¶ What with the holiday rush, this piece, by Sam Knight, took a while to register with the good people at The Morning News, and even longer for us to discover after fiddling with Feedly (about which there is still much to be learned).
Where to put the bones of Richard III? That’s not the question; the question is, how to decide where to put them? The City and University of Leicester, which oversaw the exhumation in 2012 (and announced it officially early last year), were perhaps rash in deciding to treat their findings as “human remains,” to be dealt with like any other. But it’s just as hard to sympathise with the Plantaganet Alliance, a virtual club of the short-reigned king’s collateral descendants.
The Ricardian scene is also known for its openness towards ideas of reincarnation. One member of the Richard III Society told me that he would not be surprised if the entire movement turned out to be reincarnated henchmen of the King, and that he would sue me if his name was ever connected with this belief. Charles Brunner, the American prominent in the Plantagenet Alliance, prefers to use the phrase “ancestral memory” to describe his sense of identification with England’s bloody 15th century. “If the reincarnation thing does play into it, there were a lot of people who lost their lives during those events,” he said, “and a lot of what you could call unfinished business in the entire thing.”
Explicable or not, this depth of feeling has made Roe and the Plantagenet Alliance formidable, if unconventional, campaigners. They are not natural negotiators. When I asked Roe whether she would be satisfied if the group were granted the consultation it was seeking, and Richard’s remains were still interred in Leicester, she said: “No. No. Because that is not the right answer. That is not what he wanted. So, no. No.”
After a bit of sputtering, we decided that the idea that you can be the reincarnation of your own ancestors is probably not all that uncommon. Here’s what Alan Bennett has to say about Richard III in this year’s excerpts from last year’s diary:
4 February. I don’t imagine that my old Oxford supervisor, the medieval historian Bruce McFarlane, would be much exercised by the discovery of the body of Richard III, though there would be some mild satisfaction in finding the king exactly where the sources said he was. McFarlane wouldn’t have thought the body particularly informative as compared with the real stuff of history, some of the ex-duke of York’s receiver’s accounts, say, or records of Yorkist estate management.
The TV programme on Channel 4 was a lengthy and slightly spurious cliffhanger, culminating in the always conjectural reconstruction of what the famous corpse looked like. No different from the fanciful portrait, it turns out, but with enough humanity to satisfy the convictions of the Richard III Society, who were stumping up for the whole exercise. Bracketed in my mind with the ‘Bacon is Shakespeare’ lot, the Richard III fans seem not without a bob or two and with some of their barmier members on parade in the programme.
Just east of Leeds and not far from Towton and its bloody battlefield is Lead Church, a medieval cell of a chapel which possibly served as a refuge or a dressing station after the battle in 1461. I have known the chapel since I was a boy when I used to go out there on my bike. It stands in the middle of a field, the grass grazed by sheep right up to the south door and has latterly been in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. It was untouched as late as 2000 when it figured in an article I wrote for The World of Interiors. However, calling there a few years ago we found that the grass outside the south door had been replaced or supplemented by a patio not even in York stone but in some fake composition. Inside, draped in front of the altar was a gaudy banner advertising the Richard III Society. This I rolled up and had I had the means would have destroyed. I wrote to the CCT, who generally do a decent job, but was told the patio had been there for many years. It hadn’t and I suspect the culprits were the Richard III Society, who see the church as a Yorkist site on which they can lavish their presumably ample funds.
So had the last of the Yorkist kings been left under the car park I would not have grieved.
Neither, really, should we.