There have surely been few cities which have endured as much scrutiny as Leicester has been subject to recently. Thrust into the limelight almost by accident, because of a historical battle near Bosworth in 1485, this very modern and multicultural city faced a very medieval problem when archaeologists discovered the remains of Richard, duke of Gloucester and king of England: what to do with the remains of a dead king.
The story of the discovery and identification of the “King in the Carpark” is itself history by now. We’ve moved from discovery to ceremony as the world watches as Leicester re-inters the remains of the last Plantagenet king.
What a community does with its dead tells a story and, as has been commented on by more than one observer, events in Leicester recall the narrative pattern of a medieval hagiography, the biography of a saint or king. All of these stories follow an established pattern of finding, identifying and re-contextualising the remains of a significant person.
In these stories, how important a person might be is expressed through the way in which the remains are dealt with. Particularly significant is the “translation” of the remains – their movement from one place of rest to another – which forms the centrepiece of the narrative. What a translation showcases is what the civic or sacred body organising the procession wishes the viewer to take away from the spectacle. So the translation is always less about the remains themselves but rather about the identity and self-promotion of the community.
What has been so visible in Leicester, especially during the extraordinary procession on Sunday March 22, is the emphasis on collaboration between not just the city of Leicester and the communities in Bosworth and so on, but also with the university as a significant contributor to this narrative.
A modern saint?
So, what is unfolding in Leicester this week, witnessed by thousands of spectators in Leicester itself – and hundreds of thousands more through Twitter and TV – is not so much the rewriting of Richard III’s history. Instead, what is happening is the integration of the history of the last Plantagenet king into Leicester’s own sense of self.
Richard III has been appropriated by the city where, through an accident of history, he met his death on the battlefield. Richard had certainly never been associated with Leicester in life, but has become associated with it through death. This has created a relationship of obligation for the city, one it has responded to with “dignity and honour” as stated in the motto for the re-interment events. In death, the remains of Richard III have been assimilated into the identity of the party with control over them.
Henry VII, the original possessor of Richard III’s remains, was as aware of the power this gave him than anybody else. Accordingly, he used the display of Richard’s body to great success. In his English History, Polydore Vergil describes Richard’s end at Bosworth as the ignominious end well deserved of a traitor. On the other hand, the victorious Henry’s first act was to “give forthwith thanks unto Almightie God”, before acknowledging the help of his loyal nobles, offering them reward for their services and then accepting to wear the crown so recently claimed by Richard.
Pomp and circumstance
After asserting his right to be king, the next step was to punish the usurper, and to humiliate him for his aspirations to be the rightful king. So, spectacle and pageantry was needed, and events had to be witnessed to establish the “correct” version of history. Where Richard had ridden out of Leicester mounted on a war horse, crowned, upright, armoured as a victorious general and king, flying his banners and followed by loyal troops, this journey had to be made in reverse to visualise the fall of the former king.
Sources such as Polydore Vergil are very precise in telling us about Richard’s re-entry into Leicester. This time:
In the meane time the body of king Rycherd nakyd of all clothing, and layd uppon an horse bake with the armes and legges hanginge downe on both sydes, was browght to thabbay of monks Franciscanes at Leycester, a myserable spectacle in good sooth, but not unwoorthy for the mans lyfe, and ther was buryed two days after without any pompe or solemne funerall.
Henry understood the power of ceremony. He made visible the fallen state of his vanquished foe by returning him to the place he had most recently occupied as a king. He reduced his visibility after death by assigning him a Christian, but low-status resting place. This created the dominant version of Tudor history, confirmed and sealed through performance.
The rediscovery and exhumation of Richard’s remains in 2012 created an obligation for re-interment of the body. Particularly interesting was the day following the positive identification of the body, which marked the launch of a legal challenge to the High Court over possession of the remains. There were occasionally quite heated debates over the competing claims of various locations.
Leicester’s claim was upheld and the recent commemorations are the city’s response to the challenge of how to re-frame the mortal remains of a controversial and highly significant King. Richard has become visible again, because by giving him a permanently accessible burial place, Leicester has created a site of memory that allows for an engagement with the history of the War of the Roses through interest in one of its protagonists.
But there’s more to it than this. Richard has also been restored into the chronology and timeline of a community, and perspectives of the erstwhile king have been fundamentally altered by this repositioning. Just as Henry VII’s pomp rewrote history for his benefit, so has 2015’s week of ceremonies changed Leicester’s.