Richard III’s Last Act

NEWS ANALYSIS: Thursday’s interment of the last Plantagenet monarch has reawakened interest in England’s rich Catholic past.

(photo: Wikipedia)

LONDON — Crowds thronging the roads and prayers and hymns chanted as a monarch is laid to rest, with British pageantry and traditions on full display.

King Richard III died more than 500 years ago and has been the subject of much controversy among historians.

And, finally, on Thursday, amid great ceremony, the monarch will be reburied, awakening all sorts of discussions connected with Britain’s history, traditions, religious beliefs and sense of common heritage.

Britain has been gripped by a sudden surge of fascination for the last monarch of the Plantagenet line, who was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

There had long been a dispute over where his remains lay — his body was famously found near a hedge after the battle ended and hurriedly buried by monks from Greyfriars priory, after an ignominious parade through the streets to show the fullness of his defeat. Thus ended the Wars of the Roses, with Henry Tudor, from a Welsh family, triumphant. He was crowned as Henry VII. In due course, the throne would pass to his second son, Henry (the elder son, Arthur, having died), who became Henry VIII.

In 2012, the remains of Richard III were finally discovered underneath a car park (parking lot) in Leicester. (Enthusiasts had been searching for some while, following up every possible piece of historical research.)

Richard III was, of course, a Catholic — in 1485, no one could have imagined a monarch of England being anything else. It was the actions of Henry VIII (abandoning his wife, Queen Catherine, marrying his mistress, Anne Boleyn, and in the process defying the pope and the Church) that would change the religious allegiance of Great Britain.

And, of course, this raises the intriguing question: If Richard had not perished on Bosworth Field — and the throne had not passed to the Tudors, and hence into the hands of Henry VIII — might Britain have remained a Catholic nation?

The burial of Richard III has come at an intriguing time. The religious structures of Britain in 2015 are quite different from those of even comparatively recent history. With the ecumenical bonds forged during the second half of the 20th century, beginning with Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey meeting Pope Paul VI in the 1960s and continuing with the papal visits to Britain of Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, the funeral arrangements of this long-ago monarch have taken on a Catholic flavor that would have been unimaginable in the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries.

For all of that time, prayers for the dead would have been banned as “popish,” and any suggestion that a Catholic prelate would preside at a ceremony in an Anglican church, use holy water, incense or preach on the necessity of such prayers would have been unthinkable.

After a lengthy and solemn parade on Sunday through the streets of Leicester — complete with a 21-gun salute and much pageantry — the body was brought to the Anglican Leicester Cathedral, where a service of Compline was held, before five days of public lying in state ahead of the final requiem. 

Compline was an ecumenical event, with Catholic Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, leading prayers and sprinkling the coffin with holy water. In his sermon for the service, he explained that this was a reminder that “King Richard, at the beginning of his life, was baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. He was thereby called to live as a follower of Jesus Christ.” 

The cardinal emphasized the Christian duty to pray for the dead: “We pray for him today, just as those who prayed for him at the time of his death in 1485, those whose hearts were not filled with the vengeance of victory or the hatred of an enemy. Among those who prayed for him then was the community of Franciscan friars, so nearby here, who surely buried him with formal prayer, even if also in haste.”

Richard III was a controversial figure — he was famously accused of murdering the “Princes in the Tower” as well as other enemies — but his supporters have hailed him as a good and popular king, and Cardinal Nichols mentioned his efforts to ensure justice, fair trials and freedom from arbitrary arrest, all central to the development of the British legal system.

The funeral of Richard III will be a Church of England ceremony, albeit with ecumenical overtones. However, after the prayers at Leicester Cathedral, Cardinal Nichols celebrated a requiem Mass on Monday at Holy Cross Dominican Priory, wearing a vestment from Richard III’s time. He told the congregation:

“The prayer we offer for him this evening is the best prayer there is: the offering of the holy Mass, the prayer of Jesus himself, made complete in the oblation of his body and blood on the altar of the cross, present here for us on this altar. This is the summit of all prayer, for it is made in and through the one Person, the eternal Word, through whom all created beings have life. It is a prayer that arises from the very core of creation, the cry of the Word returning to the Father and carrying within it the totality of that creation, marred and broken in its history, yet still longing for the completion for which it has been created. It is, therefore, such an important Catholic tradition to seek the celebration of Mass for the repose of the souls of those who have died, especially for each of our loved ones whose passing we mourn. Let us not forget or neglect this great gift.”

In modern Britain — with attendance at all Christian churches at an all-time low, and Muslims representing the second-largest religious group and growing rapidly — the sudden splash of publicity for rich Christian ceremonial, formal prayers and an emphasis on the need to invoke prayer for the departed has produced a sense of mild astonishment.

The crowds in the streets watching the funeral procession were unexpectedly large, and while controversy continues to surge around Richard III and his short reign — the historians are having a field day debating it all — a side effect of the whole event has been a renewed recognition of the continuity of Catholicism down through the centuries of Britain’s history.

There are now more Catholics in church on Sunday in Britain than there are Anglicans, Catholic schools are extremely popular, and Pope Francis is rarely off of Brits’ TV screens. Immigration since the 1960s has boosted Catholic congregations, with arrivals from Nigeria, the West Indies, Goa, the Philippines and Poland, just as immigration from Ireland created new congregations in the 19th century.

Today’s Britain is unrecognizably different from that of the 15th century: in some respects better; in others equal in tensions, achievements, possibilities and brutalities.

But the final, formal burial of Richard III, whose death marked the end of the Middle Ages, has shown the nation that the one unbroken link across the centuries is the Christian faith, and specifically the Catholic Church.

Then, as now, not all of its adherents were sinless or beyond criticism. But in pondering that link, people in Britain may discover messages challenging their own uncertainties as they face the challenges of the 21st century.

Joanna Bogle, an author and EWTN host, writes from London.

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