Richard III, Part the Third

A break with tradition on this page, as I’m illustrating it with photos of Leicester.

The unseemly wrangle to wrest Richard III’s bones from Leicester has quietened a little, but will no doubt resurface again.

When I heard that the remains were to be reburied in Leicester I thought that was sensible and civilised. York Minster’s response was sensible and civilised. The reaction of the Ricardians has been on occasion so far from sensible that I felt our Minster needed defending from the imposition of this shrine to King Richard they seemed to be wanting to foist upon us. And then CoYC and our MP backed the campaign.

I’ve read a lot about Leicester since. And everything I’ve read has just reaffirmed my original belief that the remains should stay close to where they were originally buried, and that the York campaign is an embarrassment, something most residents don’t support.


The skilful 21st century archaeological work and DNA identification is for many of us the most interesting part, so it makes complete sense that the remains stay close to where they were discovered, as their unearthing is the biggest part of their story, now, and for the future. Take them away from Leicester and disconnect from all that impressive scholarly research? Really don’t see the benefit to anyone in that. York would get a strangely disconnected royal tomb. We already have an embarrassment of historical riches here and can’t properly represent them as it is.

Only the rich could see Richard at York

York Minster charges a hefty entrance fee. Leicester Cathedral doesn’t. It would be far more egalitarian to have a tomb to this former monarch in a place free to access. And as he was a king of England it seems reasonable that he’s near the middle of it, and in one of its biggest cities.

Leicester’s overlooked history

In the public imagination, Leicester is seen as a modern city with ugly modern architecture, and with no visible ‘history’. Perhaps it doesn’t promote its history as York does, but, as my Leicester friend reminds me, they too have Roman bits, and streets called ‘gates’.

I’ve read many comments dismissing the cathedral where the remains are to be reinterred, suggesting that it’s too modern for a monarch, not grand enough. Again, looking deeper, this ‘modernity’ is merely the common situation of a Victorian rebuilding of the church already established here for centuries. It looks rather beautiful inside, particularly the area around the memorial they already have to Richard III, which has been in the cathedral for decades.

Leicester has been quietly paying its respects to Richard III for some time: every year on the anniversary of his death white roses are placed on his memorial stone in Leicester Cathedral.

The last decision

It was certainly illuminating to read the comments on the website of Leicester’s local paper. One of them in particular stayed with me. From ‘Chappy1884′:

‘ … laying claim now he has been exhumed and stating his wishes is pretty pointless, he chose to go into battle in Leicestershire, knowing full well he might end up dead in a bog, and he accepted that risk, and he probably wouldn’t have afforded his successor the same dignity if captured or killed, it’s all conjecture. The last decision he made in his life was to go into battle. That’s all we truly understand.’

Hands off Richard III – Leicester’s anger at campaign to bury King’s remains in York

Those last two sentences in particular did more to bring this king alive, and settle this into context, than anything else I’ve read in the last few weeks. Because they’re undeniably true. And so much I’ve read is conjecture, sentimental interpretation.

‘The last decision he made in his life was to go into battle’.

He, being a king, has already had far more consideration than any ordinary person would have had in that situation. If it’s important to ‘#bringhimhome’ (as they’re saying on Twitter) then it must be important to bring all the other battle casualties from all the other battles home too. All those bones aching for home. Except I don’t believe they are: it’s the living who care, and it’s the living creating this tug of war.

In particular, the worldwide supporters of Richard III, backed by City of York Council and our local MP, who are promoting this as being something ‘York’ wants.

All the York people I’ve spoken to had no desire to lay claim.

Misrepresentation of that petition …

Hugh Bayley said, in the York Press: ‘Richard is still well regarded by people in York and it is not surprising that 22,000 people have signed a petition calling for York Minster to be his final resting place.’

I’ve lived in York for 40+ years and didn’t recognise the picture of the city he represented here. The people of York are not standing around on the medieval streets singing their praises of old King Richard from centuries ago. I suspected that the majority of those who signed the petition weren’t from York/Yorkshire, yet Hugh Bayley’s statement suggested it represents our view.

He didn’t answer my request for further information, but the data is publicly available on the geographical area of signatories to the petition. Thanks to the friend who helped me retrieve it.

Of the 23,000 signatures (at the time the data was retrieved) to the petition, fewer than 6,000 are from a YO postcode.

This postcode covers a large area reaching Scarborough on the coast and a fair distance to the north, well beyond Hugh Bayley’s constituency and well beyond the City of York Council boundaries. At a rough estimate, CoYC have joined this campaign on the basis of fewer than 5,000 petition signatures from the 200,000 people they represent, and Hugh Bayley has jumped on the same bandwagon to represent a similarly small proportion of his electorate.

What this York person concludes

Let’s be happy he was found, and let’s leave him in Leicester. Respect his final brave decision to engage in battle nearby, respect the fact that he’s been dead 500 years and that he doesn’t care where his bones are. Those who are looking at York through rose-tinted, soft-focus, medieval-infused spectacles, please remove them. And perhaps ask why York’s elected officials showed no interest for centuries and were prepared to risk no funding towards the dig and research, but now think the city has a claim.

Elsewhere on these pages

Initial thoughts on the unseemly wrangle, and in defence of York Minster: York v Leicester: battle for the bones

Questions, further thoughts: Now is the winter of our discontent

And a later posting (18 March): Wishes and white roses: Richard III, again

Elsewhere on the web

This photo illustrates another part of historic Leicester: the church of St Mary de Castro and the Turret Gateway. Thanks to Chris for the photos on this page. His recent blog posting on this subject: Richard the Third, part 57

The website of Leicester Cathedral: ‘St Martin’s has been loved and prayed in for hundreds of years.’ More about its history.

Interesting range of comments on This is Leicestershire: Hands off Richard III – Leicester’s anger at campaign to bury King’s remains in York

A beautiful photo of the interior of Leicester Cathedral, and the memorial to Richard III

An interesting and illuminating blog posting on the charms of Leicester’s cathedral: Fit for a King? Kathryn thinks so.

Update, 10 March:
I’ve been Googling a lot trying to find informed and thoughtful postings on this subject, like Kathryn’s mentioned above. Thought I’d read everything, but just discovered this brilliant piece on why the reburial should be in Leicester which I urge everyone to read.

That page and this make very similar observations, to the point where I found myself shouting ‘yes!’ at my computer screen. At the time that was written, I was composing an earlier posting in reaction to the emerging wrangle. It took me a while to think through the issues from the starting point of my initial bafflement, but it’s interesting that I’ve ended up with such a similar view to those posted weeks earlier on that blog, though I hadn’t read it at the time of writing this page.

I should also mention that on Tuesday morning, Hugh Bayley, MP for York Central is leading an adjournment debate in the House of Commons on this issue. May be available to watch here.

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  1. Mick Phythian

    When I look at your photo’s I can’t believe I spent four years (part-time) doing my PhD there…

    There’s also the quite delightful New Walk – a truly pedestrianised way through the side of the city.

    Anyway, if he did murder the Princes in the Tower, and it seems likely, why the big deal to bury him here? Put the infanticide back in a car park, be it Priory Street or Leicester!

  2. YorkStories

    They’re not my photos, they were taken by my friend Chris, who responded heroically to my request for photos illustrating the more picturesque and historic parts of Leicester.

    The Princes … I have no opinion. But was amused by the Priory St car park petition.

  3. I find myself in complete agreement with everything expressed here.. and I followed the link to the picture of the interior of Leicester Cathedral, which seems a truly beautiful space, unquestionably worthy of a king. Let him rest in peace there…

  4. Planta Genista

    A voice of reason, you made my day! Thank you, thank you, thank you, for putting so eloquently into words what I couldn’t.

    Just for the records: Not all Ricardians favour York as his final resting place, not all of them wear rose-tinted glasses, and not all members of the Richard III Society are swooning fans.

    As a member of this organization I heard of the project in July 2012, and was relieved to hear that arrangements were in place to rebury him in Leicester Cathedral, in case he should be found. My gut feeling was and still is that it is the right way to go, according to modern ethics.

    The University of Leicester, the Ministry of Justice, the Church of England, the Richard III Society, the Palace, Leicester City Council and various people involved, all parties concerned were in agreement, everything was set for a quiet and respectful reburial.
    And then the e-petions started, the press gleefully fuelled the dispute, more people joined the bandwagon, and now there’s a rather ugly mess. And I’m not only speaking of the MP’s and officials who chimed in, but what is happening in some “social media” groups. What happens there is the opposite of respectful, in another context they would be considered trolls.

    The campaign should have stopped latest when York Minster issued their statement that they support a Leicester reburial.

  5. The whole debate has been so ridiculous. I’m so glad I opted out of it early on I could see where it was leading in terms of raised passions, with everyone involved looking faintly ludicrous in a very short space of time. It’s an internet storm given traction by social media – if he’d been dug up in the mid-90s all we’d had heard about this is a brief head to head on the Today programme, a column in The Press about how a planned Eddie Brown coach trip to Leicester (stopping off at Edwinstowe to the see the Major Oak and for a pub lunch) had been cancelled due to lack of interest.

    I was very impressed by the skill of the University of Leicester people in finding and identifying the body and understand why they embarked on the project going against all good archaeological practice – it meant recognition and kudos for a department under threat in these straitened times for higher education. When we condemn greedy local authorities it’s worth remembering that there was nothing particularly credible, virtuous or academically legitimate about this whole venture – it was a massive punt and luckily for them it paid off. They’ve secured their future and applications for places are up – well done them but I can’t help thinking they really shouldn’t have bothered. Of much more interest is archaeology that tell us something about changes in village life in the East Midlands as a result of the black death for instance – this dig tells us very little, it just makes headlines for the department.

    I know Leicester reasonably well having grown up on the border of the county it gave its name to. It’s an interesting city, not lovely but it has it’s moments and I can understand their desire to try and build a tourism industry on the back of this. I don’t think it will work though after the initial interest has died down – just how great a pull is Richard III and that period ? Why do people visit the Ricardian site at Middleham in greater numbers than Sheriff Hutton or Fotheringay for instance ? It’s probably got something to do with the former being on an already established tourist trail in the Yorkshire Dales, just up the road from this great farm place that does lush ice cream.

    After the initial interest has died down I can’t imagine there’ll be many but the hardcore keen to see a grave and a car park. Likewise with the Minster, in the extremely unlikely event the bones end up in York it would soon become another monument people shuffle past with maybe a flicker of recognition, another line in the tourism literature for the stags and hens to ignore.

    I think any York council of whatever political stripe would always have made a claim for reasons of simple tourism bucks egged on as they were by a number of historians who told them the city had some kind of sketchy claim. Likewise the Labour representatives in Leicester would have been primed to meet challenges from York, or Westminster or Fotheringay or wherever. There’s been a set piece pantomine aspect to it all.

    Having studied this period of history I’m always struck by how completely alien it is to our own experience and understanding. I don’t really like any of the protagonists – they seem arrogant, odd, alien, essentially foreign in the truest sense of the word. Picking sides in the War Of The Roses is pretty silly from a 21st century point of view.

    There’s a wonderful quote from an Italian ambassador in England at the time writing back to his employer stating that the common people of England are quite happy for the nobles to keep killing one another because they believe it advances the day they achieve their freedom.

    I think it’s an indifference we could all do to imitate. It’s a marginal issue and should probably be treated a such. The arguments for Leicester, York, Westminster Abbey, Stoneybridge, the back of my mum’s sofa are all nonsense – a modern internet equivalent of scholastic theologians arguing over those grooving seraphim let loose in granny’s sewing box.

    The thing is, when you step back and don’t worry too much about it you see it isn’t really an unholy row it’s pure panto and will end in Leicester keeping the body and York attempting to package its Ricardian links in some new festival or other and forming some kind of link with Leicester to jointly promote their tomb and our old stones.

  6. YorkStories

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    I would like to regain my initial position of indifference to this issue, and perhaps, as you say Martyn, see it as an amusing pantomime, as I did initially. Difficult to do that when reading so much factual inaccuracy and misrepresentation, which I can’t let just stand unchallenged. I’ve read so much utter guff about what ‘York’ wants. And much of it, as I said before, from people who have absolutely no concept of modern York in the 21st century, and have romanticised and simplified both the place and the issues around the reburial.

    I know I’m not alone in concerns about this campaign/petition being so vigorously supported by our elected officials: as far as I can see they’re supporting the wishes of potential tourists rather than the majority of residents.

    But anyway, repeating myself a lot I fear. And about to do so again later this week in another posting perhaps.

    Planta Genista – thanks for your supportive comment, nice to read I made your day :) And thanks too for speaking up for sensible Ricardians. My apologies for perhaps doing the same kind of ‘lumping together’ and generalising I’ve been critical of.

  7. Lynne Cunliffe

    Hi ,I wont go ever again the York Leicester burial issue as its largley subjective ,I will say however that from long personal experience the initial premise of the post while it may represent some newly settled residents in York ( I consider myself newly settled and I have lived her most opf my adult life too)is mistaken ,there is a lot of folk memory of a good King Richard which I assume is from old familys who have lived in the county for generations ,its very noticable in the Dales ,I dont often talk in depth ot people in the dales and surronding area so I didnt notice it until I started to give talks in the area when Richards name was always mentioned with affection ,it was the reason I became interested in him as I thought someone who had lived so long in the memory of the area must be remarkable .I also feel that as an admire of Richard for his work to support the North and the poor but as no devote Ricardian that apart from the immediate reasons to chose somewhere other than Leicester I belive burying Richard III in Leicester will significantly influence future study of the era and also how he is perceived in the population at large as its in Leicesters interest to promote the Shakespears Richard and of course in Leicester he is always going to be the defeated short reiging king no account will be taken to study the role of the North in the 15thc or the changes made by Richard in laws which affected the population in general ,so it will have lasting repecussions on late medieval studies and in turn on the study of the Early Tudor years as the one is inextricably linked to the other .

  8. YorkStories

    Hi Lynne,
    I wrote the post, and therefore the views expressed are not of the ‘newly settled’. I was born here and have lived here for more than 40 years. My ancestors on my father’s side have lived in York and North Yorkshire for at least two centuries, and possibly even since King Richard’s time.

    It is very possibly true that in the Dales and in other parts of Yorkshire there are many families – richer ones perhaps – who have the strong feelings you mention – clearly there are, as you’ve met them. But perhaps it would be helpful if we could stop conflating ‘York’ and ‘Yorkshire’. Yorkshire is a massive county, and the Yorkshire Dales is some distance from York.

    I thought I read that he had his happiest times at Middleham? There’s obviously a strong feeling about bringing his remains ‘home’, I think most of us might understand why that area of Yorkshire would have a claim to being ‘home’, but not York Minster.

    Anyway, I do hope the situation is resolved as it’s clearly upsetting a lot of people and causing a lot of argument. Though on the positive side it has made many of us read more about Richard III and his times than we might have done otherwise.

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