Richard III died in battle on 22nd August 1485. He had been King of England and Lord of Ireland for just over two years, having seized the throne from his teenage nephew, Edward V, back in 1483. Richard's death put his opponent, Henry Tudor, on the throne as Henry VII and it brought to an end the Plantagenet kings who had ruled England since the accession of Henry II in 1154. Richard's wife, Anne Neville, and his only legitimate son, the late Prince of Wales, had both predeceased him. His corpse was publicly displayed in the most humiliating fashion by the victorious Tudors, before it was hastily buried. A generation later, it vanished from the historical record and it was presumed lost to history. That was until a few weeks ago, when a group of archaeologists came across the biggest find since the identification of the Romanovs and unearthed what is quite possibly Richard III's skeleton - buried beneath a car park in Leicester.
The skeleton bares all the marks of someone who died in battle and, interestingly, it has a curvature of the spine. (For years, Richard's modern-day supporters insisted that he had no such deformity and that the whole thing had been invented by malicious Tudor propagandists.) In the hope that this is indeed the body of the last Plantagenet monarch, the historian and politician Chris Skidmore, has submitted a proposal to the House of Commons that calls for the remains to be given a full state funeral. To quote: -
"... this House notes the discovery of a skeleton beneath a car park in Leicester believed to be that of Richard III; [it] praises the work of the archaeologists and historians responsible for the find; hopes that DNA evidence will prove the remains to be those of the last king of the Plantagenet dynasty; and calls upon the government to arrange a full state funeral for the deceased monarch, and for his remains to be interred appropriately."
On the surface, it's a fair enough request. If the remains are identified as Richard III's, it's inconceivable that they wouldn't be accorded some kind of Christian burial and, if so, why not a state one? The remains of the Romanovs were solemnly re-interred in Saint Petersburg in 1998, once science had ascertained that the skeletons were authentic. Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette and Louis's younger sister, Elisabeth, were exhumed from their mass grave and buried with incredible pomp once the French monarchy was restored in 1815. Two hundred years later, when the stolen heart of Louis and Marie-Antoinette's youngest son was identified, it too went into the Bourbon vault, near his parents. Why shouldn't Richard III be granted the same honours? Particularly since he was a king and the country he ruled over is still a monarchy. Furthermore, the request is coming from an elected politician (Chris Skidmore is the Conservative MP for Kingswood) and a respected historian (his books include a biography of Edward VI, a groundbreaking look at a scandal surrounding Elizabeth I and a very well-received account of the battle that took Richard III's life back in 1485.)
But there are several reasons why I, personally, feel the very notion of "a full state funeral" for Richard III is silly, frivolous and border-line obscene.
To give a brief synopsis of Richard's historical reputation: from the moment the Tudors took power, Richard's name was worth less than mud. He was described as a child-murdering hunchback, who had stolen the throne from his young nephew, slaughtered his way through the aristocracy of England and generally participated in every political crime in England from the fall of Henry VI until the Battle of Bosworth twenty-four years later. Richard's reputation as one of the great villains of history was further cemented when he was shredded by the pens of Saint Thomas More and then by William Shakespeare. Then, in the seventeenth century, people began to question if Richard really had been as bad as the Tudors made him out to be. This gave rise to a view of Richard as being one of the most wronged leaders in history - a king more sinned against than sinning. In the twentieth century, this birthed the Richard III Society, a group of talented history enthusiasts, who seek to rehabilitate Richard III's reputation and whose passion for their cause has, unfortunately, often discouraged historians from pointing out that it's ridiculous to lavishly praise a monarch who ruled for only two years and who, in those two years, did nothing of note except to hold onto power until it was ripped from him by Henry Tudor, Margaret Beaufort and the Stanley family. There is also the fact that Richard has been the prime suspect in the murder of his two nephews - 12 year-old Edward V and 10 year-old Richard of Shrewsbury - ever since the two boys disappeared in the summer of 1483. For Ricardians, Richard was the real victim and various intriguing theories have been suggested to point the finger at other culprits. Not one of whom had the opportunity or motive to get rid of them like Richard did, but I digress.
On a purely pragmatic note, reburying Richard III with full state honours poses several problems in 2012. The first is that it would divide the country, not unite it; no matter what Richard's enthusiasts say, there is still a large cloud hanging over his involvement with his nephews and many - myself included - believe he was responsible for their deaths. Secondly, reburying a five hundred year old skeleton with the honours we would give to a recently-deceased royal, is wasteful and extravagant, particularly in the middle of a recession. Thirdly, Richard III died a practising medieval Catholic; he was killed thirty-two years before the Protestant religion even began. The official state religion of the United Kingdom today is Anglican Protestantism and the current Sovereign, who would need to grant permission for Richard to be buried on royal ground, is the head of that Church. Should we re-bury Richard III with the religious services of a church that he would quite probably have viewed as schismatic and heretical? Or should we compromise the spirit of the 1701 Act of Settlement and have a Catholic British state funeral? I don't think it's right that Catholicism is still being legislatively punished when it comes to the monarchy, but it's the law of the land. One way or the other, a state funeral would compromise the integrity of a monarch - if it's Protestant, Richard III; if it's Catholic, Elizabeth II.
To round-off the pragmatic reasons why Richard III should not be given a state funeral, we can also turn to the issue of time. Whilst it is true that one of monarchism's great benefit is its tying together of past, present and future, Richard III died over half-a-millennium ago. Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were reburied in 1815 - when most of the people who could remember them were still alive. The Romanovs were buried eighty years after their deaths, when Russia was still struggling to come to terms with the legacy of lawless depravity which had taken the royal family's life back in 1918. No-one alive today can remember Richard III and the country is not coming to terms with the aftermath of the Battle of Bosworth.
On a moral note, giving a state funeral to Richard III would be offensive to many people in this country. Again, myself included. It would re-focus attention on the fact that Richard has never been cleared of complicity in his nephews' murder. He was accused of it, on multiple occasions, during his lifetime - not just when the Tudors came to power and the accusation has to be taken seriously. (For what it's worth, I have not once read an argument that clears him that doesn't also read like a hard-working wishful fantasy.) If he didn't kill them, then where did they go? Richard's rule was incomparably damaged by the allegations that he had killed the two children; at any point, he could have salvaged his reputation by parading them through the streets to prove that they were still alive. He didn't. Which suggests to me that they were dead by the end of 1483, at the very latest. He swore to uphold their birthright; he then dispossessed them and they subsequently disappeared. Richard has therefore never been satisfactorily cleared of one of the most grotesque crimes in the royal family's history. To bury him with full honours would incite the ire of people who, in perfectly good conscience, would object to their taxes paying for the ceremonial re-internment of a possible child-murderer.
On the other hand, maybe Richard III didn't kill Edward V and his little brother. Maybe he simply robbed them of their birthright, isolated them from their friends and family, and then somehow magically misplaced them. It's just about possible that an overzealous Ricardian suffocated the two boys and dumped their bodies under a staircase in the chaos that followed Richard's seizure of power. They killed them for love of their king, but without his permission. But that still leaves us with the stark choice that Richard either killed them or lost them. Depending on which one you believe, it means that Richard III was either a merciless tyrant or the single most astonishingly incompetent leader in English history. As an absolute monarch and as the boys' legal guardian, the buck stopped with him. He is responsible for what happened to them; the question of his guilt is therefore only a question of degrees. To quote Shakespeare, "Say I slew them not?" "Then say there are not slain." With absolute power comes corresponding responsibility and, in that arena, Richard is to be found sorely lacking.
Finally, there are sound philosophical reasons why Richard III should be interred quietly in a small Catholic service, like the heart of Louis XVII was in 2004, rather than in a state-funded parade.
For all his faults, Richard III was a practising Christian and it would be wrong to deny his remains access to the funerary rites of his faith. No matter how much time has passed. However, I am very uneasy with things like historical apologies, historical compensation and grand gestures of historical rehabilitation. I think it cheapens History and feeds the arrogance of Modernity. For instance - a few years ago, there was a very well-meaning campaign, led by a decorated veteran from the Battle of Britain, to have Anne Boleyn posthumously pardoned and then removed from her grave in the Tower of London so that she could be reburied in Westminster Abbey. The campaign even attracted the attention of the Home Secretary and the Archbishop of Canterbury. But, ultimately, it failed. And it should have. Anne Boleyn still lies in the cold stone of the Tower of London's chapel and she is still, officially at least, a convicted traitor to her country and an adulteress.
There is far more reason to believe that Anne Boleyn was the victim of a truly horrifying miscarriage of justice than there is to suppose that Richard III wasn't guilty of at least some of the crimes he was accused of, but that doesn't mean that pardoning her and re-burying her would be right. If we stand up in 2012 and say "Oh, that was awful, let's make it better," then we are guilty of breathtaking arrogance in assuming that our actions can ameliorate past horrors. History should be left alone, so that it can stand and remind us of the horrors of the past - and of man's inhumanity to man. We must never assume that a couple of glib words and a few pretty ceremonies can erase that. Anne Boleyn should be left where she is, because reburying her in Westminster Abbey would only serve our emotions - not hers or anyone who knew her. It is far more poignant to stand in Saint Peter-ad-Vincula's today and to see the tiny little spot of earth where she was dumped back in 1536 and to reflect on a terrible time in our history, when women (no matter how gifted or exalted) were the property of their menfolk and could be disposed of as such. If we moved her into Westminster Abbey, we could stand there and comfort ourselves by thinking - "Isn't it nice, though, that in the end she ended up here?" And we should never, ever, try to give the past a happy ending to suit our own sentimentality. We should remember what really happened and understand that, in History, there is no retraction. There can be no mea culpa big enough to take back what has been done. If you believe Richard III was framed by the Tudors, this state funeral will amount to nothing more than an attempt to put a Disney-like gloss on his story. It would give him a happily ever after that detracts from the truth of his actual story.
My friend Ellen Buddle put it well, when we were discussing this, and I hope she won't mind my quoting her in this post. Unlike me, Ellen has no real interest in the case of Richard III in the specifics, but rather in what the proposed state funeral would amount to in principle: -
"When we try and make these judgements on events that happened hundreds of years ago, we're actually not commenting on those events anyway. We're making contemporary political statements and dragging people into it that lived in a moral and political landscape completely different to our own. Trying to identify official, government-approved 'goodies' and 'baddies' in these scenarios is all about propaganda, and little to do with truth and justice. And therefore is a bit unsavoury.
You also can't whitewash and erase the things British institutions once allowed and approved by saying, 'Oops, takeback!' in a more enlightened time. History has to stand as an example of the worst excesses of states. Undoing those decisions hundreds of years later is a way of saying 'We're nothing like that. We're so much better.' But there's no reason to take that as a given, and symbolic gestures that don't affect the living aren't evidence of it."