Monday, March 9, 2015
Richard III gets a lavish send-off… at last
Later this month, 530 years after he was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field, Richard III will finally get a decent burial at Leicester Cathedral, watched by the world’s media. Elizabeth Day goes behind the scenes and meets those involved
Toby Capwell, curator of arms and armour at the Wallace Collection in London, has got used to being ahead of the curve. We are in a taxi on the way to the site of the 1485 Battle of Bosworth Field and he is talking eloquently about medieval weaponry when he confesses that, at several junctures in his life, his early enthusiasm for some overlooked area of expertise or interest has been hijacked by a later boom in its popularity.
He grew up in Seattle where, as a teenager, he remembers liking all these unknown local indie bands such as Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. Then he left to go to college, and the indie scene in his home town exploded. Before leaving Seattle, he bought an espresso machine for his college dorm. He got it at a place called Starbucks, a small coffee shop no one outside the city had ever heard of. Then Starbucks became a massive global corporation. The espresso machine broke, Capwell says regretfully, otherwise he’d probably have made a fortune selling it on eBay.
It’s the same thing all over again with Richard III. Capwell has nurtured a lifelong fascination with the Yorkist king who was killed at Bosworth by Henry Tudor’s forces during the Wars of the Roses. As a 15-year-old, he remembers reading Charles Ross’s seminal biography of the late monarch and developing a preoccupation with Richard III, whose body had lain undiscovered for centuries. No one knew exactly how the king had died – contemporary accounts relied on second-hand testimony and were mostly written by foreigners – which just added to the enigma. “When there’s a mystery, it’s galvanising,” Capwell explains. “It’s like the Kennedy assassination.”
At the time, Richard was still an unloved footnote of history, his reputation maligned by Shakespeare and the later Tudor chroniclers who depicted him as an incompetent king and a bloodthirsty hunchback, guilty of killing two young children who threatened his dynastic ambition. An obsession with Richard III wasn’t exactly mainstream for an American teenager in the 1990s. “My parents were somewhat perplexed,” Capwell admits, but, undeterred, he moved to England and became a leading scholar in the field.
And then, in August 2012, the skeleton of Richard III was found underneath a council car park in Leicester by some enterprising archaeologists from the nearby university and suddenly the whole world wanted a bit of him. Now Capwell finds himself at the centre of a growing rumpus surrounding the forthcoming reinterment of the last Plantagenet king: Richard III is due to be buried in Leicester Cathedral later this month, the first ceremonial burial of a British monarch since 1952. There was an unsuccessful high court bid to have him buried in York and rumblings of discontent over the failure to find a place for him in Westminster Abbey, but Leicester won in the end.
Channel 4 is planning a week of exclusive live coverage, overseen by Nick Vaughan-Barratt, who has been at the helm of many key royal events in the past, including the televising of the Royal Wedding and the Queen Mother’s funeral. The Archbishop of Canterbury will be presiding over the ceremony and 58 international media organisations have already signed up to be there. The cost is £2.5m, raised through private donations by Leicester Cathedral. The city’s elected mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, can hardly contain his glee: “It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to remind people of what a fantastic place Leicester is.”
Until now, the city’s most celebrated ex-residents were the former England striker and TV presenter Gary Lineker and a man called Daniel Lambert, who was famous for being abnormally large (almost 53 stone when he died in 1809). And Geoffrey Chaucer married his second wife there.
The skeleton in the car park has changed all that. The newly built Richard III visitor centre opposite the cathedral has attracted 40,000 people through its doors since opening in July, many of whom come to gawp at the shallow 1.6m by 30m trench where the late monarch was discovered, now safely screened by thick glass and accompanied by muted choral music. An overhead projection of the outline of his skeleton is beamed into the ditch at regular intervals, like some ghoulish Halloween spectacle.
The funeral cortege will take Richard III’s remains in a lead-lined coffin from Leicester university along a public route designed to retrace the movements of his final days, including the villages around Bosworth, before transporting him along the aptly named King Richard’s Road past such distinguished emporia as Best Price Bathrooms, the Crystal Jade Chinese takeaway and Maroniques hair and tanning salon. The coffin will then lie in state for three days at the cathedral so that the public can pay their respects. The reinterment service on 26 March will see a pre-Reformation Catholic king buried in an Anglican cathedral for the first time and tens of thousands of people are expected to line the streets to witness this historic event.
“It’s not a funeral because there is no body [in the conventional sense],” explains David Monteith, the dean of Leicester Cathedral. “In a funeral it’s very clear that the dominant motif is goodbye – hence our feelings of grief. In this, the dominant motif is much more hello.”
It is a rather startling thought. But for many involved in the rehabilitation of Richard III’s reputation, he does seem to be a living, breathing figure. Philippa Langley, a screenwriter and lifelong Ricardian who was the driving force behind making the archaeological dig happen (she raised £34,000 for the project through sheer will power), has devoted so much of her life to the cause that she has sometimes been accused of not only wanting to discover Richard III’s bones, but to jump them too. “If [people] want to make these assumptions that I’m still in love with him, that’s fine,” she says with a barely suppressed sigh. In the Richard III visitor centre, she is accosted by an excitable group of schoolchildren from South Carolina and a grey-haired, bespectacled woman who calls Langley her “hero”. Langley accepts it all with good grace.
“Do I admire him?” she continues. “I do because he lived the most extraordinary life. He fought through extraordinary circumstances. Yes, he’s a conflicted, complex and flawed individual – we all are. It’s the human condition.”
Langley points out that, during his two short years on the throne, Richard III brought in revolutionary legal principles – the presumption of innocence, the concept of blind justice, the introduction of bail – and insisted that all laws should be translated from Latin or French into English so that his subjects could understand them. He was also the first king to speak his coronation oath in English.
These achievements have been overshadowed for centuries by the myths surrounding his character. He has long been the prime suspect for the murder of the princes in the Tower (Langley gives this short shrift: she points out that Henry Tudor had much more to lose from their continued survival). The discovery of his skeleton has become a trigger point for a broader re-evaluation of his legacy.
In Leicester, the turnover of leisure businesses such as hotels and visitor attractions shot up by £482m from 2012 to 2013 and much of the increase was attributed to the “Richard effect”. At the Bosworth battlefield heritage centre’s gift shop, there are Bosworth wine gums on sale and rubber wrist bands on sale emblazoned with “Team Richard III” or “Team Henry VII” so that you can show your allegiance to either the House of York or Lancaster.
“One of my bugbears,” says Richard Knox, the delightfully titled 1485 project officer for Leicester city council, “is that the Battle of Bosworth Field is famous for being the start of the Tudor dynasty and the occasion of Richard III’s death [legend has it that Henry Tudor was crowned Henry VII on the battlefield with Richard’s crown, retrieved from a thorn bush] but about 1,000 other people died, probably 950 of whom we have no idea who they were.”
Everyone who works at the centre seems to be called Richard, although they insist it’s not obligatory. Richard Cale, who greets me at reception, says he was the third one to join, “so I’m Richard the third”.
No one seems to mind that the centre is about three miles away from the actual battlefield site. In fact, the closest you can get to the spot where Richard III lost his life is a local farm where some mischievous type has put name plaques on the outbuildings, such as “Tudor Barn”, “York Barn” and “Blackadder Barn”. We hike up a mound of mud and Capwell points out the various ridges Richard would have used to mount his charge.
The discovery of the skeleton has meant experts now have a fairly accurate picture of how he must have died. After using the latest techniques in forensic pathology, bone analysis, radiocarbon dating, genealogy and DNA research, academics at the University of Leicester claimed they were 99.999% certain that the bones in the car park were indeed those of the last Plantagenet king.
The identification process was lengthy and involved tracing an all-female line of descent from Richard III’s sister, Anne of York, so that a mitochondrial DNA sample (longer lasting and more stable than the DNA that exists within our cell nuclei) could be gleaned from a living descendent – in this case, Michael Ibsen, a cabinet-maker living in London, who has hand-carved the coffin in which Richard will be buried. His DNA matched the sample from the skeleton.
The findings also confirmed that the late king did suffer from scoliosis of the spine, meaning that his right shoulder would have been noticeably higher than the left. Although he would have been 5ft 8ins tall in the normal course of events, the scoliosis depressed his height by four inches. This, then, was a king who had to fight inherent challenges in an era when physical deformity was viewed as evidence of a twisted soul.
Analysis of Richard’s skeleton revealed two major blows to the skull and one to the pelvis. Capwell believes the most likely explanation for his death is that the king’s horse became mired in the swampy mud around Bosworth – hence the famous line in Shakespeare: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” Unable to move, he would have been set upon by some of Henry Tudor’s men. He probably lost his helmet or had it forcibly removed. The back of his skull was sliced off – Capwell thinks the weapon would have been a halberd (a type of axe). Medieval battles were, he says, “nasty, horrible things”.
The skeleton also revealed several humiliation wounds, including a sword injury through the right buttock. Richard’s grave was hastily dug and he was buried without a shroud or coffin, in an area too small to lay him out with the dignity usually afforded an anointed king.
Aside from the science, the discovery of Richard’s remains was also the result of astonishing serendipity. At the outset of the archaeological dig, the chances of finding Richard’s grave were miniscule: most of the site of Greyfriars abbey had been built on over the years and the dig was only able to excavate 1% of the total area because of funding limitations. The team expected to find hundreds of unidentified skeletons, but only had clearance to exhume six.
The first ground was broken underneath a letter “R” painted onto a car-parking space to designate it “reserved”. Within five hours of the first day, two parallel human leg bones were discovered. The feet were missing, chopped off by the foundations of a Victorian building that, if it had been built a few inches to the right, would have entirely destroyed the skeleton.
It was 22 August, the same date on which, 527 years previously, the Battle of Bosworth Field had been fought. It was, recalls Carl Vivian, a video producer at the University of Leicester who has been filming the back story (no pun intended), a bank holiday weekend, and permission to continue the exhumation had to be sought from the Ministry of Justice. It took three days for the permission to come through and the skeleton was finally removed from the ground on 25 August.
“After Richard was killed in 1485, his body was put on display for three days,” says Vivian. “Then he was buried.”
On 25 August? “Yep. Of course, there are those who point out the Gregorian and Julian calendars don’t match up, but still…” Vivian trails off.
It makes for a better story? He nods: “It does.”
Channel 4’s week of live programming for the burial of King Richard III begins on Sunday 22 March at 5.30pm with the procession, and culminates on Thursday 26 March from 10am with the live reburial, Richard III: The Burial of the King. For details click here