“The Reburial of Richard III: What Now For Ricardians?”, by Amy Licence

By Amy Licence

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amyfotor

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This week has proven to be an intense and moving one. The mortal remains of Richard III have made their last emotive journey through green fields and crowded streets, uniting people of different countries and faiths in mutual respect. Sunday March 22 was one of those still-points in history: one of those times you can feel the convergence of past and present, when the gulf of five centuries seemed to collapse and create a real and direct emotional connection between the modern and the medieval. In the stillness and reverence, in the incense and hymns of the Anglican Church, in the ritual and ornament of the draping of the embroidered pall and placing of the jewelled crown, an older way of worship was alluded to, and we are reminded of the common humanity of people across the ages. We might be divided by codes of time-specific conduct and comprehension, but the basic human emotions do not change.

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The coffin carrying the remains of Richard III leave after a service at Bosworth Battlefield in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England, Sunday, March 22, 2015.
The coffin carrying the remains of Richard III leave after a service at Bosworth Battlefield in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England, Sunday, March 22, 2015.

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Yet hindsight is a wonderful thing. From the platform of 2015, we experience a simultaneity of knowledge, a concertinaing of five centuries of varied opinion: some positive, some negative, some true, some false. We are aware of Richard’s cultural afterlife: the process by which he has been defined and redefined by different individuals and movements across time. We know that his reputation has taken many turns, through reactionary Tudor politics, to a revisionist Enlightenment, through a Victorian restoration of Shakespeare’s play and modern cinematic portrayals. We know too that Richard was considered brave, loyal and pious during his lifetime, but that equally, some of his subjects questioned his succession and rose in revolt in the autumn of 1483. Then and now, there are problems with the survival and dissemination of information. Some sources have been credited with greater significance, while others have been forgotten. Some important material may have been destroyed: some questions may never be answered. The interpretations of certain writers have benefited from greater publicity than others, while our modern forms of media have perpetuated certain memes without the requisite historical context that would enable recipients to reach informed conclusions. Richard’s reputation is a perfect lesson in the discipline of history.

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The coffin of King Richard III at Leicester Cathedral. Photo Credit: Modern Medievalism
The coffin of King Richard III at Leicester Cathedral.
Photo Credit: Modern Medievalism

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But what now? We bring to the present moment a headful of historical contradictions. It’s a mismatched body of knowledge that doesn’t always sit easily alongside what we believe or what we feel: sometimes, if we let it, a fresh fact can alter the belief we’ve held for years. Anyone researching the twists and turns of Richard’s afterlife becomes aware of the arbitrary nature of sources, of the fragility of reputation and the randomness of formative moments of history. This can only make us better equipped to deconstruct historical characters and events, although it ultimately pushes any sort of definitive answer further away. The more sources we read, the less we realise we can be certain of.

And yet this has also been a time of crucial new discoveries. Through the archaeological excavations, the University’s forensic analysis and the reburial controversies, our generation has written a new chapter in Richard’s historiography. Future generations will see this as a marker, whether or not they approve or disapprove of this week’s events. No doubt they will see it as much as a reflection of early twenty-first-century values and concerns, perhaps even more so, than a development of Ricardian understanding. This is neither the end for Richard, nor the beginning; it’s simply one step along a much longer journey, much bigger than ourselves and the present moment. When we consider how the arc of Richard’s afterlife will develop through future generations, there is only one thing we can be sure of: it will continue to be one of contradiction. Perhaps that is the most important thing we can take from the past few years: there will be things we disagree about, but the continuity is greater than the difference.

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15th Century Re-enactors Prepare a Canon for a 21 Gun Salute. Photo Credit: (AP Photo/Joe Giddens, PA Wire)
15th Century Re-enactors Prepare a Canon for a 21 Gun Salute.
Photo Credit: (AP Photo/Joe Giddens, PA Wire)

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I’m aware I’ve strayed into the sentimental now but I do think there’s a crucial point here. This has been a journey for everyone interested in Richard’s life, from the first moment we heard about him at school, or picking up a Ladybird Book, through the years of study, passion and (possibly) defence: every Ricardian has been through a personal experience, intensified in the last three years. There have been points of agreement and points of disagreement, which is to be expected, even welcomed, as we analyse the nuances of texts and events in order to try and come closer to an understanding of the man and his time. I see that journey, leading to the events in Leicester this week, to be a common bond, something we’ve witnessed evolving together, whatever country we live in, or whatever our personal views about the man. While I relish the historical differences that will continue to be debated long after our time, the past few years have made me want to stand back and look at a bigger timeline of Richard’s story. As we tune in around the world on Thursday to watch him finally laid to rest, I will be reflecting on the similarities between Ricardians rather than the differences, on a sense of resolution that comes from the reburial and hoping that this will define a new chapter of debate.

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Amy Licence
Amy Licence

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Amy Licence is an English historian of medieval women, powerful and common, Queens consorts and monarchs, rich and poor — particularly women living in the late 15th and 16th centuries. Topics of special interest include gender relations, Queenship and identity, rites of passage, pilgrimage, female orthodoxy and rebellion, superstition, magic, fertility and childbirth. Amy also has an enviable expertise and interest in the Wars of the Roses. Besides Amy’s non-fiction historical books, she also is a prolific journalist, regularly contributing the New Statesman and The Huffington Post. For more information on Amy’s varied interests, check out her pinboard on Pininterest at http://www.pinterest.com/amylicence/.

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Beth von Staats

is the owner and administrator of QueenAnneBoleyn.com. Blogger of "The Tudor Thomases", Beth specializes in writing magazine articles, online historical articles, short stories, and flash fiction.

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