BONES have been a major focus of our work in recent years, and
now King Richard III's remains are reinterred in Leicester
Cathedral with dignity and honour. This has not been without
controversy. It would appear that more than a skeleton has been
exposed as we have brought up this particular body. Perhaps hardest
to stomach were the comments which suggested that Leicester was not
fit to receive the remains, as if history or community were
dependent on cobbles and coffee shops. This was made even more
unpalatable by an underlying racism which suggested that Leicester
was not really British any more.
We have found, as we have prepared liturgy, reordered a
cathedral, and excavated a theology fit for this unique series of
events, that we have repeatedly been drawn back to these human
bones. Richard's brutal experience of battle has been very present
to us. His trauma-marked skeleton has not only revealed more of his
experience, but has become symbolically powerful.
In "A Scattering"*, which won the Costa Poetry award in 2009,
Christopher Reid charts his wife's final illness, her death, and
the aftermath of grief. The poem that gives the volume its name
takes the image of an elephant's graveyard to depict grief. The
poet describes the animals hooking up and reconfiguring the old
bones of their predecessors with the "air of deliberate ritual", a
"puzzling out of their own ana-tomy". These are "abstracted
lamentations" making "new, hopeful arrangements". Planning King
Richard's reburial has not been about grief, but it has been about
laying out these human remains in a way that facilitates a deeper
DR JO APPLEBY's work at the University of Leicester revealed that
Richard's bones were subjected to brutality. While the wild
hunchback portrayed by Olivier in the Shakespearean film is
conjecture, nevertheless this King's bones were misshapen through
scoliosis. Our clumsy fantasy of monarchy is re-framed by
vulnerability. Accounts attest to the bravery of King Richard "in
the thick of battle"; so he overcame physical challenges, and
medieval taboos about disability. The Croyland Chronicle
also suggests that his battle wounds were many, and his bone
injuries are consistent with this description. Scientists have been
able to identify 11 bone wounds which are likely to have been
inflicted before death.
More disturbing was the discovery of post-mortem wounds,
including one to the pelvis. Reconstruction showed that that was
likely to have been made via the buttock. Polydor Vergil's
contemporary account tells of Richard's body having been slung
naked over the back of a horse, suffering insults as it was brought
into Leicester for public display. The King was humiliated in a way
we now more often associate with the reported acts of IS.
Human remains from the Battle of Towton, fought on Palm Sunday
1461 (which that year, as this, fell on 29 March), point to similar
brutality, and more post-death humiliation. While it is possible to
accept this as unremarkable by the standards of the day, as a
Christian cathedral serving a community that includes refugees and
asylum-seekers who have escaped contemporary tyranny, we felt
compelled to address this barbaric narrative.
We cannot undo history, but we can write new history. Richard's
coffin was transported to the cathedral with dignity and honour,
instead of naked on a horse. He was treated in a way that befits
every human being, whatever their status. The too-frequent
repatriations to Wootton Bassett, with which we have become
familiar, have recaptured our instinctive sense of the need to
provide such human dignity - first in life, but also in death.
Richard's story has resonated particularly in Leicester. Our
Sikh neighbours have been making the links with their history of
warrior leaders such as Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The ceremonial
kirpan worn by baptised Sikhs points to the need for
mercy, rather than weaponry. Interestingly, after the battle,
Richard's face was left intact. One of my Muslim colleagues
reminded me how Khalifah Abu Bakr came and kissed the face of the
dead Prophet Mohammed. The face embodies the person, and Islam
forbids the desecration of the face. The hadith says that,
in a true jihad, post-mortem humiliation is forbidden.
FOLLOWING the burial of this "warrior king", we now enter Holy
Week. Isaiah's suffering servant will be "crushed for our
iniquities", as "through his bruises we are healed" (Isaiah 53.5).
According to John's Gospel, the soldiers stabbed the dead body of
Jesus (19.34), an uncomfortable thought for us Christians - a
tradition of post-mortem humiliation with religious precedence.
Equally, however, the Passover lamb was not to have bones broken;
so it is worth highlighting that John tells of the soldiers'
We have brought Richard's brutalised bones into the heart of our
cathedral, where the King's tomb is marked with a deeply incised
cross. The design emerged from reflecting on Easter and the idea of
a tombstone broken apart to reveal a new reality. Dame Carol Ann
Duffy's poem, which we commissioned, and which was read at the
service of reburial, begins with the words, "My bones, scripted in
light, upon a human braille".
Easter faith scripts in light. Bones scarred by human brutality
can speak about more than just our capacity to demean one another.
The main biblical idea that underpinned the reburial service was
the story of the moving of the bones of Joseph from the place of
slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. The book of Joshua records
that this act becomes an inheritance of hope for generations to
We are learning from Richard III's brutal death, and we are
seeing new, hopeful ways emerge of developing deeper respect for
the living as well as the dead.
The Very Revd David Monteith is Dean of Leicester.
*A Scattering from A Scattering, Christopher Reid (Arete