If you live in Leicester, you now know this story by heart: king dies in battle, king’s body goes missing, king’s body is found several centuries later — of all places — underneath a car park. Regardless on your views towards the king’s possible behaviour in his lifetime, monarchy in general, and the whole concept of life, death and the afterlife, the reburial of Richard III was a big event and a unique opportunity for all of us. We were witnessing history, and we had seen it unfold for the past 18 months almost like a motion picture. Someone found something: was it? Wasn’t it? It was, and now it was our turn to say goodbye and send that something back underground but with a much nicer setting above.
The reburial celebrations began last Sunday, when Leicester University said goodbye to the remains before sending them to their resting place in the Cathedral. My husband and I live a five-minute walk away from campus, and that’s when we found out that the monarch was basically our neighbour. Before that, whenever we used to take a walk around Victoria Park and we would pass by the tall grey buildings of the university, we would notice this loud humming sound coming from a basement or ground floor. “It’s King Richard in cryogenic suspension”, I would joke. “It’s the fridge where they keep his remains, like Walt Disney”. I didn’t know it was partially true. I don’t know if that humming was the fridge where they kept him, or if he was kept in a fridge in the first place, but he was actually there. After all, a dedicated team from this university discovered the skeleton’s identity using DNA samples and comparing them to those of one of the last descendants of the Plantagenets.
We went to this goodbye ceremony early in the morning. There were people who came from near and far waiting in front of the Fielding Johnson Building. Children, elderly and people with dogs. Without the solemnity nor the weeping of a funeral. More like a family event or like waiting for a celebrity to come out of their hotel. Leicester Uni was effectively Richard III’s bed and breakfast for a while, and it was his time to check out. There were seats under a gazebo for the very important people, right in front of rows of benches exclusively lined up for the media. Still, more people connected to the university and the discovery were brought along to stand up on a side, kind of blocking the view from those of us behind the fence. You had to tip toe to be able to look at the coffin, built and designed by the Canadian carpenter whose DNA was used to prove a positive match. Selfishness aside, if they were as part of history as the VIP guests, they deserved seats too.
The ceremony was solemn and ecumenical, open to the general public and people of all faiths and none. It’s a shame a member of the audience had his children running and shouting in the background, not even respecting the one-minute silence. Imagine if these children did that to him at his funeral. If we still had scribes with scrolls, he would be remembered for centuries to come for the wrong reasons. Archaeologists and anthropologists would scoff at him and his offspring.
Once the ceremony was done, they took the coffin to Fenn Lane, Dadlington, Sutton Cheney, and in some sort of exorcist closure, to the site of the Battle of Bosworth. We didn’t follow them, but we got to see the funeral car leave the university.
After Market Bosworth, they took the remains to the Bow Bridge and St Nicholas Church. From then on, they dragged the coffin on horse carriage all the way to the Cathedral, not before parading around certain spots of the city centre. One of those, the curve in the Cultural Quarter, by The Exchange bar, the Serbian church and the Curve theatre. That’s where we went to see him in the afternoon. It wasn’t as crowded as Humberstone Gate or the Clock Tower, but it was special and close to our hearts — we get to spend several times a week around that area thanks to work and film meetings.
When they said “horse carriage”, I thought it would be the coffin inside a car dragged by horses, or at least protected by a crystal or something. Not just there, lying flat on a plank on wheels, right in front of us. A physically small coffin for a physically small king, the way people were in Medieval times. Raw and real, no mysticism whatsoever. Living people cover and hide themselves more than this.
The Cathedral ceremony was invitation-only, but they still screened it at the Clock Tower and Jubilee Park. We went to the Clock Tower to sit down on a bench, watch and listen. I have never been to Leicester Cathedral, but the inside looked stunning on screen. Tall ceilings, shades of bronze on the walls, gold and red here and there. During my Master’s Degree, I went to cathedrals all over the West Country for research and assignments; and I once saw Anna Calvi in Manchester Cathedral. Perhaps I should go more often and explore cathedrals now in the East Midlands. Merely for the architecture, art and acoustics. You can see why contemporary gigs are still held in this kind of places: the choir sounded majestic. The voices were majestic themselves, singing songs from Plantagenet/Tudor times, a trip down a memory lane we didn’t get to walk.
As I’ve said before, it’s not a matter of beliefs, politics or religion: Richard III’s reburial events were still very humbling. Friendly reminders that regardless of status, nobody lives forever and that the rest of the world doesn’t die with us. It just goes on and on an on. Dogs will keep running, children will keep screaming, people will keep looking and the city will keep waxing and waning, waxing and waning, in circles forever. A few days later, Benedict Cumberbatch — apparently, Plantagenet blood — read a poem on the reinterment ceremony. It was easier to “meet” the king than to meet the actor. If you still want to meet the king, go to the Cathedral and look at the tombstone. If you want to meet the actor, speak to his agents and wait a hundred working days. Or walk around London forever until you stumble upon him on the Underground.
We are the same in the end. We all have bones, and sooner or later we’ll all be buried.