LEICESTER, England — For an English monarchy that has lasted more than 1,000 years, there have been few more improbable occasions than the ceremony here Thursday for the reburial of perhaps the most bloodstained and violent of its medieval sovereigns, King Richard III, a Catholic king who was slain in battle seven years before Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World.
Richard’s skeletal remains, in a coffin of blond English oak inscribed with the sparest details of his life — “Richard III, 1452-1485” — were the occasion’s centerpiece. Removed overnight from beneath a black cloth pall stitched with colorful images from Richard’s life, the coffin was laid to rest in a brick-lined tomb immediately adjacent to the altar of Leicester’s Anglican cathedral.
With the tomb topped by a black marble plinth, the former king will rest barely a stone’s throw from the ignominious grave where frightened Franciscan friars disposed hastily of his corpse after his defeat at the Battle of Bosworth Field outside Leicester on Aug. 22, 1485.
That first grave lay forgotten for centuries until it was discovered beneath a municipal parking lot 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 to a degree of certainty of “99.9 percent,” as the Leicester scholars have described it, that the bones were those of Richard, including a deeply curved spine that may have prompted later accounts that he was a hunchback. Their work also established that the ferocious wounds to Richard’s skull from a sword and a halberd, which 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 fighting at Bosworth.
The scholarship laid the groundwork for Thursday’s ceremony at the cathedral, 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, and Channel 4 ran hours of live coverage through the week.
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 entitled “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses,” with the role of the king to be played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Cumberbatch, who has been identified by genealogists as a third cousin 16 times removed of King Richard, attended the cathedral ceremony Thursday and read a poem specially written for the service by Britain’s poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy.
Notably absent from the cathedral for Thursday’s ceremony 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, 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 Queen Elizabeth’s. His first name and title are the same as Richard III’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.
Their killings have come down as among the most heartless in English history. The boys were Richard’s nephews, ages 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. To that infamy, historians have added dozens of other noblemen, some his close relatives, whom Richard ordered summarily hanged and beheaded as he schemed his way to a rule that lasted only 26 months.
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,” it read.
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 the victory at Bosworth by the Welshman Henry Tudor, who became King Henry VII. 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 wanted Richard’s reputation blackened to strengthen the Tudors’ own shaky legitimacy.
The acclaim that has surrounded the discovery of Richard’s bones and their reburial has drawn widespread plaudits for the University of Leicester, the Leicester city government, and the Richard III Society. Together, they funded the archaeological dig for Richard’s bones and battled successfully in England’s highest courts for the right to bury the former king in this industrial city in the English Midlands, overcoming a challenge from the city of York, the historical base for Richard’s family and the city that he made his political base.
While contested in the language of historical and judicial rights, the court battle was also a thinly disguised contest for the tens of millions of pounds in tourism revenue that seems likely now to flow to Leicester, which has built a new Richard III visitor center beside the parking lot where Richard’s bones were discovered.
The public response of the past week appears to have been driven in part by the jamboreelike atmosphere that has swept Leicester. The weekend procession in which Richard’s coffin was driven to Bosworth and back featured people dressed in medieval suits of armor, period dress and the habits of Franciscan friars, some shouting “Long live the king!” The enthusiasm continued as the coffin, on wooden trestles beside the cathedral’s baptismal font, was opened to the public for three days of what amounted to lying in state. At one point, the waiting time ran to more than four hours.
Some saw the message encoded in the public acclaim less as one of embracing the idea of Richard as a “good king,” as he has been described by Phil Stone, chairman of the Richard III Society, than one of redemption, a theme common to all great faiths.
If no other English monarch has been quite so despised as Richard, there appeared to have been many in the Leicester crowds who were drawn to the idea voiced by Nichols after he wafted incense over the coffin on Sunday — that Richard, half a millennium after his death, remains a fitting figure for the prayers of those whose hearts are “not filled with the vengeance of victory.”