LEICESTER, England – This weekend, the people of Leicestershire will commemorate the August 22, 1485 Battle of Bosworth Field, in which King Richard III was killed, leading to the crowning of Henry Tudor as King Henry VII of England.
The Bosworth Medieval Festival is similar to the Renaissance fairs I attended as a child in Texas – jousting, falconry demonstrations, period dancing, arts and crafts, and the rest.
Along with the stalls and games, there are also discussions and talks about Richard III, one of the most controversial kings in English history, but an adopted son of the people of Leicester.
What most people think of Richard’s short reign – just over 2 years – is influenced by William Shakespeare’s play, which paints the monarch as evil, murderous, and manipulative; his body as twisted as his mind and soul. Most famously, the play lays the death of his two young nephews, the Princes in the Tower, at Richard’s feet.
Richard’s death largely brought the three-decade long War of the Roses to an end; through a diplomatic marriage, the Lancastrian Henry Tudor managed to unite his family with Richard’s Yorkists.
After the battle, Richard was unceremoniously buried in Leicester’s Franciscan friary; although over time the grave was lost until rediscovered in 2012, but more on that later.
Richard’s defenders – known as “Ricardians” – will note that Shakespeare was writing “Tudor propaganda” and that the then-reigning Queen Elizabeth I was Henry Tudor’s granddaughter.
The Richard III Society is on hand at the Bosworth Medieval Festival to discuss their maligned hero, and last year one topic was raised that caused the ears of Catholics to prick up:
Would England have become Protestant if Richard had won?
Henry VII’s son was, of course, Henry VIII, the author of the English Reformation. The reason Henry VIII sought an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was that he wanted a male heir. The reason this was so important is because Henry Tudor’s claim to the throne was a bit shaky (which had been true for most English monarchs since Henry IV, whose overthrow of Richard II was also treated favorably by Shakespeare.)
When the annulment wasn’t given by the pope, Henry VIII was declared “Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England” and the rest, as they say, is history.
A walk around Leicester demonstrates the destruction Henry wrought. Abbey Park gets its name from Leicester Abbey, which was torn down shortly after the king dissolved the monasteries which owned a lot of land. The foundations of the abbey were lost until the 20th century. Over a dozen monasteries in Leicestershire were dissolved, a fraction of the hundreds around the country to be torn down.
The friary where Richard III was buried was also dissolved, and a mansion built on the site. The king’s grave was lost and rumor came about that he had been dumped into the nearby River Soar. Despite the fact the Franciscans hadn’t lived there for hundreds of years, the area was still known as Greyfriars, the popular name for Franciscans in medieval England. (There is also a Black Friars district named after the Dominican house that was dissolved in 1538. The Dominicans returned to Leicester in the 1800s but are now in a different part of the city.)
In 2012, an archeological dig began where records showed the Franciscan church would have stood. Fairly quickly, a body was discovered fitting the description of Richard, and DNA analysis later conclusively proved it was the fallen king.
Now the Greyfriars site includes the King Richard III Visitors Centre, which includes Richard’s burial site, although his remains were reburied in the Anglican Leicester Cathedral, across the street.
The location of his burial caused some controversy itself, since the city of York thought they were the more appropriate final resting place, and several Catholics advocated a Catholic burial for the pre-Reformation monarch. (A Catholic Mass was eventually celebrated by Cardinal Vincent Nichols at the Dominican’s Holy Cross Priory for the repose of Richard’s soul.)
So, if Richard had won, would the landscape of England have changed? Would it be more like Italy, where centuries-old monasteries and convents still dot the landscape?
It is hard to say.
The Reformation in England did not begin over a theological point, like it did in continental Europe, but because of the political realities that were planted at Bosworth. But a Richard victory may not have ended the War of the Roses as conclusively as happened in history.
Richard instituted numerous legal reforms that were popular during his short reign, but it is impossible to know where these might have led in the religious sphere.
The king’s personal piety was well-documented, and his prayer book is still extant and kept in the library of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Of course, the Church of England today is more amenable to Catholic expression than in the years after Henry VIII, especially after the rise of the Anglo-Catholics in the 19th century. I joined an Anglican pilgrimage in honor of St. Wigstan earlier this summer: It included the recitation of Hail Mary’s and the invocation of the saints.
Still, this weekend at Bosworth Field, as the final battle of Richard III is reenacted for the crowd’s entertainment, I might take a moment to wonder: What if?
Of course, I have to be quick. The jester fire performance is only ten minutes later.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome
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