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Richard III buried with solemnity and joy

27 March 2015

by Pat Ashworth


Reburied: the coffin containing the body of Richard III is lowered into its new purpose-built tomb in Leicester Cathedral, on Thursday

Reburied: the coffin containing the body of Richard III is lowered into its new purpose-built tomb in Leicester Cathedral, on Thursday

THE day began dull and damp. The streets of Leicester were washed with rain, and gusts of wind whipped vestments and caused hats to be firmly clasped to the head. But the weather proved to match the dynamic of a service that was first solemn, and then joyful and uplifting.

The Public Orator of the University of Leicester, and one of the liturgists who worked on the service, Professor Gordon Campbell, told the story of Richard in his eulogy of this "son of the Midlands", whose posthumous reputation he described as "less than glorious", but who had the greatest following of all monarchs, excepting the present Queen. People had assembled today in a spirit of reconciliation, he said, and the purpose was "not to enter into argument about whether Richard was a good king, or even a good man".

The coffin remained shouldered as the eulogy was read, and the cathedral procession then led the bearer party to a plinth in front of the altar, where it was laid. The opening prayer, from the Dean of Leicester, the Very Revd David Monteith, was from the medieval rite of reburial, and the opening hymn, G. K. Chesterton's "O God of earth and altar", arranged by Vaughan Williams, contrasted the imperfections of earthly life ("not least as exemplified by our faltering rulers", an explanatory note suggested).

Woven into the service from the beginning was the parallel story of the mortal remains of Joseph, carried by Moses and the Egyptians to his homeland. "That passing over Jordan we celebrate today as we commend the soul of Richard to God," the Dean said in his greeting, declaring: "Here, in the cathedral, history meets the present. Here eternity breaks into time."

Footsteps penetrated the deep silence as the Duke of Gloucester reverently placed Richard's Book of Hours, the personal prayer book retrieved from his tent on the battlefield, on a white cushion by the coffin. The Collect that followed the Lord's Prayer, found only in the medieval rite, made direct reference to the journey of Joseph's body, concluding with the words: "Kindly and mercifully receive us with your servant Richard, whose bones we transfer to a new tomb today."

The male voices of the choir lent a strong monastic flavour to the singing of Psalm 114, accompanied by the plainsong Latin antiphon "In Paradisum". The psalm, with its focus on the miracles of God in bringing his people out of Egypt, was followed by the Duke of Norfolk's reading of that story from the book of Exodus. More of it followed in Psalm 138, accompanied by the plainsong Latin Antiphon "De terra".

In his sermon, the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, alluded first to the triple mandate given to the Looking for Richard Project: "Search. Find. Honour." Richard belonged, he said, "not just to archaeologists, chroniclers, and curators, but to all of us." Crowds in their tens of thousands had been captivated, and had come to this ancient place of prayer "not to judge, condemn, or praise, but to stand in rapt and reverent attentiveness".

He said: "Whether we are Ricardians or Shakespeareans, whether we see through the eyes of Olivier, McKellen, or Cumberbatch, whether we recognise a warrior or a scholarly, pious thinker, today we come to accord this King, this child of God and his mortal remains, the honour and dignity denied him in death."

The Leicester cityscape of friaries, abbeys, and castles from which Richard had ridden to battle 500 years ago was now embellished by mosques, temples, and gurdwaras, the Bishop said. He is widely liked and acknowledged by the faith communities here as the spokesmen for all of them on matters of religion. "This city, which will be home to Richard's grave, now strives to build harmony in place of conflict: to offer to a war-torn world a vision of mutual respect and honour across language, culture, and belief," he said.

He reflected on where the coffin lay: between the chapel of Christ the King and the high altar. "We are reminded that God's power is not like that of kings, presidents, or prime ministers. God is not an infinitely magnified mirror of human control. We may no longer believe in the divine right of kings, but we still have some way to go before we recognise the God of power whose mercy is most fully seen in weakness."

It was not reputation, but God's mercy that was "the last word for any of us", he concluded.

The bearer party shouldered the coffin to take it through the gates of the Nicholas Screen to the newly created ambulatory, east of the main sanctuary and west of the chapel of Christ the King. The Countess of Wessex and the Duke of Gloucester, bringing up the Book of Hours, stood by the coffin as the Archbishop of Canterbury first asperged the coffin with water from the font, and then censed it.

It was the most moving part of the service, accompanied as it was by the anthem "Ghostly Grace", specially written by the English composer Judith Bingham. It was a mystical, deeply atmospheric piece, the words drawn from the Revelation of St Mechtilde; Psalm 42, from a Wycliffe Bible; and the epitaph of Marmaduke Constable, one of Richard III's inner circle: "And now he abydith God's mercy and hath no other socire, for, as ye see him here, he lieth under this stone."

Prayers from the Archbishop began with a prayer from the medieval rite:

Almighty and eternal God

Creator and redeemer of souls,

Who by the prophecy of Ezekiel deigned

To bind together dry bones with sinews,

To cover them with skin and flesh,

And to put into them the breath of life:

As we return the bones of your

 servant Richard to the grave,

We beseech you to grant him a

 peaceful and quiet resting place,

Through Jesus Christ our Lord,

Who is alive and reigns with you

 in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

One God, for ever and ever.

The coffin was lowered into the grave. The Archbishop scattered a handful of soils from Fotheringhay, Middleham, and Bosworth, symbolising the King's birth, life, and death. The words that followed - "From the earth you formed me, with flesh you clothed me; Lord, my Redeemer, raise me up again at the last day" - prefaced a deep silence in the cathedral.

The responsory came from the RC Administrator of the diocese of Nottingham, Canon Thomas McGovern.

And then came a change of mood and atmosphere, in the shift to proclaiming and celebrating the hope of resurrection.

You could feel the tension breaking as the choir sang Philp Moore's dramatic arrangement of Psalm 150, accompanied by the plainsong Latin antiphon "Omnis Spiritus". Featuring four horns as well as the organ, it was an outpouring of praise, an allegro of joining and ever stronger voices. A gust of wind sprang up round the cathedral, rattling the rafters.

Many familiar faces were present, but celebrities had no special prominence at a service where everyone who had played a part in the story was a celebrity in their own right. But Benedict Cumberbatch, who is soon to play Richard III, read "Richard", commissioned by the cathedral from the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, and beginning, "My bones, scripted in light, upon cold soil, in human Braille. My skull, scarred by a crown, emptied of history. Describe my soul as incense, votive, vanishing; your own the same. Grant me the carving of my name."

And then the sun poured through the stained glass, a radiance that remained throughout the singing by the whole congregation of the Gospel canticle, based on the Benedictus. The Dean gave the Dismissal Gospel before the National Anthem, in a fanfare and arrangement for the service by the Master of the Queen's Music, Judith Weir. The congregation went out joyfully to Elgar's Organ Sonata from the cathedral organist, Simon Headley.

The service was not the final chapter in the story. The next day, the Reveal service was held, at which the tomb, covered now with a 2.5-ton piece of Swaledale fossil stone, was visible for the first time. A celebration more local and community than national and international, it was to emphasise hope and dignity, a looking to the future, the beating of swords into ploughshares.

Many people in this city, as the Bishop and Dean told reporters earlier in the week, had known war first hand, and came to Leicester to escape civil war. This service would speak to the people of Leicester directly, in a ceremony in which the tomb was revealed by 80 dancers from Leicester's Curve Theatre.

LEICESTER CATHEDRAL had emphasised from the outset that the reinterment of Richard III was not to be a funeral. Despite the King's hasty and undignified night-time burial, it is thought inconceivable that prayers should not have been said for this medieval Christian.

"Hello" rather than "goodbye" had thus been the dominant thought. But, as the Dean put it to reporters this week: "There is no escape from the fact that we are welcoming the bones in the form of the coffin. So we are presiding over the dynamic of death."

Liturgists, historians, and musicians had all contributed to what was a contemporary service in contemporary language but which drew from other texts and traditions, particularly a service from the 15th century for the reburial of high-status individuals. The King would have organised such events in his lifetime, scholars are assured. While neither a pastiche nor an "authentic" recreation of a medieval service, it was very much structured on a rite discovered in the British Library in 2009 by Dr Alexandra Buckle, an Oxford historian.

Such a service might have been assumed to be a mass, the Canon Precentor of Leicester Cathedral, Dr Johannes Arens, said, but it was based on the regular pattern of prayer used by monks at the time. The service at which the remains were brought into the cathedral on Sunday was compline; the reinterment was morning prayer; and the service on Friday, at which the tomb was be revealed, was noonday prayer.

"The medieval manuscript was highly interesting," Canon Arens said. "It showed that, while human remains were in church, the normal pattern of prayer continued."

Major institutions in the city and county came together in partnership to bring about the event, and the service was designed to emphasise that that was part of the impact of King Richard in the present day, and also the pattern of Leicester's life for the future. The procession, too, reflected that.

Among the groups with special connections to the Richard III story - including descendants of soldiers and personnel who fought at the Battle of Bosworth - were clergy and parish councils representing the villages and parishes that have had the story as an integral part of their local heritage for over 500 years.

THE Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, is sitting on a low wall in the bright sunshine of the cathedral gardens, in much demand by the media, and grateful for his chaplain's watchful provision of coffee and croissant.

It is Wednesday morning of re-interment week, and the crowds queuing to file past the coffin stretch as far as the eye can see.

Several of the cathedral canons are out and about among the crowds, as they have been daily, answering questions, engaging in conversation, responding to requests for prayer. Cathedral staff in one section of the queue are offering Cadbury's Roses from a generously large tin - a gesture that is going down well. White roses are everywhere, most prominently on and around the statue of the King.

The reinterment is a particularly English event, the Bishop has just explained to press people from Scandinavia. It is the Archbishop of Canterbury's constitutional responsibility to preside at the burials of kings, and what they will see acted out at the service will demonstrate the Church of England's function of offering hospitality to Christians of other traditions and to other faiths.

"The cathedral has the role of common ground, and the grave of Richard III can be seen in future as a place of reconciliation," he said. "We are seeing that in the crowds around the cathedral this morning, from all backgrounds and faith traditions, and full of neighbourliness and goodwill. That's what monarchy can do for us, and it's happening in front of the eyes of the world."

I ask him when he was first aware how big this might all become. "I remember the moment when it was established beyond any doubt that it was Richard III. . . I remember any number of moments thinking, how do we plan a week's events to give expression to what we believe about this, and to do it in a way that allows a national and international audience to participate. . ?

"And I remember the moment when we sat down and realised how much it was all going to cost."

The cathedral raised the money - £2.5 million, which included the reordering of the church to accommodate the tomb - from private donations. On the cusp of the main event, the Bishop reflects: "We see now that the energy, the expertise, the imagination, the creativity, and the teamwork that has been going on has unlocked a huge amount of interest, as well as a huge amount of generosity.

"I think that's important, because it ought to give us all confidence that when the Church sets its mind to do something for the wider community, for the nation, it can do it. We mustn't lose confidence, and think that our main task is to strengthen our own position, or build our own work. We are here to serve the nation and the wider community - that's what the vision behind it is. And I think you can see how fruitful it is."

The amount of correspondence, and media and public interest when the re-interment plans were announced, gave cathedral staff some indication of how big the event might be, the Bishop says. But the size and scale of the story were not expected in parts of the media, and some had been quite sceptical: "'Can anything good come out of Leicester?'" he quotes, mischievously.

Accompanying the coffin on its procession into the city from the Bosworth battlefield and the surrounding villages, "seeing the villages with people lined four and five deep, two or three miles on either side of each village; and then ten miles out of the city, five deep all the way in, I realised that the people were getting it, and that, sooner or later, the media would catch up."

The atmosphere and mood of the crowd - "immensely interested, courteous, respectful, warm, and appreciative" - is what he describes as "drawing down the best of ourselves. It's making us sense our pride in our country, our sense of connection to our national story, our sense of connection to this particular city and county. That's a gift you can't put a price on.

"Also, it's building ecumenical relationships; so there are now warm friendships between the leaders of the Catholic churches in the city, and our cathedral and churches, which are now deeper and stronger than they were. Far from being competitors with each other for the memory of King Richard, we are partners, and that's a partnership which will gain in strength.

"But I think that, above all, this is an unbelievable evangelistic opportunity to actually say to the world something profound about what we believe about death and resurrection.

"A lot of historians and scholars argue about King Richard's reputation, but, at a moment like this, we see something more important than reputation, and that is that eternal salvation and our eternal destiny is not dependent on our reputation, but on God's mercy. That's what we're celebrating tomorrow, and that's more important than any number of TV personalities or film stars."

People have come here for all kinds of reasons, he reflects, "some because it's their birthday, some to remember a loved one, some because they have always had an interest in Richard III. Some don't know why they're here at all, perhaps just to be part of something. I think it's a reminder that a lot of people live quite fragmented, individualistic, and atomised lives, and there's a big story here that you can participate in, and feel a sense of connection. That's immensely important."

He retires in July, and acknowledges, "It's quite a good gig to go out with, really. . . It's been an extraordinary year. I think, in a way, it's a reminder that when God gets hold of something, what we're in for is always bigger, deeper, richer, more colourful, more intense, and more abundant than anything we could have expected."

He sips his coffee and reflects, "I think as I watch the crowds queuing round this cathedral, that there's something ironic about it. Because the word of life has been proclaimed, and new life in Christ has been on offer at the altar in this cathedral for hundreds of years - but often given only to two or three people.

"All of a sudden, they are prepared to stand for hours to receive something. But what I hope they'll go away with is an understanding that what's important is not just the remains of the King, but the life of the King of Kings."

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