To bury England’s last Plantagenet King, a man of considerable piety, as though he had been a Protestant would be an utterly offensive act
I am finding that, though yesterday’s disastrous vote on gay “marriage” is obviously of more contemporary relevance, I am today more fascinated and stirred by another story entirely: the fact that scientists at the University of Leicester (as it happens an alma mater of mine) have stated that beyond any reasonable doubt the skeleton recently found there is indeed that of Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England. Based on the skull, a facial reconstruction has now been made; it’s very like the famous portrait, but better looking. Our idea of him is, of course, now probably beyond recall, formed by Shakespeare’s evil monster, the supposed murderer of the princes in the tower. But Shakespeare’s version was based on Tudor propaganda, that is, on Holinshed, whose account is in turn based on the narrative cooked up by one John Morton, who was, wait for it, Henry Tudor’s Archbishop of Canterbury, an open enemy of Richard III who conspired against him and spent some time in captivity in Brecknock Castle: he was released and promoted by Henry VII. Richard almost certainly did not murder the princes (there was no contemporary accusation that he did, even from Henry Tudor himself). The best reconstruction of what happened is in Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time, which is also one of the best discussions of how history can be fabricated for propaganda purposes: she discusses also, as a modern example, the scurrilous lie, still widely believed, that Winston Churchill ordered troops to fire on miners in Tonypandy, killing many (he actually refused to send in troops, restoring order by means of unarmed Metropolitan policemen, who killed nobody).
Early in Richard’s reign, Thomas Langton, Bishop of St David’s, accompanied Richard on a royal progress through his kingdom, and wrote to a friend that “He contents the people where he goes best that ever did prince; for many a poor man that hath suffered wrong many days have been relieved and helped by him and his commands in his progress. And in many great cities and towns were great sums of money been given him which he has refused. On my truth I liked never the conditions of any prince so well as his; God has sent him to us for the weal of us all”. There were more critical accounts of course; there always are. But Richard was not the monster we have supposed.
Whatever he was, he was England’s anointed king: and he was of course a Catholic. He was, in fact, austerely religious, a public benefactor and protector of the Church, a founder of charities, who throughout his life upheld a strict code of sexual morality, in marked contrast to many of his fellow courtiers. Had he not been toppled by the wretched Henry Tudor, there would have been no Henry VIII and no consequent apostasy of the Ecclesia Anglicana: we might still be a Catholic country, with a Catholic monarchy. His burial took place without any funeral rites at all: he was just shoved in a hole by the impious Henry. All this makes it surely unthinkable that he should be given a Protestant funeral service and buried in a Protestant cathedral. But that is what is now proposed: Leicester Cathedral is a post-reformation Cathedral. Richard himself wanted to be buried in York Minster, and that would be fine, as long as the funeral is a Catholic Requiem Mass. The historian Andrew Roberts thinks not only that “the bones of the last British [sic] monarch to die in battle now must be treated with dignity and venerated properly, as is only right for a former head of state”, but that like monarchs before and after him, Richard III deserves a burial ceremony in accordance with his former status. That means, he says, Westminster Abbey, where 17 English kings and queens are buried. He points out that Richard was anointed and crowned King at a grand, solemn and very well-attended ceremony at Westminster Abbey on July 6 1483, and thinks that he should be buried there with all the proper honours this summer, 530 years later.
I agree with all that. But the funeral service itself must surely be one he would not himself indignantly have repudiated. It must be a Catholic Mass, preferably conducted according to the Sarum Rite: the same rite, that is, accorded to most of the other Kings buried there.
That is the essential. As long as it’s not in Leicester Cathedral (close by the site of his final humiliation), I don’t mind where it happens. But for the last Plantagenet King of England to be buried as though he had been a Protestant would be an utterly offensive travesty of our history, and something English Catholics should simply not accept without vigorous protest: it is surely now time for our bishops, and especially the Archbishop of Westminster, to speak. Will they?