York v Leicester: battle for the bones


Here’s a detail from a beautiful wooden screen in York Minster, remembering women who gave their lives in war. Moving, isn’t it.

‘Lay my body where you will, and be not anxious about it’

Within our Minster, many lives are remembered, of people whose remains lie elsewhere. They’re remembered in beautiful inscriptions, or by people like me who light a candle in memory of a particular friend.

To me, though I’m not religious, York Minster is a place of peace and calm.

Of late the Minster has been the focus of much attention and much wrangling. As most readers are no doubt aware, there’s a massive campaign to bring the remains of King Richard III here to be buried, after they were removed from under a car park in Leicester.

Unseemly goings-on

Originally, the coverage of this was quite good-hearted and amusing. The highlight of the amusing part was a live debate on BBC Radio York, in which representatives from York and Leicester argued their cases. Julia Booth, presenter, made me laugh out loud, gamely entering into the spirit of things with an indignant ‘but you built a car park on top of him’, or similar.

Since then, it’s snowballed into something serious, and it’s not very pleasant to witness, this wrangling over a dead monarch’s bones.

I’m impressed by the work involved, the expertise. It’s a great thing that 21st century archaeological skills have brought this body to the surface and brought his story to a wide audience. But the way York has been pushing itself forward as a better place for the mortal remains has been a bit weird and disturbing.

The word ‘unseemly’ came to mind. Which is odd, as it’s a word I don’t think I’ve ever felt a need to use before. It’s a nice word, rather old-fashioned. Interestingly, when I made an effort to read more press coverage and opinion on the debate I found others also using the world ‘unseemly’.

I had an image of representatives from York like children in a playground, fighting over Richard’s remains, pulling on a leg, saying ‘Mine!’ with Leicester hanging on to an arm, between them pulling his remains to bits.

Of course, he’s already in bits, as he’s a skeleton. But you get my drift.

As this has snowballed it’s dragged into its increasing mass all kinds of outrage and accusation. I think the turning point for me was hearing a spokesman on the radio, probably from one of the tourist organisations, who mustered an impressively vociferous sense of outrage, talking about how ‘Leicester’ had treated Richard III, as if it had happened a couple of weeks ago to a member of his own family.

Suddenly so many are really really bothered. Which is strange, as in all my 40+ years living here I’ve never heard anyone spontaneously mentioning Richard III, and suddenly they’re all wanting to bring him ‘home’ to this city where apparently we all love him, and really care.

Mud-slinging at the Minster

I wasn’t intending to write about this subject, but want to defend our Minster, which has been under attack in this war of words over the bones, since issuing a statement saying it wasn’t intending to lay claim. A dignified statement.

On the website of the local press, comments included a ranting condemnation of ‘our York Minster’ for not fighting for the bones, by someone who blamed the Dean, as ‘he’ had betrayed what the people wanted, etc. Which sums up much of the debate. The Dean is a woman, and anyone really interested in ‘our Minster’ would be aware of that.

When Princess Diana died a loud campaign began to attack HM the Queen for not flying the flag at half-mast at Buckingham Palace. I felt sorry for the Queen for the first time in my life. I’m reminded of that, as the overheated accusations fly, this time aimed at the Minster.

Our Minster is a calm and beautiful place. Leave it alone. Leave it out of your mud-slinging, please.

And if Richard III was brought to York, what then? A load more nasty wrangling over how it should be done, what kind of service it should be, what kind of tomb, where. There would be people wanting some kind of state funeral. The associated arguing doesn’t bear thinking about.

Let’s decide it with jousting

It’s felt at times recently as if the digging up of these bones has unearthed some strange medieval ancestral memory. People I would never have imagined having such reverence for royalty, or for remains, have expressed their desire to see the remains of Richard III brought ‘home’.

A letter today in the press took this to extremes, addressing its questions to the ‘men of York’, like a rousing call to battle. The men of York and Leicester may be jousting in the streets to resolve this, before too long.

Tourist attraction

A recent letter to the press combined the main elements succinctly. Judith Morris wrote: ‘I appeal to City of York Council, which is always up to make a buck – bring him home. Think of the benefits to tourism.’ There’s the sentimental part about bringing him ‘home’, and the awareness that this would also bring in revenue from increased visitor numbers.

As the bring him home bandwagon has rolled into view recently it’s become embarrassingly overloaded. The leader of the council and the chief executive are suddenly there at the front, and an MEP for the region. Crowds have been demanding that Hugh Bayley and Archbishop Sentamu jump on too.

Where were these petitioners through the long haul of organising the dig and making the arrangements for reburial? I’m sorry York, but I’m embarrassed by this late-in-the-day greedy-looking campaigning. If we were that bothered, why didn’t we do something earlier on?

Does the Minster really need more visitors? And if the claims are true, regarding how much the place meant to him, perhaps that can be highlighted without his remains being buried somewhere in the middle of its floor.

Not far away from the Minster is the Richard III Museum, in Monk Bar. It will no doubt get more visitors because of this debate, and that’s a good thing. It has been championing Richard’s cause for many years.

Other than that, I fear my home city is just looking greedy and a bit crass, making a late-in-the-day grab at the potential income from tourism.

Half hoping that the unseemly wrangle will be solved by the relevant authorities deciding to take the valuable remains to somewhere else entirely, neutral ground. How about Ripon? That’s in Yorkshire, and needs the visitors more than we do.

Elsewhere on these pages

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

Thoughts on Leicester, etc: Richard III: Part the Third

And Wishes and white roses: Richard III, again

Elsewhere on the web

Letter in The Press, to ‘the men of York’

More letters: ‘Let’s have Richard where he belongs’

More letters, including: ‘Imagine my shock to see only 10,887 people had registered for this. Don’t people in Yorkshire care where their last King is to be buried?’ No, many of us really don’t care.

Alternative location petition …

Women’s memorial screen, York Minster, list of names

Richard III Museum, Monk Bar, York

About Lisa @YorkStories

Lisa @YorkStories is the creator, administrator, and writer of content on www.yorkstories.co.uk. She can be contacted on this link or via Twitter, @YorkStories
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  1. I completely agree with your sentiment, the “unseemly” rush for his mortal remains, especially when local elected officials are involved, is embarrassing.

    But, rather than jousting, i suggest a Medieval ‘melee’, everyone on the field at once, last man standing wins. I’d pay to see that…

    I do have another couple of suggestion:

    Firstly, how about we build a mausoleum for him on Bosworth Field? Then he can lie next to the men who died for him, surely this would be his first choice?

    Secondly, as a compromise, Leicester can have him from the neck down, we mount his head on a spike above Micklegate Bar. It does, after all, respect tradition, that’s what we did with his father’s head…

  2. Love it, great post Lisa.

  3. YorkStories

    I’ve received word, Mallory, brought on horseback through the Forest of Galtres, that one of the Men of Leicester likes your idea of a melee. Shall I set about finding a field?

    Ailsa, do you know what part we ladies play in a melee? Watching, perhaps? Fainting?

  4. Lynne Cunliffe

    I dont think most of the people who want Richard brought to York care about the money aspect and most dont live anywhere near York ,I give talks all around Yorkshire about the Tudors and always include an opening section on Richard to set the scene and in discussion hes always mentioned with affection especially in the dales, Despite my talks being about the Tudors I never give a talk anywere without having at least one person come up to me afterwards to talk about him ,It was due to this deep seated affection I became interested in Richard as it seemed to me there must be something remarkable about the man for him to have made such a lasting impression on folk memory,The more I learned about his relationship with York the more I understood why hes still so well regarded,Richards overseeing of the north was a welcome but brief interlude in hundreds of years of abuseinflicted by succesive kings ,between the harrowing by the normans ,the ravages of war and the Tudors destruction of its great religious houses and its crackdown after the Prilgrimage of grace.Richard was one of only two monarchs to have had genuine affection for the north (,the other monarch was Mary Tudor)we seem to attract monarchs who have unfairly attracted bad reputations ,,perhaps Yorkshire should adopt St Jude as our patron saint.,,

  5. A Melee! find a field, call the St Johns Ambulance, invite the protagonists, i’ll organise the ticket sales..

    I still believe he should be put back in the field where the men who fought for him lie, they the ones who should be remembered, not the over-privileged elite..

  6. Nice one, Lisa – I have written a kind-of-respose to this, in fact to the whole dead monarch thing, here: http://bloodandtreasure.typepad.com/blood_treasure/2013/02/richard-the-third-part-57.html
    The problem with the reburial at Bosworth idea is that there’s quite a lot of controversy about where that battle actually was. I’m not especially bothered either way, although I would get behind any effort to find the remains of Lambert Simnel and stick them somewhere bosky.

  7. PS While I’m theoretically up for a general melee to settle the matter, I’m unwilling to have gender stereotypes reinforced, as they will be if Lisa and Ailsa’s role is confined to swooning, etc. On that basis, and because it’s more fun,I’d rather sit it out with them in the pub, commentating.

  8. YorkStories

    So … there’s enthusiasm for the melee, but no one wants to do the actual painful fighting bit. Back to the more ‘refined’ jousting idea perhaps?

    Good to read your thoughts on this Chris, and to get a resident’s view of the sudden interest in Leicester, and the unveiling of the bones. I admit to being ignorant about Leicester, and many of the comments I’ve read suggest there’s not only widespread ignorance of the place but a certain amount of disdain too: it’s not posh enough for a king, it seems.

    Interesting piece in York Mix recently exploring Leicester’s history: http://www.yorkmix.com/opinion/why-york-should-give-up-its-claim-to-king-richard-iii/

    Lynne, you’re right, there has clearly been much interest in Richard III, dating from well before the recent events, and of course in the way he has been represented.

    I was struck by your comment ‘I dont think most of the people who want Richard brought to York care about the money aspect and most dont live anywhere near York.’

    I’ve noticed this fact you mention, that many of the ‘bring him home’ supporters don’t actually live in this home they want to ‘return’ him to. It must be recognised that York Minster is at the centre of a community of people living in the here and now, and the majority haven’t lobbied for these remains to be buried here.

    This page was initially prompted by reading comments under the articles on this page:

    and this one:

    – and various others … accusing the Minster of ‘betrayal’, being ‘corrupt’, asking if the Dean is a ‘moron’, etc etc.

    Not bringing out the best in people, is it …

  9. ‘… many of the comments I’ve read suggest there’s not only widespread ignorance of the place but a certain amount of disdain too: it’s not posh enough for a king, it seems.’

    It’s been much worse than that on some message boards. For some people Leicester’s population isn’t sufficiently ‘English’ (ie white).

    I’m sure Leicester (in the form of the Hallaton-Medbourne Easter Monday bottle kickers) would be up for a melee. For something on a smaller scale there’s of course Manu Tuilagi and his Leicester Tigers team mates.

    ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bottle-kicking )

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