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Richard III goes to his grave watched by thousands

27 March 2015

Pat Ashworth has spent the week in Leicester for the reburial of King Richard III

Matt short/LCQPB

Solemn: watching in period costume

Solemn: watching in period costume

PEOPLE from Leicester and across the country turned out in their thousands on Sunday to witness the final journey of King Richard III. His remains were conveyed from the battlefield where he fell in 1485 to his final resting place in Leicester Cathedral. An estimated 35,000 thronged the city streets alone, and there were similar numbers along the route through the villages surrounding the Bosworth battlefield, where key events were marked.

White roses were tossed on to the coffin as it passed. It was accompanied by two mounted knights in medieval armour, and borne with the dignity and honour that has been the watchword for the events that began with the discovery of the remains in August 2012 (News, 14 September 2012).

The story of the bones' unearthing in a council car park on the site of the Greyfriars Priory, the tenacity of those who initiated the excavation, and the science that went into the bones' DNA identification at the University of Leicester, captured the public imagination.

Outside the cathedral, the remains of "Our brother, Richard" were formally and solemnly handed over by the University to the entrustment of the Church. The Duke of Gloucester followed the coffin into the cathedral, along with four "mourners": the White and Red Bosworth Peers - a group of four descendants of Peers of the Realm who fought in the Wars of the Roses.

The monastic service of compline that followed was sublime. The simple coffin of English oak, made by Michael Ibsen, a cabinet-maker and a descendant of Richard III, whose DNA was used to identify the king's bones, was placed east of the font.

Ceremonies involving symbols of unity with Christ followed, including the censing of the coffin and the placing on it of a copy of a 15th- century Vulgate Bible, and a crown set with enamelled white roses, garnets, sapphires, and pearls. Most dramatic of all was the first sight of the pall, a stunning piece of embroidery by Jacquie Binns, which glowed with vibrant colours on black velvet.

A profound stillness followed its appearance. Designed to merge past and present, the pall depicts six seraphim and, in groups of three, a medieval bishop, friar, and priest; a second generic medieval trio; key modern figures in the discovery of and work on the remains; and - in a trio with the elected Mayor of Leicester, Sir Peter Soulsby - the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, and the Dean, the Very Revd David Monteith.

The artist told the Church Times afterwards that, given access for a moment after the service to stand alone by the coffin in silence, she had burst into tears at the thought: "I am one foot away from Richard III."

Most of the music for compline was by English composers, all immaculately sung as plainsong by the senior trebles and adults of the cathedral choir. The centrepiece of the service was Herbert Howells's motet, "Take him, earth, for cherishing", based on a poem by the Roman Christian poet Prudentius, and composed for John F. Kennedy's memorial service.

The RC Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, preached a sermon that emphasised the brutality of medieval wars and the tumultuous life and times of Richard III, a "child of war", a "refugee in Europe", whose reign was marked by unrest and who remained a controversial figure in the continual re-assessment of the Tudor period, "when saints can become villains and villains can become saints".

Baptism did not give holiness of life but gave it enduring shape, he reflected, describing the king as "a man of prayer, of anxious devotions". The Franciscans, Cardinal Nichols believed, would have buried Richard with prayer, even though that burial - which followed the ignominious parading of his naked and violently wounded body through the streets after the battle - had been hasty. He ended with the prayer that Richard "be embraced in God's merciful love".

The coffin, which lay in repose until the reinterment service on Thursday, was viewed by 5000 people from the UK and abroad in the first five hours of the cathedral's opening its doors on Monday morning. They queued good-naturedly for up to two hours to file past the coffin, the line snaking back to Jubilee Square through the surrounding streets. The cathedral has an artist-in-residence recording the week's events, Michael Harrison, whose consequent sequence of paintings, Sanctuary for a King, will be exhibited in May.

The cathedral has worked closely with the RC Church in Leicester, and Bishop Stevens was among ecumenical representatives at a requiem mass for the repose of the king's soul, held on Monday at Holy Cross Priory, a church served by the Dominican order.

There was plainsong at this service, too, from a gallery above a packed congregation, who had balloted for tickets to be there. Mention of "Richard" throughout, with no title, emphasised that the king was simply another soul to be prayed for. There was a moment of theatre as clouds of incense drifted above a startlingly beautiful Tree of Life, bearing arched branches of white roses.

Cardinal Nichols, the celebrant, said that mass for Richard's soul was being offered in many RC churches that week, and that praying for the dead was "a profound and essential Christian duty". Wearing a chasuble recorded as belonging to the Royal wardrobe of Richard III, he said that it could be "reasonably speculated" that Richard had participated in a mass at which that same vestment was being worn.

Richard was not a man of peace, he acknowledged. "The time into which he was born, and the role into which he was born, did not permit that. But now we pray for his eternal peace."

All other faiths in Leicester were invited by George Ballentyne of Leicester City Council to reflect on Richard III and his legacy for this, Britain's most plural city. The Leicester Friends of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies described him as "a fallible man, embodied in his physical shortcomings, seized upon and exaggerated by his successors and detractors", and concluded: "It is fitting that we are now able to treat this fallen king with respect."

Muslims much approved of the rituals and reverence around the burial as a final act of service. "The monks at Greyfriars would have done what they could to ensure his dignity, but we saw how the grave was dug relatively shallow, too small for the body, which was placed within it at an awkward angle, the head to one side, wrapped only in a shroud, without benefit of a coffin," a statement from the Federation of Muslim Organisations said.

"It is fitting that he receives a send-off fit for a king, 530 years later. And once again, Leicester rises to the occasion."


For an account of the reburial on Thursday see www.churchtimes.co.uk  

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