HERE LIES THE BODY…

When I was a child, my father banned the reading of books, as being a possible influence in opposition to his own ideas. (This was not the reason he gave of course.) (This edict was completely ineffective: I could always obtain books by one means or another; I had stashes where I hid them, and read them in secret places.) There were a few honourable exceptions to this ban of course. The Bible and theological tracts were permitted as were any subjects of interest to him. I therefore have a surprising knowledge of completely unlikely subjects; bee-keeping, for example; wood-working tools, and the various breeds of sheep and cattle in the British isles. This book had pictures and was much studied by me. Far from being useless information as I thought at the time, this knowledge has proved to be of satisfying value in delivering put downs to arrogant farming types who have assumed I am an ignorant townie (which of course I really am, except that I inexplicably can talk about sheep and cattle.)

So when Leicester was mentioned, I visualised a heavy set, large headed, long haired ram, and when I looked it up, this was indeed the case (breed now very rare). This variety of sheep was taken to Australia so its descendants are there.

And Leicester has been mentioned a lot recently, what with the bones of Richard III being discovered ‘in a car park’ and with Leicester Football Team winning the League against all odds. I wanted to see what kind of a town this was.

Scots without relatives or business in England generally have a lamentably poor understanding of the country. They know the M6 and M1, and the Channel ports, and they will have visited London, and in my case certainly, that was it. Now I’ve turned into an effete Southerner who doesn’t like ‘weather’ I do know the Southern half of the country quite well, but I’m decidedly vague about the mysterious regions North of Oxford, and I irritate friends as I am unable to distinguish between the

Midlands and the North.

So we set off to explore Leicester. It’s just off the M1 and it must be pretty near the centre of England. It has no truly significant geographical features. It stands on a very slight incline – well you could hardly call it a hill – and the River Soar runs through it, but it makes no great impact on the city. It’s surrounded by flat, green, well wooded country. It’s larger than I expected and it has the depressing, rather messy suburbs that many English towns have. We can see our hotel, but we would never have gained access to it through the muddle of streets without Sat Nav and even with Sat Nav we have more than one pass at it. It’s traffic has no logic to its flow and parking is very difficult. First impressions are not favourable.

The natives are friendly however. Although it received 10,000 Ugandan refugees in the days of Idi Amin, it still retains enough of its original population to have a ‘look’. The men are sturdy and personable, and the women have pretty, squarish faces and both have charm. Famous sons of Leicester (there are many) include the brothers Attenburgh and Gary Lineker.

In the morning we are agreeably surprised. Only 15 minutes flat walking and we arrive at the ancient part of town. You realise that this has always been a rich town – famous for wool, and for manufacturing wool products, and for leather work. Presumably it didn’t suffer heavy bombing because so many of its ancient buildings are intact. We visit the Cathedral first. In itself it is interesting, being square in shape with chapels at each corner. It still holds the statues in its niches. (The town stood for Cromwell, so possibly it’s church buildings were not dealt with harshly.) It is a successful blend of ancient and modern. The Bishop’s chair is an extraordinary tall throne with a gigantic back in the shape of a leather cross,in garish colours. (The person showing us round alleged that the current Bishop did not like it.) The tomb of the king was behind the altar and was a large slab of marble with a cross cut deeply into it, his title, King Richard III cut into it in gold letters and a small coat of arms in precious metals. It is all in appropriate and quiet good taste, and surprisingly moving.

Directly opposite the cathedral and no more than 5 minutes walk away is the attractive modern building which houses the Visitor Centre which explains how his body was found. Although we all know he was ‘found in a car park’, originally a monastery stood there and Richard who had set off from Leicester Castle to do battle, was returned to their care when dead. He was buried, and found, in a coffin. In time the avaricious and predatory Henry VIII ravished the monastery and stole their wealth and awarded their lands to some creature of his, who created a garden there. Naturally he would not want to draw attention to the former king for the Tudors were always uneasy about him, so he just planted a stick to mark the burial place and that was lost over the years. Within that museum, under the floor under glass, is the actual place from which they removed the body. Interestingly, when they were about to dig the site, a lady came who had the equivalent powers of a water diviner, and she indicated where they should dig, and there indeed they found the body.

There are plaster casts of his skeleton and skull. His skull is recognisably like the portraits of him. He was not a tall person, and although he did have a pronounced scoliosis of the spine it was in his lower back, and he had, carefully dressed, looked quite normal. The Visitor Centre invites you to consider whether he was in fact the murderer of the princes in the tower, but leaves you to draw your own conclusion. In my opinion a much more likely candidate was Henry Tudor (VII). Richard III had a strong claim on the throne in his own right, whereas Henry Tudor was from an illegitimate descendant of a king, and had no legal claim whatever (except, as with William the Conqueror, by right of conquest). Henry Tudor found himself with three other claimants, the two princes, and their sister Elizabeth, whom he married. We’ll never know; so you can take your pick.

It was surprising and moving to see how the crowds turned out to watch his cortege pass through the villages of Leicestershire on its way to the reburial. The guides to the cathedral said visitors to the city had increased 10 fold since Richard was reburied.

We had gone to see how they had won the football league (causing one of their most famous sons to be obliged to present Match of the Day clad only in his underpants) but looking at their town, I could understand how they had managed it. The Midlands and the North are different kinds of England. They can stand their ground. It cannot have been easy for Leicester to hold on to Richard’s body and to raise the money to so swiftly built such an appropriate and attractive Visitor Centre. They didn’t lose their nerve there, and they didn’t lose it at the football. They can grasp an opportunity when they see one.

I was wholly impressed by Leicester. We didn’t see the half of it and I would like to return one day.

That Leicester ram knows a green field when it sees one and it knows how to hold on to it.

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BURIAL OF KINGS

So the body of Richard III has been discovered under a car park in Leicester, flung in a shallow grave without markings.   It was very odd looking at the bones and in particular his skull and realising that he had actually looked like the portrait we have of him.    I’ve often wondered, as we recognise long dead kings from their portrait, if they were really like that?   Well, it appears we can go on believing that Henry VIII had a fat face and a mean and vicious little mouth;   and that James VI and I may have been the wisest fool in Christendom but he may also have been the ugliest;  and that Charles I was so royal and majestic he couldn’t concentrate on mundane matters like keeping his head on his shoulders.

So what will happen to Richard III’s bones?   Not I hope the dreadful ignominy of having them displayed in a museum.   I feel anguish on behalf of every mummy, bog man, or one of the early native peoples whose bones are displayed for our instruction or entertainment.

If the royalists in this country hope to retain some vestiges of belief in the holiness of monarchy, they had better express some interest in the matter.

The bones appear to belong, beyond reasonable doubt, to one who once was king of England.   Personally I do not believe either in the sanctity of kings, nor of the legitimacy of one who has caused a clerical officiant to place a crown upon his head.   So for myself I would be content to bury him in any decent place set aside for the purpose, with a stone commemorating who he once was.   Leicester would be as good a place as any.

But if I were Queen?   Then, for all that the kings of England are descended from his opponent who dealt so ungenerously with him, I’d want him buried as befits a king of England.     His bones put in a coffin as befits his rank and lain in state for the usual number of days;  black horses and a military escort to carry him to Westminster Abbey, where we bury our kings.   I might not attend myself personally, but I’d expect the presumed future kings of England to walk behind his hearse in the procession, and the Ministers of the Crown to be in attendance.

The Russians, even after their bloody revolution, when it came to the burial of the remains of their murdered Tsar, buried him with full ceremony with the President, Boris Yeltsin, and his wife, in attendance.

If you believe in the dignity of kings, there cannot be exceptions.   Once you start deciding that the claim of one who was king to have the customary burial is no longer valid, you’re on a slippery slope where many things might be doubtful that you once thought safe forever.

There seems little doubt that here are the bones of Richard III, king of England.   The tale of how his body was disposed of does not reflect at all creditably on his successor.     In our century, let us bury him like a king.

We live in dangerous times for monarchs, for every man regards himself as a citizen with rights and entitlements, and not as a subject with duties and obligations.   There may not be many more kings to bury.