“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:
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.