At the end of Shakespeare’s Richard III, the Earl of Richmond, now effectively king Henry VII, makes a short speech from the battlefield. Looking around at the dead, he says: “Inter their bodies as becomes their births.” Now, after 530 years, that has been done for his royal opponent at Bosworth. The whole thing was so extraordinary, and so rich and complex, perhaps time needs to pass before we can hope to understand what it meant. I’m writing about it now for the extended paperback version of my book, Digging for Richard III, which will be published later this year. I’ve been watching the Channel 4 programmes – all five and a half hours of them! Really well done, with a mix of new and archive film and much live broadcasting, with a stream of interviews with a wide range of people. Jon Snow and Krishnan Guru-Murthy, the main presenters, did their usual Channel 4 thing of efficiently putting the story first. You can see the programmes online until around April 20: Richard III: The Return of the King Richard III: The Burial of the King Richard III: The King Laid to Rest Many of the interviewees had barely a minute to say their part. But perhaps a clue to the way I am thinking comes from my conviction that the greatest insights came not from Ricardians, archaeologists, historians, craftsmen and women, people from the Church, the street, the king’s collateral descendants and all, but an actor, screenwriter and storyteller, and an experienced broadcast journalist – Julian Fellowes (famed for Gosford Park and Downton Abbey) and John Sergeant. I thought Fellowes was a star. I get to add a few pictures to the paperback, so I’ve been looking at my files. With other work commitments and a long flu-like illness – best laid plans and all that – I was unable to blog about the reburial week as I’d hoped. Here is one day, the day when Richard III’s remains left the university and were handed over to the cathedral: with my archaeological hat on, this was the most significant (and bizarre) in the week. Early in the morning, press and public wait outside the University of Leicester, at the Fielding Johnson building where the announcement that Richard III’s grave had been found was made in 2013. Philippa Langley. John Ashdown-Hill talks to the Guardian’s Maev Kennedy. And out it came, Michael Ibsen’s plain oak casket, weighted by the inner lead coffin, the first time the complete remains were to leave the university since the excavation. Beneath the temporary shelter – redundant in the fresh spring day – all the main parties were represented. Here were the Richard III Society, descendants of Richard’s sister (not – as the Reinterment Service had it and a dismissive John Ashdown-Hill showed Philippa Langley on live TV – direct descendants of Richard himself), the university archaeologists and scientists, the cathedral, the county council and the university. Speeches were made. The Revd Canon Dr Stephen Foster led a ceremony of reflection, with readings from Khalil Gibran, the Diamond Sutra, Soto Zen Buddhist scripture and Hindu ancient Sanskrit, and, later, from Robert Frost (“I took the one less travelled by…”), Hebrew Psalm 22, a Sikh Shabad and the Qur’an, and closing with Eid Mubarak, a Muslim festival greeting – all interpreted by a signer. In February, Philippa Langley, who had wanted Richard’s remains to be placed in a Catholic “holy place” pending their reburial, had complained that the university was treating the king “as a scientific specimen right up to and including the point at which he is laid in his coffin”. “Why can’t the university”, she asked, “put their secular narrative to one side?” The narrative was certainly now no longer entirely secular. But was Philippa – “If King Richard were a Jew or a Muslim the appropriate rites and ceremonies would be observed without question” – happy? It would be easy to parody this ceremony; it didn’t help that the handbook misspelt Qur’an. But unless you were nerdily studying the texts (who, me?) you’d hear only the words, and the words were good. And the presence of the coffin, and what it contained, was overwhelmingly powerful. Twenty people took it in turns to lay a white rose on the coffin. They approached in groups: three archaeologists, three scientists, two further groups from the university, two groups from the Richard III Society and three royal descendants. Here is Jo Appleby, with Turi King just behind her, the two people who did most to recover and identify Richard’s remains. Philippa Langley, with Annette Carson and Ashdown-Hill waiting on the left. Michael Ibsen, his brother Jeff and Wendy Duldig. Richard Buckley holds the roses as the coffin is carried off, and then places the cushion on top inside the hearse (did anyone notice this is happening at Leicester University?). The cortege headed off to Fenn Lane, following the route I’d mapped earlier. Meanwhile in the centre of old Leicester, people were out in the sun. There was a big screen in Jubilee Square, showing the university ceremony (on left). The spire on the right is the cathedral. Streets were closed ahead of the parade arriving back in Leicester. This is where the statue had been moved from – it used to stand just behind the railings. You can’t park there. People gathered around Bow Bridge, where the coffin would formally re-enter the city. “Better than Maccies!” A reminder that Leicester’s story is not just about Richard III. You can see part of the Roman Jewry Wall in the background of this shot, where the important museum has to cope with council budgeting.
Inside the cathedral before the service, I photographed the coffin pall, a wonderful thing made by Jacquie Binns that captures the saga’s strange mix of religion, myth, science, drama and story-telling. John Ashdown-Hill’s crown sits on top. He’s on the pall, holding his book (the cheekiest plug ever?), second from right on the south-facing side, between Philippa Langley and Phil Stone. The pall is now exhibited in the cathedral. The service was a lovely, calming moment in the newly laid out cathedral – feeling so much larger inside – warmly lit as darkness fell outside; I used to enjoy Compline at school, which we sang in plainsong. Coming out, however, I thought the RIII crown logo projected onto the spire was tacky. Yet a surprisingly rare moment, at the start of a week that was all sorts of things, but not commercialised or exploitative. As Fellowes said, Leicester did it very well.