The Return Of The King
The mortal remains of King Richard III were found under a Leicester Car Park in 2012. It wasn’t a fluke or piece of good fortune that turned them up, it was a lot of hard work by historians to identify the site of the former Grey Friars Church, and more specifically where the choir was in the church. There was lots of luck from there on in, but a great deal of hard work and science too.
Since the hot summer day I waited to see the dig and talk to the archeologists, we’ve come a long way and now the King is reburied in Leicester Cathedral, and whilst the eyes of the world watched on TV, I had the chance to watch up close and personal before the reinterment on March 27.
The choice of Leicester Cathedral for the reburial wasn’t really controversial. The law requires that anyone undertaking an archeological dig in England and Wales must re-inter any human remains they find in the nearest consecrated ground, and Leicester Cathedral is just steps from where Richard III was found. It is a Church of England (think Episcopalian) church, so there was a line of logic that he could be buried in the Catholic Holy Cross Priory not far away, but the Cathedral made more sense.
The current Queen Elizabeth II could have insisted he be buried in Westminster Abbey, but she chose not to. The people who run the turnstiles and box office at York Minster were understandably keen to add to their attraction, but there was no legal or moral case to bury him there. The only other choice may have been Fotheringay where some of his family members lie, but the law said Leicester and making changes to laws sets precedents and no-one wanted to do that.
Waiting For The Richard III Courtege
We took a walk into the city a little earlier than the timetable recommended on March 22, 2015, planning to take in some of the atmosphere and see if we could find a good place to stand, but despite thinking we were ahead of the game, we quickly realised that the town centre was filling up with people, and some of those had been super prepared, bringing along picnics, chairs and drinks.
Corners along the route where people anticipated the courtege would have to slow down were already filling up.
We picked a spot opposite St Nicholas’ Church, where the coffin would be transferred from a modern Jaguar onto an open horse drawn carriage. Being tall we were happy with some children and rather short older people in front of us, we were three levels deep, but could see OK, yet we still had 90 minutes to wait.
Morris Dancers amused the waiting crowd, putting on a show at the Jewry WallRoman remains next to the church. Morris Dancers are the traditional dancers of England, wearing bells on their bodies and often performing complicated dances with sticks. They’re a jolly sight during an English summer as they usually mean there’s a pub serving good beer nearby, but not today.
The Courtege Approaches
The road was closed to traffic, and pretty soon the little spot we’d found to watch from was closed to people too, the crowds were growing quickly and some areas were closed to new entrants to ensure comfort and safety. Dads in the crown hoisted children on their shoulders to get a better view as the City of London Police riders prepared their horses as a security detail, and, more bizarrely, two men dressed in armour prepared their, more jittery horses to lead the courtege on the final part of its journey.
Clergy came out of the church ready to receive the King’s Coffin, and the nerves were obvious, today was a big day for everyone and they wanted to be sure everything was going smoothly.
King Richard III’s Remains Arrive
At this point we realized we’d picked the perfect spot. The hearse stopped right in front of us. We were able to watch the undertakers carry Richard III’s body out of the Jaguar hearse and carry it into St Nicholas’ Church for a short ceremony.
I was delighted by the coffin, it was a plain English Oak box, with a carved top and whilst Richard’s bones may have been light, as they were packed in place by English wool and linen, they were contained in a lead coffin that lined the oak one. The coffin had been designed and made by Richard’s great (x16) nephew, who up until three years ago was an unassuming Canadian carpenter. He still seems to be an unassuming man, and the media spotlight that’s fallen on him doesn’t sit easy, but his work on the coffin did all the talking.
Richard III’s Coffin Heads For The Cathedral
After a short ceremony in St Nicholas’ church, which existed long before King Richard III did, and survived Henry VIII’s destruction, the coffin reappeared for the final leg of its journey. It was to be taken on a horse drawn hearse, and there was a moment of light relief for the crowd who had maintained a dignified quiet throughout, when the funeral director had to climb up on the wheel of the carriage to take her seat, not an easy task when wearing a skirt and heels and the world’s media is photographing you, but she managed it with great aplomb.
The coffin was loaded onto the the carriage and set off led by two men in armour (I don’t know why).
Richard III Lies In Repose
When the coffin arrived at Leicester Cathedral there was a service of Compline. This was ticket-only and I was not a lucky person with a ticket. I headed home to catch the end of it on TV. Cardinal Vincent Nichols was on hand to receive the body into the church in a traditional Catholic way, even though the Cathedral belongs to the Church of England.
The reinterment isn’t a funeral, Richard most likely had last rites and a funeral as he was hurriedly buried by the Friars. They may have been fearful of making a fuss, but they would certainly have sought to take good care of Richard’s soul, as they would for anyone, annointed King or not.
The other oddity is that a royal would normally “lie in state” for the few days before a funeral, but as Richard has been dead for a fair few centuries, and the reinterment events are not a state funeral, the remains “lie in repose” instead.
The Cathedral had planned on opening for four three hour sessions to allow people to pay their respects through the week, but far too many people came to do so. The queses were running at four hours, and four hours outdoors in an English March can get pretty cold. Cathedral volunteers set up tea and coffee stations, handing out drinks to keep people warm.
The hours had to be extended and services disrupted, with the Cathedral opening at 7am and closing at 9pm to give as many people as possible the chance to see Richard’s coffin and the beautiful embroidered pall laid over it.
Richard’s Coffin In The Cathedral
Vespers For The Dead
I didn’t join the queue to file past the coffin. I had spotted the opportunity to go to the Cathedral on the evening of March 24 and hear the Dominican Friars from the local Catholic Priory sing Vespers. I’m a sucker for plainchant and incense. The information was very clear, if went to Vespers you needed to take your seat immediately and leave immediately afterwards, no lingering for a cheeky walk past the coffin, if you wanted to do that you needed to queue with everyone else.
I did get there early, I assumed the queues for Vespers would be longer than the line to walk past the coffin. I was wrong, the queues were not as long, and the people in line seemed more international. I read my book as I waited for 90 minutes. It was quite cold, and whilst everyone had wrapped up warm there were plenty of senior citizens for whom a long stand out in the cold looked like a real act of pilgrimage.
We filed in and quickly filled the seats, there were no choices, everyone was instructed to keep filling the next row of seats to get the church filled super quick, ensuring that it wasn’t closed off for too long, the people in the queue outside shouldn’t be held up unnecessarily.
I was seated in a far corner, in a florists staging area. I didn’t mind, plenty of people were standing. The flowers in the church were beautiful in their simplicity. There were white roses and white lilies with holly and woodland branches, with hollowed out tree stumps acting as vases.
Vespers was lovely, the local Dominican Friars had invited their colleagues from across the country to join them in their plainsong. The congregation were quiet and respectful, and the little order of service we each received helped non-Catholics to understand when they should stand and sit for each section.
There were prayers for Richard of course, as well as for Pope Francis, Justin Welby the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Bartholomew, head of the Orthodox Church as well as all faith leaders. Leicester is the most ethnically and theologically diverse city in Britain so it was nice to be inclusive.
As Vespers drew to a close the Friar leading the service reminded us that whilst people may want to stay and pray, there were people waiting out in the cold, so in the best tradition of pilgrims we should pray as we walked and clear the Cathedral quickly. I did manage to take a snap of the coffin as I hurried past.
Dominican Friars On The March
In a touching moment, the Friars also had to head home, and they walked back, following their cross and altar servers, for half a mile through the city as workers were leaving their offices and heading to pubs, and shops were closing for the night. It’s a little unfortunate that in this picture you can see the sign for “The King’s Head” pub in the background, at Least Richard didn’t lose his head.
The affection and respect they were shown was lovely, as the Leicester based friars are best known for their work in helping homeless people find somewhere to live and people with drug and alcohol problems get back on their feet, it was a little treat to see them in their Sunday best, enjoying the company of their friends from around the country.