Bernard Trafford: Alliteration and a right Royal frenzy

Journal columnist Bernard Trafford finds the hype surrounding the return of Richard III's remains perplexing

Gareth Fuller/PA Wire A model of the face of King Richard III
A model of the face of King Richard III

Royal remains reinterred. Multitude mourns as maligned murdered monarch entombed.

Why don’t they employ me to write the headlines? Everyone else has been at it. Richard III frenzy rules. Fellow columnist Keith Hann stole my thunder by writing about him yesterday.

Today those five-centuries-old bones will finally be sealed beneath a stone slab; everyone might calm down.

Not the citizens of Leicester, however, for whom this is a tourism triumph. There’s never been much reason to be a tourist in Leicester before. I know: a couple of decades ago I spent a lot of time on the road between the West and East Midlands, learning to hate Leicester’s ring road and one-way system. Turning up as he did a few years back, Richard certainly did Leicester a favour.

The story’s threatened to push the election off the front pages, a blessed relief. There have been moments of unconscious humour, too: gaudily dressed heralds strutting around Bosworth Field, reminiscent of Tenniel’s illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice; hardy riders in full armour for the whole length of Sunday’s cortege; and unconsciously ironic cries from people lining the route: “Long live King Richard!” they cried, as they cast white York roses onto the gun carriage bearing his coffin, overlooking the fact that he’s been dead for 530 years.

Richard usurped the throne, reigned for only two years and was eventually deposed and killed in battle by another usurper, Henry VII. Instead of acting as protector to his nephew Richard, Duke of Gloucester, he stole his throne and probably killed him and his brother Edward.

Now he’s a celebrity, though, history’s being wilfully rewritten by those who want to love him. Channel 4’s coverage lined up historians to say that he had no need to kill the young princes; he’d already established his power. Only that acerbic doyen of television historians David Starkey wasn’t having it: “When you’ve got yourself a throne, you eliminate all the risks. Of course he killed them.”

Nonetheless, Richard’s rehabilitation continues. Even the physical attribute, the bent spine that Sir Thomas More and Shakespeare emphasised to underline his wickedness, becomes a virtue in our 21st Century eyes.

Despite suffering from scoliosis, he could still wear armour and fight well. At Bosworth he charged his enemy, Henry Tudor. He lost the battle, but he didn’t lack courage.

On Sunday we were told he was a scholar, a pious man, a true Christian. OK, so all that murdering stuff was just politics, then, nothing to do with his moral nature?

Don’t worry. I’m not accusing anyone of hypocrisy. Nowadays we don’t believe in a sovereign’s divine right to rule: we gave up on that when we chopped Charles I’s head off in 1649. But we’ve located the bones, hidden for centuries, of an anointed king. The discovery, subsequent skillful forensic analysis (including the fatal wounds) and facial reconstruction from a bare skull all created a captivating detective story with the added romance of ancient heraldry and long-lost royalty.

If I’m honest, I’m as excited as everyone else. I’m charmed by the very British character of the phenomenon we’ve been watching. Only the Brits, surely, would welcome an old loser, reviled for centuries, back into the fold and treat his mortal remains with such reverence.

We’ve even conceptually transformed that skeleton from a casualty of battle to a symbol of reconciliation. I’m not sure Richard was the reconciling type; he was a pretty ruthless enemy. But we’ve forgiven him, and it was touching, if incongruous, to see Leicester’s Sikh community banging their drums and honouring a Christian who never even knew that India existed, and died around the time that the Sikh religion was being formed.

Maybe we’ve witnessed in action what politicians currently insist on terming British values.

I suspect those archaeologists and the people of Leicester have taught us more about them this week than we’ll ever learn from our elected leaders.

Dr Bernard Trafford is headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal. @bernardtrafford

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