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The Richard III Reburial: What Does It Say About Us?

23/03/2015 13:27 GMT | Updated 23/05/2015 10:59 BST

So, the Richard III reburial, eh? Let's be honest, who among us expected that the first televised funeral of a British monarch, that we would see in our lifetimes, would be that of a man who died five centuries ago? I'm pretty sure we all would have bet the house on our beloved Queen being afforded the honour. Indeed, yesterday's funeral procession, leading up to the Richard III reburial, was unique for a number of reasons, not least because it culminated with a Catholic service (a compline) in an Anglican cathedral, something which probably generated a lot of tension behind-the-scenes. The logic for this decision was obvious - when Richard was slaughtered in battle in 1485, there was no such thing as the Church of England, so he died a default Catholic. Fair enough.

But to say that the whole occasion was predetermined by the guidelines of ritual is, of course, utter nonsense. This was the oddest of invented traditions; though there were historical precedents to draw upon. After all, it was common practice in the Middle Ages for the bones of saints to be ceremonially transferred into expensive new shrines, in preparation for a flock of tourists. Both St Mark (from Alexandria to Venice) and Father Christmas himself, St Nicholas (from Myra to Bari) were celebrity imports, whose arrival legitimated the welcoming cathedrals and produced huge revenue from eager pilgrims seeking cures and benedictions.

But Richard III was a little different. He died in a watershed battle and was given a decent burial, though not one befitting a king. Though the ignominy of a modern car park flew in the face of ancestral royalty, his dramatic reinterment was entirely unnecessary for his spiritual salvation under Catholic doctrine. No, the reason he was transferred to Leicester Cathedral was because we felt it was the right thing to do. But why?

Well, actually, many people thought that was the wrong decision. They would have preferred York, arguing that this fell in line with his wishes. Unfortunately, we have no idea what he wanted, and those who say otherwise are attempting to mind-read a dessicated corpse. Others wondered if he deserved the state funeral of his usurper, with its glorious location at Westminster Abbey. This, at least, was better in keeping with the solemn traditions of old, but might have felt more like a buttress to our own opinions on the royals; a way of celebrating the principle of monarchy. "Kings belong in the hall of kings", we might have muttered, and burying him in mere Leicester might have seemed like an insult to Queen Elizabeth herself.

The right decision was made, though. Richard will be buried not far from where he died. To have moved him beyond Leicester would have been to undermine the potency of his violent demise. Here was a man who tried to cling onto power by rushing headlong at his enemy, hoping to smash in his brains and render the invasion futile. The fact that Richard's bravery backfired - and it was he who died rather than Henry Tudor - changed the course of history forever. The modern world hangs on that ill-fated charge across the field of Bosworth, and nothing reminds us of that significance more than having to traipse to the Midlands to see his tomb. This is not where Richard expected to end up, but history did not go as he had hoped...

In truth, if it were up to me, I would have perhaps put his body on display in a museum. Like a sacrificial ancient Celt, transformed into an eerie bog body, or a divine Pharaoh rendered mute by mummification, we could have been astonished and humbled when confronted with his ossified mortality. Generations of children could have gawped in macabre fascination at the arid, yellowing remains of a once mighty figure. To see the mortal remains of a great person reminds you that this towering figure from the history books had a body like you and me, and it no doubt ached and ailed like our own. We so easily leap towards romance myth, forgetting the human aspects of our ancestors. They too had headaches and suffered from piles.

Of course, there are many ethical reasons as to why displaying his bones might have been distasteful. Some would say all human remains should be reburied as standard; others might claim reburial should only apply to anyone with a known name (we're less queasy with the anonymous dead); maybe others might state a body must be a certain age before it can shock us in museum cabinets - perhaps 200 years, enough to shove it comfortably out of living memory? When dealing with mortal remains, there are also cultural sensitivities to be aware of - in the USA and Australia, archaeologists are legally mandated to work closely with indigenous peoples, respecting the fact that ancestor worship is integral to the Aboriginal or Native American Indian worldview. A box of bones may have tremendous inalienable power to scientists - they could be career-defining data sets that prove a bold theory - but, for indigenous communities, those bones represent a human soul.

These are all interesting things to ponder. The crucial question is what moral responsibility we have to treat a body a certain way? Arguably, Richard III - with no direct descendants - belongs to us; he is a totem pole in our nation's history. But does that render him less than human? Am I being crass to deploy him as an artefact when he was a living, thinking being? We have the right to decide how our body will be treated after death, but when does that elapse? In France, where my granddad is buried, we have to rent his grave - because he died about 25 years ago, the authorities now have the right to dig him up and sell his spot to another family if we don't pay the upkeep costs.

If I'd have put Richard III on display, I wouldn't have done it to freak people out. His discovery was a celebrity exclusive that wowed all the global news agencies, but the real triumph was the archaeology. Richard III's bones were the archaeological discovery of the century, and the scientific techniques used to interpret them are astounding in their genius. Yet, his celebrity status as Shakespeare's most villainous tyrant, and the cultural resonance that gave him, took most of the headlines. Those bones tell us so much, but they help us in no way to know whether he murdered the Princes in the Tower. And, yet, we've seen no end of debates on exactly this subject - it's a very interesting intellectual exercise, but one with a bathetic collapse in the climax.

Yesterday's funeral, then, was about us: about what we feel when we talk about the past, or the concept of death. It was a wish-fulfilment exercise for our own confused emotions about who we are as people, and where we originated. Indeed, one might argue the practise of doing history is little more than holding a mirror up to our own fascinations. Every generation rewrites history anew, to better fit in with its own perspective. And that, perhaps, is how we came to have the bizarre spectacle of a Victorian funeral cortege escorted by two armoured medieval knights, defending a modern oak coffin crafted by a modern Canadian, heading into a predominately Victorian era Anglican cathedral, to be welcomed by a medieval Catholic rite uttered in the modern English language.

And, as King Richard arrived in the cathedral, and was handed over to the Dean's care by the lead archaeologist on the project, Richard Buckley, there occurred a magic trick in which the archaeological data transformed back into a man, through the moving religious service, and then into a myth, as the historians and tourists lining the streets began to speculate over his reign once more. Farewell Richard, will we ever know your true self? I doubt it.