Passion, cathedrals and Richard III

Posted: March 18, 2013 in Richard, Duke of Gloucester/Richard III

“I’m starting to wish they’d left him where he was.” A comment on a Richard III related facebook page. Not one I agree with entirely, but I see the point being made. If he was still where he was originally buried – in the ruins of Greyfriars Priory under a social services carpark in Leicester – there’s whole bunches of arguments we wouldn’t now be having. But to wish this monumental discovery unmade would be to lose a good deal more than just the tension in the air. There are things we now know about Richard III (with more, surely, to come) that were impossible before his remains were found. So, they were found and now they have to be dealt with. Reburied. And that’s just the latest in a line of displeasure that began within a week of the press conference announcing his identity.

The Leicester University team were criticised; the Leicester and not York (or Westminster or wherever) burial decision was criticised; and now there’s angst and turmoil over the tomb. And for a couple of months now, I’ve just been staring open-mouthed, muttering “Why can’t we all just be glad he was found? Why add all this drama?”

Reacting and responding to some of this displeasure has taken me on something of a journey. It began with disbelief – how could anyone be so ungrateful to the team that found Richard? to the cathedral that’s going to be his burial place?; then frustration and (I’ll admit) a bit of snark; and now I’m in a slightly calmer place, two profound moments of insight and understanding later.

Firstly, the sheer disconnect between ‘Ricardians’ and the ‘rest of the world’ (profound insight #1). I’ve said before that Ricardians come in a bewildering variety of flavours, so I should make it clear here that I’m referring to white-hot-with-passion Ricardians, who bristle with indignation, even hostility, when someone questions the received belief that Richard could do no wrong. This is a minority group, but very vocal. One or two of them can lead the agenda in a given forum, shortshrift given to anyone who doesn’t fall in behind them. I’ve met a few and find them very difficult to have rational conversations with. Their voices are so loud that they drown out those of us who want the discussion to be a little less strident (and that is, by far, the majority of us). They react swiftly, and sharply, to any perceived criticism of Richard and they are often ‘distraught’ or ‘astounded’ by the things others say or do. They feel that they’re in danger of losing ‘their’ Richard, that other people – who probably hate him, or at the very least, don’t love him – are getting their hands on him. And it hurts (profound insight #2).

There are calm and rational voices in this discussion belonging to people who believe that Leicester cathedral’s decision should be changed, that the words they’ve chosen are unfortunate and that it’s all gone horribly wrong. But these voices are being drowned out. With abusive emails being sent to the Dean of York this  is the view many people now have of Ricardians as a whole. And it’s an entirely incorrect view. No-one does the group they represent any favours by acting in an irrational, or criminal, manner. Lack of self-awareness in this causes a good deal of harm. If someone says “That’s the wrong way to behave, it makes people think poorly of us as a whole” then that’s probably a sad, but unavoidable, fact. Harm has been done by the strident and the unhinged. The rational among us now have to work double time to mitigate this harm. Firstly, by making it very clear that we are rational.

My profound moments of insight are hardly new or exclusive to me. There’s probably some lovely sociology or psychology jargon that covers them in a neat and scholarly way, but as I don’t know what that jargon is, all I can do is press on on my own.

I’ll take them out of order. While one occurred after the other, it’s the second that has priority.

Profound Moment of Insight #2 – When you share something you love with the rest of the world, you give a little of it away.

And that allows the rest of the world to see it through their own eyes. They might have picked up your interest in whatever it is, but they haven’t been infected by your passion. An episode from my childhood might be a good illustration of this. When I was about 10, I found a bower bird nest.

I kept it a secret for a long time, then one day I showed my mother. She wasn’t quite as impressed as I was but that was ok. Then, without consulting me at all! she took a group of other people down to see it and it was all spoiled. What had been my glorious wonderful secret thing belonged to other people. I was incapable of expressing my feelings to myself, let alone my mother, and she thought I was being awfully silly. But the magic had gone! People who just didn’t understand had seen the nest! And how could they understand? They weren’t me! They didn’t stumble on it and stop in their tracks, breathing in the wonder of it.

That’s how I think it is for some Ricardians at the moment. Richard III is theirs. He belongs to them. And while the dig in Leicester was going on, the excitement of it masked the looming reality: the rest of the world was soon to be made aware of Richard, and they weren’t going to magically, miraculously, come to see him the way Ricardians do. In fact, some might even have some harsh things to say! But the harsh things can be dealt with. After all, Ricardians of various flavours have been countering the harsh for a long time now. I think what’s worse is that people who didn’t care much about Richard not that long ago, now have some practical things to say. Not only has Richard been taken away by the rest of the word, he’s been taken away by people who now have to do something about him and they just don’t care! Not in the right way, anyway.

Richard III never did belong exclusively to Ricardians but now the illusion that he did is gone. There are other voices out there now that can’t just be ignored. People want to discuss him and they can’t be silenced. “But they didn’t care about him not that long ago!”. And I understand this, I really do. But it was the Richard III Society that put up the money for the dig and the research, two members in particular who got the whole thing going and kept it going. For this the names of Philippa Langley and John Ashdown-Hill should go down in Ricardian annals for all time. They worked hard, sometimes against stiff odds. And they achieved what they set out to. The Society as a whole did. And this is where it gets tricky, because it was the Richard III Society that gave Richard to the rest of the world. We can’t even pretend he’s exclusively ours anymore. We shared him with the world and gave a bit of him away.

Profound Moment of Insight #1 – When people with a passion and representatives of the rest of the world set out at opposite ends of a long road, there’s little chance they’ll manage to meet in the middle

Any group of people with a deep and burning passion for someone or some thing is a puzzle to the rest of the world. The deep and burning passion people have lived with their passion for some time (though a few manage to be burningly passionate after reading a single novel, but that’s another story.) When the rest of the world is made aware of the object of that burning passion, fire and love and belief don’t immediately manifest themselves in their hearts. The rest of the world rather likes to make up its own mind. Having done that, some of them may join the deep and burning passion group. Others won’t, their interest will be heightened but they won’t necessarily buy into anything. That’s the way of things.

There are three ways of convincing members of the rest of the world to join that group. One is by presenting the ‘facts’ as the group sees them (or as individuals within the group see them), encouraging them to look at other ‘facts’ as the group might not see them, and allowing minds to be made up, objectively and dispassionately. The second way is to just present the ‘facts’ as the group sees them, a kind of take or leave it approach. And the third is far more insidious and dangerous. There is a history related forum (probably not the only one) on the internet that, checked off against a ‘cult-like features’ list, comes dangerously close to cult-like. This is a factory for producing ‘people who think like us’ and weeding out ‘people who don’t’ (or ‘haters’). The first method is the one I favour. I get uncomfortable when someone tries method 2 on me and cults make me fight back. With a vengeance. The rest of the world hasn’t been given time to make up its mind. It’s being beset, from all sides, by already established views of Richard. “Keep up!” they’re told, and it’s not easy. We’ve had time to process it all, get used to it, follow the dig, shed a tear at the press conference, get our hopes up about what it all means. The rest of the world hasn’t. They woke up one morning to a bewilderment of information (and misinformation) about Richard and Ricardians and I’m not surprised they’re confused and bemused. So we should tread a little more gently and softly.

I’m sure the Chapter of Leicester Cathedral didn’t mean to be unkind or patronising with they spoke of Richard representing both the ‘honourable and dishonourable’. To me, they come across as more puzzled than patronising. Nor do I believe the phrase ‘modest dignity’ found in their design brief for Richard’s monument to be any kind of ‘slap in the face’. They have practicalities to consider, and they have to take into account that the jury is still out on just where Richard sits on that honourable/dishonourable continuum. Even the Ricardian jury is out. There a range of views within Ricardian circles, ranging from ‘he could do no wrong’ to ‘I think he might have done a little bit wrong’. So if we’re not united on our stance (and why should we be?), how on earth can we expect the rest of the world to be?

So, we have at one end of the road some very vocal, devoted and passionate Ricardians who want a tomb along the lines of the original design.

Which is quite lovely. If that can be achieved without causing impediment in the cathedral itself, it’s a ready-made solution. The decision seemed to have been made, but as I wasn’t part of the discussions and haven’t seen any kind of minute or document to show that – unequivocally – the decision was made and fully accepted by the cathedral, it’s hard to know quite why it was unmade (if it was unmade). I do understand the disappointment. That tomb would have been pretty cool.

Whatever the history of this, we’re at a different place now. The tomb, as is, has been declared too large and too obtrusive. Whether that’s the case or not, again I don’t know for certain. I’ve never been to Leicester cathedral. All I can do is listen to those who have.

The place we’re at now is the design brief from the cathedral that states very clearly that what they’re looking at is a ledger stone. Or  ‘a slab’ as it’s rather disparagingly referred to from time to time. “They want to throw him under a slab!” Well, no, they don’t. They’re already auditioning choirs for a funeral that’s more than a year away, so ‘throwing’ Richard under anything isn’t in any way a realistic foreshadowing of what is to come.

Here’s the ‘slab’ they ‘threw’ Henry VI under:


And Henry VIII, Charles I and ‘an infant child of Queen Anne’:

I’m not saying ‘what’s good for one (or three) kings is good for all kings’ but maybe let’s not see this as any kind of calculated insult. The intensely passionate Ricardians are starting from their end of the road with ‘He’s our king. We love him and we demand something that reflects our love and his greatness as a king!”. (Fair enough.) And, at the other end, the rest of the world, represented by Leicester cathedral are saying, “But there are practicalities to think of! Rules and regulations! And he wasn’t, by any means, the perfect man or the perfect king you believe him to be. Look, we’ll do our best but we can’t handle a 7′ tomb.”

These two paths are doomed to not meet in the middle.

There might be something that can be done to persuade the Chapter to change their minds. It won’t be done by getting ‘distraught’ and seeing them as the enemy. It won’t be done by newspaper polls. It might be done by quiet, calm and rational argument, which I’m sure is being tried behind the scenes. But maybe the decision is made and can’t be changed. If that’s the case, then the money raised by the Society should be used to make the best, most respectful and beautiful ledger stone a king of England ever had. Maybe then we can get back to what’s really important – a man who everyone thought was lost forever has been found. Setting aside differences with university, cathedral and the rest of the world would let us get back to that. It’s something we should be marvelling at, not nitpicking.

  1. Esther says:

    Interesting article … and a great point. I am, however, curious about some things. First, why is the Richard III Society involved in raising money for the tomb at all, as opposed to the government paying for it? John got a tomb … and he, too, is suspected of killing a nephew (Arthur, son of older brother Geoffrey). Second, I wonder how the dispute over the tomb managed to arise. I would doubt that the rules governing tombs are well publicized. Could the Cathedral have been unaware of the proposed designs? Third, why is the dispute over the tomb or the place, and not over the proposed “ecumenical” service, instead of giving him a Catholic funeral? It seems to me we should respect the dead person’s religious beliefs, as a means of showing the respect we would want someone else to show our beliefs if we died far from home.

  2. anevillfeast says:

    Thanks, Esther.
    The Society had to raise the money for the dig and the sciency stuff, academic reality being what it is these days, with more time spent going after grants than dealing with core business. The funding of a tomb was part of that, I believe. I don’t know about King John, or who paid for what, or anything at all, actually! I should find out.
    I really don’t know how the misunderstanding (if that’s what it was) arose. I don’t know if Leicester say ‘yes’ to the tomb design without looking into it first; or if the Society jumped the gun, thinking that Leicester had said ‘yes’. It’s all a mystery to me at the moment.
    The catholic argument has been aired, most recently by John Ashdown-Hill in an interview. The argument against the need for a catholic reburial is that Richard would have received those rites when he was first buried and a later ecumenical service (not a funeral, as such) wouldn’t wipe that away. As I don’t know enough about such things, I can’t say whether that’s the right way to look at it or not. An ecumenical service sits right with me, as I don’t have strong religious views (or any, for that matter). That’s not to say those who do have strong views that it should be a catholic service shouldn’t express them.

  3. Jodi Fuller says:

    I just wish they would hurry up and bury the poor guy and let him rest in peace again. We have the history of what Richard did to people, what we think he did to people, and what other’s did to him. The scientist have what they need to continue their studies, the archaeologist have enough to write books, the historians to re-write history, and professor’s have enough to change their lectures. Let Richard III go.

    • anevillfeast says:

      I think they’re hoping for even more, Jodi. I understand the opportunity is too good do pass up for the scientists and scholars but, like you, I’ll be happy when it’s all done. I think there’ll be a rush of visitors to Leicester for a while after that, but that will calm down. Then maybe we can all sit back and rest for a bit.

  4. Jodi Fuller says:

    The only thing I would like to see now is a DNA analysis of the remains of the two boys that were found in the Tower in the 1700’s, compared to Richard’s. That’s one mystery that needs to be solved. It would certainly change a lot of history.

  5. Derek Birks says:

    Sigh… In all the years I’ve studied history – and that’s quite a few now – I’ve always had a soft spot for Richard III but, let me tell you folks, very little history will be rewritten in the aftermath of the discovery of Richard’s body. Secondly, the “white legend” of Richard III is completely untenable. Beyond that, the mysteries, the princes etc, remain mysteries. We’ll never having a “smoking gun” [or pillow]. Arguing about aspects of Richard III can be interesting; arguing about his burial is quite ridiculous. Now, you see, you’ve got me doing it as well!

  6. Mary Miller says:

    As a long-time member of the Richard III Society in the United States, I have run into all types of Ricardians. Most of us are rational human beings. A few are slightly crazy.
    On a scale of white to black, I lean towards a pale shade of gray for Richard. He definitely was not a saint or martyr. He was a soldier and politician of his time, which was a violent age. I think a person with faults and virtues is much more interesting than cardboard model. I have spent forty years telling people that he is most probably not the monster he has been depicted as for centuries. And let’s not be naive–over the centuries, historians have very lazily attributed the worst crimes to Richard without using research or logic.
    In 1985, the 500th anniversary of Bosworth, I led a group of Texan Ricardians around England, visiting all the major sites associated with Richard, including Leicester Cathedral. There was a large slab commemorating Richard in the Cathedral. Said slab was placed there through the fund-raising efforts of the Richard III Society. I think that most Ricardians would agree that it would be nice to have a bit more than what has already been in place for 30+ years. Leicester Cathedral is on the smallish side, but there should be room for a raised tomb.
    On the practical side, I can foresee many bouquets of white roses being left there. I’d rather have them on top of a tomb than on the floor.

    • anevillfeast says:

      A tomb, something along the lines of the one already suggested, would be great. And trying to persuade the Chapter to allow a tomb is fine. Getting ‘distraught’ about it all and putting the worst possible slant on every word that issues from the cathedral isn’t going to do it. I suspect that there are some quiet, rational voices talking with the Chapter, but the ones the public hears are the loud and strident ones.
      Like you, I have what I believe is a more realistic picture of Richard. Or at least, that’s the picture I’m building of him.

  7. sonetka says:

    I think it’s fair to point out that he’d hardly be the only member of the nobility to end up with a different monument than the one he originally wanted (and under a slab, no less). Henry VIII planned a grand monument to himself which was never made, and Queen Mary I wanted to be buried with her mother — that didn’t happen either. Anne Boleyn and any number of others were buried in St. Peter ad Vincula — even after their bones were dug up and tentatively identified, they were reburied in the same church. After a certain amount of time, I think it’s reasonable to say that people should be left where they ended up, or in cases where they ended up in a lost/paved over situation, reburied in the nearest appropriate location. After all, the fact of their bodies ending up where they did is also a part of their history. (I suppose if York really wants him and can’t get him, I suppose they could always build a cenotaph, like Florence did for Dante — they’ve wanted him back for about 700 years now).

    I am very interested in what further information they can get from the skeleton — the main things I had heard were that he had scoliosis and ate a lot of seafood — I’m not sure how significant the second piece of information is if there aren’t a lot of available skeletons of similarly-ranked people of the time so they can see if his seafood consumption was atypical or not.

  8. Well said Karen, always the voice of reason. 🙂

  9. Fully agree Karen,
    The stuff that has been going through the forum in the last weeks is almost unbelievable. Over-analyzing everything comment that is made. Very little real information or discussion.
    I did like the brief discussion of the Dominican Friary in Leicester as an alternative. However York is definitely in running as he may be re-interred anywhere appropriate.
    York would probably be my choice – but it is not ours to make.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Thanks, Gillian. I don’t have much to do with the forum these days. The atmosphere is decidedly hostile to anyone who steps out of a very narrow line. It seems to be dominated by a small group who have their own fantasy picture of Richard and are ready to scratch the eyes out of anyone who tries to inject a little reality into the discussion.
      Discussion about the reburial and grave marker, when its carried out rationally and unhysterically, is perfectly valid. The sad thing is it started at such a high fever pitch in so many places. We are seen, collectively and erroneously, as a bunch of people so in love with a dead king that we can’t think straight. And that’s not to deny any passion we might have for the subject, but passion for a subject and passion for a dead man are two different things, in my book. (And I’m not being a hypocrite here, I have over the last year or so critically examined the way I look at Warwick and the rest of the Nevills. I do feel strongly about the way they’re portrayed and I’m ‘on their side’ but I’m not in love with any of them.)

  10. Celia Parker says:

    What I find puzzling is the idea that finding Richard’s bones has somehow vindicated him and that people should realise that he was a virtuous hero who only took power because it was the best thing for the kingdom and died (really,I have been told this) defending the country he loved. By all means use the discovery and the public interest in it to promote research into the man and his times- but as Chris Skidmore reminded a recent Richard III Society conference, Richard should not be sentimentalised and if you want to find the ‘truth’ – well, be prepared for the truth to be unpalatable.
    Most Ricardians are sensible people, but unfortunately it’s the romantics/fanatics (whose favourite book on the topic is always Kendall, which they quote as if it were the Bible) who get attention.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Hi Celia! Yes, these are the rather loud voices that drown out so many others, the ones who must demonise everyone else in order to justify Richard’s every action. They don’t want to know the ‘real’ man, they want their fiction based fantasy of him confirmed, and that’s just not going to happen. I’m sure there are a lot of unpalatable truths out there!

  11. decaryn says:


    Great comments!! I agree wholeheartedly. I think this was a great find excited me so much. Whatever happens Richard is now even more real.

    Thanks, Caryn Davis

    Sent from my iPhone

  12. Sadly, some (a vocal minority) Ricardians are as mad as a box of frogs, and tend to bring the rest of us into disrepute. I’m sure they mean well. All extremists, in their own way, ‘mean well’, in the sense that they think they are trying to advance humanity, or rather their particular bit of it. However, they are doing the image of Ricardianism no good at all. When the Dean of York has to complain to the Police about abuse received over the issue, I do think people need to get a grip and a sense of proportion. Wherever he is buried, Richard will be treated with reverence, and appropriate ceremony. It’s not as if there is a proposal to fling his bones onto a rubbish tip. Facts are, York Minster is full, Westminster Abbey is full, and St George’s Windsor is full. As part of the legal process for the ‘search’ it was agreed by all parties he would be buried at Leicester. To upturn this is a big ask. Politics, as they say, is the art of the possible.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Thanks, Brian. I guess I’m feeling a bit raw about all this, having come in for more than my fair share of sniping the last few months.

    • chris y says:

      But now we get this. Oh dear.

      • anevillfeast says:

        Hi Chris. There’s no legal basis for any kind of ‘challenge’. Given the maths, the likelihood of any of us with an English forebear being descended from any large medieval family (noble or not) is pretty high. Apparently, there’s no requirement to take descendants into account if a skeleton is more than 100 years old. I am so tired of all this nonsense!

  13. Ernestina Valente says:

    I believe that after 500 years a king belongs to his people, and it doesn’t matter where he is buried.

    All this fuss, although sometimes done with the best intentions, is doing him no good.

  14. From what I was given to understand, the tabletop tomb — a variant of which is in the works now, and which looks quite fitting — was originally agreed to by the outgoing Dean of Leicester, but was shelved by her successor; that. plus somewhat disparaging comments towards Richard by the new guy, are what set many Ricardians into orbit.

    In my view, the biggest problem with a tomb in Leicester Cathedral is that it’s such a small building as cathedrals go, and I worry that even a slab tomb is going to be intrusive to both the original design of the cathedral and to the activities of its daily users. (Imagine people trying to navigate around the piles of flowers dropped by Ricardians and tourists around a slab tomb, for instance.) Building a small chapel off to the side of the main structure would be a better solution, as it would leave the main part of the cathedral to the local worshipers and allow those who have come to visit Richard to do so without causing too much in the way of havoc. But again, the question of space rears it head; from what I’ve seen of the footprint of the land on which the cathedral sits, there’s likely not even room to shoehorn in a small chapel. But it looks to be a done deal now, and I fear that continuing to push for York Minster instead would do nothing but generate more bad feeling.

    The burial site aside, the thing that I have seen to truly grate with many Ricardians is how John Ashdown-Hill, whose DNA sleuthery made this dig possible in the first place, has been airbrushed out of the official story, which has been rewritten to make it all seem like it was the U of Leic’s idea to go digging for Richard. This, I suspect, feeds into the (not entirely unwarranted) feelings of persecution among many Ricardians, who see Dr. Ashdown-Hill’s plight as their own. (Fortunately, the actual archaeologists who did the dig were quite willing to admit that they didn’t think they’d find Richard, and were far more interested in the outset at just pinpointing the location of Greyfriars, as the Channel Four show “The King in the Car Park” documented.) If not for Dr. Ashdown-Hill’s research and the money contributed by Ricardians worldwide, Richard would still be under the tarmac today.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Your last paragraph is absolutely right, PW. I only learned recently of the sidelining of JA-H and I think it’s a great shame. His genealogical work was invaluable. Someone suggested that a growing Philippa Langley ‘cult of personality’ might be behind it, but that seems a bit odd. I’m a long way from the centre of things and they trickle down quite slowly, but the idea of PL fans pushing JA-H into the background just doesn’t sound right.
      I haven’t had time to read the article re the new tomb yet, but it seems to be a fairly popular decision.

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