By JOHN F. BURNS
MARCH 26, 2015.
LEICESTER, England — For an English monarchy that has lasted more than 1,000 years, there can have been few more improbable occasions than the ceremony of remembrance here on Thursday for the reburial of one of the most bloodstained medieval sovereigns, King Richard III, who was slain in battle seven years before Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World.
British Army pallbearers carried a coffin containing the exhumed remains of King Richard III to his final resting place: a marble tomb next to the altar in Leicester Cathedral.
After three days of viewing by thousands who lined up for hours to file past the bier in Leicester’s Anglican cathedral, Richard’s skeletal remains, in a coffin of golden English oak with an incised Yorkist rose and an inscription giving the sparest details of his life — “Richard III, 1452-1485” — were removed overnight from beneath a black cloth pall stitched with colorful images from his tumultuous times.
With the solemn ceremony laid down for monarchs through the ages, the coffin was borne to a marble tomb adjacent to the cathedral’s altar by a party of 10 British Army pallbearers wearing red sashes over their khaki uniforms and rows of glinting medals attesting to their service in the country’s most recent wars, in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
With the tomb topped by a black marble plinth, the king’s remains, in a lead-lined inner coffin, were then lowered into what the Anglican prelates presiding at the service described as his final resting place. That placed him barely a stone’s throw from his ignominious grave for the past 530 years, in ground beside the cathedral, where frightened Franciscan friars disposed hastily of his corpse after his defeat at the Battle of Bosworth Field outside Leicester on Aug. 22, 1485.
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That first grave lay in oblivion for centuries, unremarked until it was discovered beneath a municipal parking lot beside the cathedral in September 2012, in what has been hailed as one of the most astonishing archaeological hunches in modern history. The acknowledged good fortune of the archaeologists, who found what proved to be Richard’s bones within hours of their digger making its first cut in the buried ruins of the Greyfriars priory, was followed by what others in the field have described as an exercise of extraordinary scholarship, involving a closely knit team of experts in archaeology, engineering, forensics, genetics, geology, history and medicine, many of them from the University of Leicester.
Their work confirmed “beyond a reasonable doubt,” as the Leicester scholars have described it, that the bones were those of Richard. Critical to their findings was that the nearly complete skeleton included a deeply curved spine, evidence of the bone disease known as scoliosis that prompted later accounts that Richard was a hunchback.
The studies also established that a catalog of nearly a dozen wounds, including two ferocious blows to Richard’s skull from a sword and a halberd that would have killed him instantly, comported closely with contemporary accounts of how he died, toppled from his horse in boggy ground, after two hours of combat at Bosworth that placed him only yards away at his death from Henry Tudor, the victor at Bosworth Field who succeeded him on the throne as Henry VII.
The scholarship laid the groundwork for Thursday’s ceremony, where the few hundred seats that were available were as keenly sought-after as any at Wimbledon’s Centre Court. Crowds running into tens of thousands lined Leicester’s streets to watch Richard’s coffin pass on its way to the cathedral last weekend. The ceremonies drew hours of live television coverage and days of newspaper headlines, almost as if Britain had lost a 21st-century monarch.
Interactive Feature | About John F. Burns The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner wrote more than 3,300 articles over 40 years reporting for The New York Times.
The presiding cleric at the cathedral service was the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the worldwide head of the Anglican Communion. Some saw his presence, and the fact that the reburial took place in an Anglican cathedral, as an anomaly, since Richard was a devout member of the pre-Reformation church in England, and thus a Roman Catholic, who died well before Henry VIII’s break with Rome in the 1530s.
But any misgivings between the two churches were smoothed over when England’s foremost Catholic prelate, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, presided at a service welcoming Richard’s coffin to the cathedral on Sunday, and delivered a sermon that offered what many saw as a deft message of reconciliation to the contending schools of thought about Richard’s legacy as king.
To those seething at the spectacle of a notoriously violent monarch being rehabilitated by the church, the cardinal cautioned that power in Richard’s time was “invariably won or maintained on the battlefield and only by ruthless determination, strong alliances and a willingness to employ the use of force, at times with astonishing brutality.”
The recovery of Richard’s bones has spawned a raft of new books about the fallen king, and the BBC is planning a new television series to be titled “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses,” with the role of the king to be played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Mr. Cumberbatch, who has been identified by genealogists as a third cousin 16 times removed of King Richard, attended the cathedral ceremony on Thursday and read a poem specially written for the service by Britain’s poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy.
Notably absent from the cathedral on Thursday was Queen Elizabeth II. Perhaps wary of the controversy stirred by the honor being accorded the man who has come down through history as the most vilified of her predecessors — a man identified on the monarchy’s official website as having “usurped” the throne from its rightful heir — Elizabeth, 88, limited her role to an anodyne message on the opening page of the order of service for the reburial, noting the “importance” of the occasion.
“The reinterment of King Richard III is an event of great national and international significance,” the queen’s message said. “Today, we recognize a king who lived through turbulent times and whose Christian faith sustained him in life and death.”
The most senior royal at the ceremony was the countess of Wessex, a former commoner who is married to Edward, the third of Elizabeth’s sons. Another high-ranking royal among the guests was Richard, Duke of Gloucester, a 70-year-old cousin of the queen. His first name and title are the same as Richard’s before he seized the throne, and he is a patron of the Richard III Society, which has campaigned for a rehabilitation that would recognize Richard’s work in the field of legal innovations, including steps to widen court access for the poor.
For Richard, the years since the discovery of his bones have marked a remarkable comeback. For more than 500 years, he has been popularly cast as one of the most odious villains of English history — the “poisonous, bunch-back’d toad” of Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” reviled as a child killer for his role, as Shakespeare and generations of historians have depicted it, as the prime mover in the smothering murders of the two young brothers known as the Princes in the Tower.
The Most Rev. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, presided over the reburial ceremony of King Richard III at Leicester Cathedral in England on Thursday.
POOL PHOTO BY RICHARD POHLE
Their killings have come down as among the most heartless in English history. The boys were Richard’s nephews, aged about 13 and 11, one of them the rightful heir to Richard’s dead brother Edward IV, but they stood athwart their uncle’s ambition for the throne.
The grim legend that has been Richard’s legacy still draws widespread support, and its proponents have been vociferous in condemning this week’s events in Leicester. One of the country’s most widely circulated newspapers, The Daily Mail, told its readers this week, “It’s mad to declare this child killer a national hero.” The Times of London ran a similar headline of its own: “A glorious return for one of history’s biggest losers.”
Since the 1700s, there has been a minority voice among writers and historians that has cast Richard as the victim of a conspiracy by the Tudors, whose dynasty was founded on Henry Tudor’s victory. Among these protagonists, Shakespeare is seen as having won favor at court as a spin doctor for the Tudor cause, especially for Queen Elizabeth I, who, this version contends, wanted Richard’s reputation blackened to strengthen the Tudors’ own shaky legitimacy.