Saturday, 28 March 2015

King Richard, long lost, forever found

Kevin Spacey as Shakespeare's Richard
as the poem by the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, has it, rather beautifully. I do believe the finding of Richard in 2012 was providential. It is so unlikely that the redevelopment (and destruction) which happened on the site in Leicester, most recently a council car park, over 500 years managed to do no worse than cut off the feet of King Richard's skeleton (we think that is why the feet are missing). It was so unlikely that the remains would be found, when there was so little evidence to go on that the likelihood of the remains ever being found was pooh-poohed even by ardent Ricardians over the years. But found they were, by a melange of scientific rigour, evidence, and personal intuition. And it is only now that it is possible for DNA evidence to establish that the bones are Richard's. And only now that the identified descendants are here to act as confirmation - because none of them has children, and the mitochondrial DNA line dies (it appears) with them. Although, Benedict Cumberbatch is apparently a descendant too, but his DNA has not so far as I know been sampled. He read the Carol Ann Duffy poem quite beautifully at the reinterment ceremony.

I went to Leicester for King Richard. Once it was clear - and I will not bore you with the various opinions, lawsuits and other controversies on the subject which have emerged since the discovery of the remains in 2012 - that Richard's remains would be buried in Leicester, near where he was killed, and very near the site of his hasty burial by the Franciscans at Grey Friars in Leicester, I knew I would not want to miss this occasion. Me, and many thousands of others. The Leicester city and Leicester Cathedral authorities have counted those who were there, but by no means all of them. They did not count the retired Caribbean widow who lives in Surrey and who took the the train to Leicester on impulse on Wednesday. She was too late to file past the coffin, as by the time she got there they were closing the Cathedral to prepare for the reinterment ceremony on Thursday. But she was there, and wept as she told me her late husband would have loved to be there. They did not count the Polish family from Nottingham who turned up for the light and firework display on Friday evening - the parents thought the children would enjoy it and that it would be good for their education about English history. There must have been many many others.

This week I have spent a LOT of time queueing at the Cathedral. But I didn't mind. And neither did anyone else, from what I saw. It was a very English queue - no one pushed in, there were stewards with not that much to do - although far from everyone was English. I heard American and Australian voices in quite some numbers, and on Friday while waiting (barely two hours this time) to see the finished tomb, got talking with some Canadians. I met an American playwright named Nance Crawford who grew up and still lives in Hollywood and has written a book in verse about King Richard (I bought it, natch). I met another American lady, age about 70, called Maggie Thorne, who wore a baseball cap to the Bosworth battlefield and who said "Richard has been my king since 1976". There were white roses everywhere. The wooden coffin looked small and lonely last Sunday as it was brought into Leicester by black horses. Thirty-five thousand people, including me, lined the streets to see it pass. We all die alone, even if we are remembered by multitudes.

Why were the events of the past week so important? There have been carpers and nitpickers. Polly Toynbee, inevitably, in the Filth, said it was ludicrous to pay tribute to Richard, because he was a king. Some tosser, writing in some rag or other, called Richard a "psychopathic killer". Jon Snow did himself no favours when he called the church services "mumbo-jumbo", to the disapproval of a Hindu gentleman to whom he addressed those words. There have been those who objected to the church services (most of them) being Anglican, because Richard was a Catholic. My view is that if Richard had had a burial with due dignity and honour in 1485 it would have been in a Catholic church, because that was what there was in England at the time, and after all no one makes a fuss now about any royal grave pre Henry VIII being in an Anglican church, as they now are. One otherwise sensible historical blogger referred in passing to  "Protestant" rites. No. The Church of England is not a Protestant church.

But ordinary people, in huge numbers, came spontaneously to pay tribute, and many more who were not present posted their feelings on line. This was a moment in the history of England. The last English king, and the last king of England to die in battle on English soil - and no one disputes Richard's bravery - and the first to be DNA tested. Plantagenet is not, as some think, a French name, but an English one, derived from the Latin for the native English plant broom - Planta Genista. It was Richard's ancestor Geoffrey of Anjou who adopted the name. It works as well in English as in French. An important moment, and one the ordinary people of England and more understood better than those writing in the Guardian and its ilk who claim to speak for them. The lost king, who is now found. He has had a media profile that almost no other king has had, thanks to Shakespeare, who was hired as a propagandist against him by the Tudor usurpers (100 years later, why did they still think it necessary?) but whose spin ultimately failed as the truth began to come out.

Laws in English. A Bible in English. The precursor of legal aid. The abolition of benevolences. In less than two years on the throne, and having to deal with rebellion and plotting in that time, to say nothing of losing his beloved wife and son, and thus leaving no heir. I'll defy most rulers to do as much. This is the best-known portrait of Richard, though it is from long after his death, and is thought to be a copy of a now-lost portrait made during his lifetime.

I went to Bosworth. It is a Leicestershire field. It looks like this now. There would have been no trees or hedges in Richard's time.

Bosworth, edge of the battlefield

The tomb made for Richard is of Swaledale stone (from Yorkshire), and is so designed, with a deep cross-shaped cut, that the light of the rising sun will make a glowing cross when it strikes the tomb through the stained glass window. Remember what happened to the winter of our discontent? Made glorious summer by this sun of York? Yes, Shakespeare had the words, all right. I came to Richard first through Shakespeare, at the age of fourteen.
Rest in peace, King Richard

Leicester City Council (Leicester became a city, and St. Martin's Church a cathedral, in 1927) did not put a foot wrong. Thank you Leicester for your welcome, and for the dignity and honour you have given King Richard. Thank you too for not trying to appropriate, or even comment on, his reign, his political base, anything he did, but for doing the right thing and giving him the honourable resting place he deserves. Thank you Leicester Cathedral for your commemoration of him. Thank you for using the theme of defeat (for after all Richard was defeated in battle at Bosworth in 1485, and that is how the usurper Henry Tudor got the throne) and death, in what your preachers said this past week about Richard. Many of us are defeated in life, or at the end of it. And all of us die. And that makes us all the same, at the end, king, or priest, or commoner. Rest in peace King Richard. I consider myself blessed to have been in Leicester this week. Loyaulte me lie (Loyalty Binds Me, Richard's personal motto). 

This is how Leicester ended the week - with thousands of lights, and fireworks from the Cathedral roof.


Nance Crawford said...

A wonderful description of a wonderful week in which many friends were at last met in person and many new friends were found. Thank you, Jane.

Anonymous said...

They are now looking for Henry I under Reading Abbey, perhaps under Reading Gaol.

Anonymous said...

Of course, Charlie Booker in The Filth was nasty - but what can you expect of a paper that has its name on every gutter in town?