Richard III seems to be a figure who defies the passage of time, despite being King for just two years (1483–85). The controversy around his short rule has made him subject to fierce loyalty from groups like the ‘Richard III society’ and an almost equally fierce dislike based on the accusations of infanticide after his death.
But now it seems that legal precedent would lead us to the conclusion that all the circumstances in the life of this man are now irrelevant. After having been so ceremoniously discovered beneath a Leicester car park, it would probably require an intervention from the Queen to ensure that Richard be buried in all due honour as a former monarch in Westminster Abbey, or in all due memory as a son of the House of York in the York Minster.
The survival of Richard III and the House of York in memory can be seen all over the city. From detailing on architecture like the cities bridges to its appearance on all but Goodricke and Vanbrugh’s college crests, the white rose of York (which we commemorate further every year during the Roses tournament) still ties us to Richard, the last of the House of York, and the last to carry the white rose on his banners into battle.
The relationship between York, as the historical seat of power in the north, and Richard, as England’s only “northern” King, seems obvious. It is thought that Richard was married in the minster, further inaugurated as King in the minster, and planned for an expansion of the college of priests in the minster – possibly to make it a fitting burial place for his royal remains.
However, the case for a burial in York is not quite so clear cut, though it clearly has popular and historical if not legal support. Modern archaeological practice and church law would have Richard re-interred within the parish where his remains were found, though Leicester’s only real significance in Richard’s life is its proximity to Bosworth.
Last year, before the remains were confirmed to be that of the monarch, MPs from Leicester and Bassetlaw were squabbling in parliament desperate to espouse the virtue of their own constituencies as a burial site, but isn’t all this rhetoric founded on a merely material desire to boost tourism? Hugh Bayley, MP for York Central, said it was inappropriate to argue over mortal remains in parliament, but said that Richard “is still very well-regarded in York…we respect him enormously.” Others were quick to add that Leicester could not be trusted with the remains, having already lost them for 500 years (though it is now almost certain that the burial will take place in Leicester Cathedral).
Before joining those members of the British public looking to add their weight to one claim or another through the e-petitions pages, we must stop and remember Richard III as a man, not just a royal tourist attraction. The bones do not just represent a last relic of the Plantagenet era but a last testament to the life of a living, breathing, human Richard III – this decision should thus require more consideration even than squabbles over the ‘Elgin Marbles’. We cannot say for sure that Richard wished to be buried in the Minster, but just following the legal precedent of burial in Leicester Cathedral because it happens to be round the corner from the once Greyfriars graveyard, now council car park, seems foolish in this case. There is a wealth of evidence tying Richard to York and Yorkshire, not least of all his decision to bury his son just 10 miles outside of the city in Sherriff Hutton.
Richard III remains an enigmatic and sometimes ignominious character in English history. We now know that his physical portrayal at least in Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ was highly exaggerated, and as such we may never know what is true about his life and what Tudor propaganda. But at the same time, it seems irreverent to dismiss what we do know about his life and this period of history out of convenience, precedent or disinterest. Whether or not we have a concern for the last resting places of our bodies, it is certain that Richard, as a medieval Catholic, would have had such worries.
As such his memory, so embodied by the respect and loyalty of York and the Ricardians, deserves more than a quick Leicester internment after a 500 year stint of anonymity in car-park. The Dean of Leicester has argued that York cannot claim ownership as “these are the remains of a person we are talking about here”.
Just so, he cannot be claimed just because it might be good for Yorkshire Tourism, nor can he be owned for any reason, like all mankind, he is deserving of greater dignity that that, even 528 years after defeat at Bosworth. But surely, as these are the remains of a person we are talking about, none of us would actually want our end so undoubtedly far away from home, family and personal wishes.