Bones of contention: the last rites of Richard III

Catholics would like the monarch’s remains to be prepared for burial in a chapel rather than in a laboratory

This article was first published in The Times on 14 February 2015.

richard iii

The bones of Richard III, dug up three years ago in a car park in Leicester, will at last be laid to rest next month. The Archbishop of Canterbury will say prayers as the coffin is lowered into a brick-lined vault beneath Leicester Cathedral. It will be hoped that a solemn, moving occasion — broadcast live on Channel 4 — will put an end to controversy over where and how the last Plantagenet king should be reinterred. Yet even now, just weeks away from the sealing of the tomb, the arrangements are still the subject of dispute.

This time passions have been aroused not by the reinterment itself, but by the “coffining” — that is, the way Richard’s bones are placed in their coffin. A petition, signed by 3,000 Catholics, is calling for the king’s remains to be coffined in a Catholic chapel, rather than, as is planned, at the University of Leicester. What’s more, the petition is being organised by the historians Philippa Langley and John Ashdown-Hill, who were responsible for the discovery of the king’s remains.

Anglican and Catholic officials have rejected the idea, saying there is no need for prayers to be said when the remains are put in a coffin. The university has so far resisted pressure to change its plans. The remains, it says, will be coffined in a “place of appropriate dignity”.

The petition organisers say they want Richard III’s remains to be treated “in a prayerful way, rather than as a scientific specimen”. Ashdown-Hill, author of The Last Days of King Richard III, cites how Richard reburied his own father and brother after they were killed by Lancastrians. “They were surrounded by prayer at every stage of the journey from exhumation to reburial,” he says. “Clearly that’s what Richard III thought was the right thing to do.” But the Rev Pete Hobson, acting canon missioner at Leicester Cathedral, says there is “no precedent or logic” to the request. Praying over remains being placed in a coffin “didn’t happen in medieval times and it doesn’t happen in contemporary times”.

The dispute is part of a broader clash between the university and the “Looking for Richard” team of enthusiasts who pushed for the initial dig. Langley, who financed the excavation after a hunch about where the king’s body would be found, thought it had been agreed that Richard’s remains, once identified, would be placed in a chapel of rest. Instead, after being CT-scanned, carbon-dated and DNA-tested, they were kept at the university.

Recalling Richard’s hasty, ignominious burial after the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, Langley says the reinterment is “about making peace with the past — that’s the most powerful thing we can do”. The team says that, apart from the coffining, it is happy with the reinterment plans. Yet its petition, by calling for Richard to be placed in a coffin “in a place of Catholic sanctity, with the prayers and rites of his own religion”, opens up another question. If Richard III was a Catholic, why is he being buried in an Anglican cathedral?

The simple answer is that the university, which held the exhumation licence, chose Leicester Cathedral. The Catholic church did not get a look in, but Richard enthusiasts argue that the king was genuinely devout, and therefore would have cared about the manner of his reinterment.

Desmond Seward, author of Richard III: England’s Black Legend, agrees that Richard was a religious man. He points to the many chantries Richard founded for priests to pray for the dead. Michael Hicks, emeritus professor at Winchester University, however, says that even if Richard was religious, he hardly led a Christian life: he killed, broke oaths, produced bastards — and probably murdered his nephews.

Seward points out that reburying the king in a way that would have been familiar to him would not be possible today. Masses in Britain before the 16th century were celebrated according to the Sarum Rite, the “most elaborate in Christendom”. A Requiem Mass would require 20 ministers dressed in black vestments at the altar and three cross-bearers. “The modern Catholic Church could not find the clerics to do this and, in any case, Rome would never give permission,” he says.

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