I heard about the two sides of Richard III at university, when a lot of students were milling around for theatre group auditions. There was a girl wearing a heraldically-coloured baseball jacket. Across the back of it was an elaborate medieval embroidery of a white boar, emblazoned with the word Dickon. I had to ask who Dickon was, at which point her eyes electrified with religious zeal. For two minutes she spake forth, with the fervour of Joan of Arc, on the cruel misrepresentation of Richard III by the Tudor dynasty. Passion spent, she reverted to the same woman who would later attempt election to the Student Union using a photo of herself in a ball gown.
The Ricardian disciple did her work because I later read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (named from Sir Francis Bacon’s words ‘truth is the daughter of time, not authority’), a crime novel in which Detective Inspector Grant uses a spell in hospital to assess the charges against Richard III. One of his visitors (an actress, funnily enough) brings in some prints of historical figures for him to assess. He can’t reconcile the face of the man in Richard III’s portrait with the villain from his ‘schoolboy history’ and constructs a plausible reassessment.
I did some wider reading and fell for the romance of the maligned king because, as the Richard III Society is fond of pointing out, he appears to have been ‘a good lawmaker for the ease and solace of the common people’ (according to Sir Francis Bacon).
So I wasn’t a stranger to the passion and drama heralded by the discovery of Richard III’s bones. I was even moved a little myself.
The documentary in which Phillipa Langley was brought face-to face with the king’s remains held a strange fascination beyond historical fact, compounded by Langley’s tearful, theatrical exit at the point when her fervour to resurrect his image could have back-fired, not helped by the composure of the investigating scientist.
It was a perfect 21st century scenario – a lone figure attempting to create meaning and reverence using time-honoured trappings of drama and theatre, rituals to bestow meaning. She had earlier urged the scientist to cover the box of bones with Richard’s flag before they were placed on the back seat of an unprepossessing hatchback. Some have found it ridiculous, and it has the makings of a Monty Python sketch.
This summer the BBC brought a photogenic Richard III to the screen by adapting Phillipa Gregory’s The Kingmaker’s Daughter (a title for Richard III’s wife, Anne Neville) as The White Queen. Gregory has a destructive habit of fusing her research – plausible yet entertaining historical perspectives – with the clumsiest of romance novel clichés. It means she’ll never kiss Hilary’s mantle. Despite this, and the Game of Thrones shimmer of medieval Disney, there was something in the way Richard’s story was told which was convincing enough to help alchemise a legend.
Because we’ve seen how the king was lain hastily in an ill-fitting grave, a strange potion is brewing. There’s the spectre of a gothic monster disturbed, to rise from the dead, giving way to a Pre-Raphaelite glow of saintly Resurrection. Richard will be all these things, always, and – to be wheezily romantic – is perhaps a fitting embodiment of our human race.
Richard’s reburial should be as quiet and honourable as shoring up the remains of a castle keep, but it is becoming a pantomime in tacked-together polyester medieval costume. There’s the on-going argument that Richard should be buried in Yorkshire, not Leicester, which is now the subject of an undignified court case.
It’s quite probable King Richard would have preferred to have been buried in Yorkshire, at home, rather than near the ill-fated foreign field, but it begins to sound like something from a Joe Orton play: ‘It’s what he would have wanted – a stop-off at Harrogate, and Yorkshire pudding at the wake’.
And yet, there’s more going on here than meets the eye. No one can doubt that Philippa Langley has put her heart and soul into Richard III, but this has brought him into the 21st century. Inevitably, this makes the king a valuable commodity, where dignity is something that has to be fought for. This recent statement from members of the Looking for Richard project makes for fascinating reading.
The latest twist is the announcement of the design for Richard’s tomb. There were fears because the tomb would not be raised, and now it is. Yet donations to the Richard III Society to help fund the tomb have been withdrawn because the donors don’t like the design, and Philippa Langley agrees (though the chairman does not).
It would seem there is much to placate everyone in the design. A giant Yorkshire rose, carved from limestone; a contemporary raised plinth from Swaledale fossil stone (from Yorkshire, presumably); and a centrepiece of a cross so that the cathedral remains a place of worship and tempers the sense of a themed attraction.
Perhaps the problem lies with the hastily-assembled digital images issued by the architects, which look like stills from a dated computer game. It takes quite a leap of imagination to see the materials as they might appear in reality. As the images stand, Leicester Cathedral isn’t the Louvre and the surrounding Victorian approximations of medieval Gothic might look as affronted as an elderly duchess dressed in Emma Peel’s catsuit. But given the materials, it could still work.
It appears Richard’s supporters are finding the road to his burial as complex as anything devised for a Machiavellian prince.