrase in the Bishop’s sermon struck a chord: the discovery of his bones and their re-internment was ‘history, not as it is written in books, but as it is lived in the present’. That was very much in my mind when I saw another depiction of Richard III while in Leicester. In the visitor centre is an enclosed room with a Perspex-glass floor. It covers what was once a car park. In the corner lies a coffin-shaped trench marking the hollowed remains of Richard’s original grave. This was where he was found in August 2012, 527 years after his death at the Battle of Bosworth. A skeletal holographic image shows visitors how the king looked when he was discovered. I found this stark depiction more moving than seeing the coffin containing the actual bones barely 500 metres away.
Attending a commemoration in the presence of Richard III’s mortal remains was special. As an historian and an historical enthusiast, I am honoured to have been lucky enough to attend such a unique event. My abiding memory, however, will not be the debate over Richard’s story or even the Richard III Society service itself, but that skeletal image in the original grave. This was the king the Society was founded to champion. This was where historical nerdiness aligned with academic subjectivity, where history came alive in the present. This was the Richard III to focus on, not with the trappings of 21st century glorified veneration, but with quiet dignified remembrance of a king who still has an unwritten past.
Catherine Bateson is a first year PhD History student at the University of Edinburgh. She is researching Irish American songs written and produced during the American Civil War, analysing the sentiments they express and how they form part of a transnational Irish cultural diaspora. She can be found on Twitter @catbateson.
(All photos: © Catherine Bateson)