Second time as farce

The decline of Britain as an imperial power is symbolised by the funeral of Richard III, argues Mike Macnair

The last full week of March saw a bizarre spectacle in Leicester. Richard Plantagenet, king of England from 1483 to 1485, was given, as it were, almost a ‘state funeral’ with a procession on March 22, a lying in state in Leicester cathedral, and finally a reburial service on March 26. Around 35,000 people are reported to have attended; and the orders of service from the reburial have now become a high-price item on eBay.1

Almost a state funeral’ because the money did not come from the central state, but from the local authority, the church and private contributors; and there was only token attendance from quite junior current royal relatives or connections (the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester and the Countess of Wessex). In other words, it was the media rather than the state which made this reburial into a big deal.

What on earth is the significance of this event? Grand funerals for recently deceased royalty are an understandable ideological flourish in a monarchy like the United Kingdom. But for a guy who died a bit less than 530 years ago? Moreover, one who was generally understood to have usurped the throne anyhow? And when the present monarchy in theory derives its title to the throne through Henry Tudor, who became king by the defeat and death of Richard at the battle of Bosworth (August 22 1485), and his wife, Elizabeth of York, sister of Edward V, whom Richard overthrew (and whom he allegedly had murdered)? What was Channel 4 playing at with its wall-to-wall coverage?

Polly Toynbee offered a simple answer:

… the nation mourns its most reviled monster of a king. Never was adulation of monarchy taken to such transcendently absurd heights ...

It’s comical, but tragic too, as a reminder of the indignity the British accept in their accustomed role as subjects, not citizens. Here are church, royalty and army revering a child-killing, wife-slaughtering tyrant who would be on trial if he weren’t 500 years dead. This is the madness of monarchy, where these bones are honoured for their divine royalty, whether by accident of birth or by brutal seizure of the crown. Richard, whose death ended the tribal Wars of the Roses, is a good symbol of the “bloodline” fantasy. Our island story is one of royal usurpage and regicide, with imported French, Dutch and German monarchs who didn’t speak English. The puzzle is that this fantasy of anointed genes persists, even unto Kate’s unborn babe.2

Perhaps too simple. The difficulty can be illustrated by Toynbee’s reference to “wife-slaughtering”: even those modern historians (most) who are happy to believe that Richard did have his nephews killed do not generally accept the slur put about by his enemies after his wife’s early death that he had murdered her in order to marry his niece.3 The problem is that Richard was portrayed by pro-Tudor writers ‘Saint’ Thomas More and Edward Hall, and finally (and most spectacularly) by William Shakespeare, as a cartoon or pantomime villain. Toynbee inherits this portrayal.

But the peculiar event in Leicester has happened because this view is contested. Since 1924 the Richard III Society has been active in researching Richard’s life and reign with a view to disproving the cartoon villain image.4 The driving force behind the explorations which led to Richard’s body being dug up from a Leicester car park was Philippa Langley, a member of the Richard III Society.5 The present Duke of Gloucester, who attended the reburial, is patron of the society (before he was king, Richard Plantagenet was Duke of Gloucester ...).

There is perhaps another submerged element to this story. This is that, while he was Duke of Gloucester under his brother, Edward IV, Richard was a great northern feudal magnate, who inherited, through his wife, the lands and patronage ‘connection’ of the Nevill family in the north-west and managed for his brother the similar affinity of the Duchy of York. Relatively recent biographers of Richard have analysed that he took power away from the Woodvilles, the family of Edward IV’s wife, in 1483 by virtue of his northern backing; that he was already unpopular in the south because of intruding ‘northerners’ (those from north of the Trent) into southern offices and county societies; and that the rebellion triggered by this led him to rely even more on a narrow circle of ‘northerners’.6 Richard himself is said before Bosworth to have described Henry Tudor as “an unknown Welshman, whose father I never knew, nor him personally saw”; but there is a sense in which Henry’s victory could be seen not as the victory of the Welsh, but as the revenge of the south on the north.

‘Ricardianism’ - the revisionist pro-Richard view expressed by the Richard III Society - could be seen as having more base in the English north and representing a sort of low-grade symbolic form of hostility to the London-centred UK regime (just as Jacobitism played on a more spectacular level a similar role for Scotland, and as Tom Nairn pointed out in his 1989 book on the monarchy and ‘Ukanianism’, The enchanted glass).

For this point of view, the fact that Richard’s body was awarded for reburial to Leicester rather than to York might be significant beyond the simple point that he was exhumed there: perhaps there was an element of ‘Let’s keep the body south of the Trent, not providing a northern focus for a potential Ricardian cult ...’

‘Ricardianism’ is to some extent revisionist in relation to the 16th and 17th century ideological legitimations of the Tudor and Stuart (and hence Hanoverian) dynastic claims. In this context, what Channel 4 and other media have done with their excessive coverage of an OTT ceremony is to appropriate the products of ‘Ricardianism’ and make them merely part of the general monarchist-Ukanian politics of nostalgia for the feudal past.

If Toynbee is too simple, these speculations are almost certainly too complicated. There is, in reality, another simple point. Leicester is creating a tourist attraction; and the media is selling the UK as such as a tourist attraction, the site of a medieval history. That the UK economy is in process of becoming increasingly dependent on tourism is a banality. In doing so it is following a path previously taken by Venice: in the late middle ages dominant in the shipping industry and the holder of an overseas empire, by the 17th century Venice had become merely a centre of financial intermediation - and by the 18th nothing but a tourist attraction.

We are not at that stage yet: London remains a global centre for financial intermediation. But tourism is increasingly important. And here, perhaps, the interests of Leicester in getting a visible royal tomb and of the Richard III Society converged with the publicity around the TV version, A game of thrones, of George RR Martin’s Song of ice and fire fantasy series. After all, A game of thrones has been publicly claimed to be based on the Wars of the Roses, which (more or less) ended at Bosworth,7 and has been said to boost sales of straight historical novels of the period.

Digging up and reburying Richard Plantagenet is perhaps a grisly way of cashing in; an appropriately medieval one though, since the medieval tourist industry was mainly based on the supposed relics of saints - exhumed, stolen, trafficked, and finally marketed as objects of pilgrimage ...

The result then: merely more ‘heritage industry’. But it says something about the UK and its decline that relics of a defeated royal dynastic line should be made the object of such a piece of media razzmatazz.



1. See The Guardian March 30.

2. TheGuardian March 26.

3. Eg, C Ross Richard III Yale 1999, pp144-46.

4. www.richardiii.net.

5. www.richardiii.net/leicester_dig.php.

6. See C Ross op cit, chapters 3, 6 and 8; R Horrox Richard III: a study of service Cambridge 1989; and cf HM Jewell The north-south divide: the origins of northern consciousness in England Manchester 1994, pp48-52.

7. A particularly systematic version for a tabloid can be seen in the Daily Mail May 10 2014.