Local Ricardians witnesss a ceremony fit for a king

The day Victoria Moorshead walked into Leicester Cathedral to see the new coffin of a long-dead king, she stopped to chat with a civil servant.

As it turned out, he worked for Leicester City Council, which until three years ago had owned the accidental tomb of King Richard III – a parking lot reserved for the Department of Social Services.

“He said he’d actually been parking on top of Richard for 30 years,” said Moorshead, laughing. “I asked him, ‘Did you come to say ‘I’m sorry?’”

Knights ride ahead of the funeral cortege carrying the remains of King Richard III through the streets of Leicester, England on March 3, 2015. At the Battle of Bosworth where Richard was killed in 1485, armoured knights were the most advanced military equipment available. Submitted photo

In March, Moorshead and a few other local members of the Richard III Society of Canada flew to Leicester, England to see the long-lost king reburied.

In 2012, led by the intrepid screenwriter and Ricardian Philippa Langley, archeologists dug into that Leicester parking lot and found the bones of the only English monarch whose grave was ever lost.

Richard III, last of the Plantagenet kings, died at age 32 in a battle against Henry Tudor.

It was 1485, and the men were fighting the penultimate battle in a decades-long series of wars between Richard’s royal house of York, and Henry’s house of Lancaster.

Thrown from his horse on muddy ground, Richard was attacked and killed with bladed weapons.

Monks from the nearby Greyfriars priory buried him in a shallow grave, and Tudor won the throne.

Striking as it sounds – the last battle-death of an English king – it may not have attracted much notice without help from a very dramatic man born about 80 years later.

Members of the Richard III Society of Canada gather for a group photo while in Leicester for the re-internment of the last Plantaganet king. In the first row, at far left, is local resident Sheilah O'Connor, while Victoria Moorshead stands in the back row, second from the right. PHOTO: Don Bryce
Members of the Richard III Society of Canada gather for a group photo while in Leicester for the reinterment of the last Plantaganet king. In the first row, at far left, is local resident Sheilah O’Connor, while Victoria Moorshead stands in the back row, second from the right.
PHOTO: Don Bryce

“I regret to say that we actually owe Shakespeare a debt, because without him, no one would really know or care about Richard,” said Moorshead.

Growing up, Moorshead was big on history, and no fan of Shakespeare.

And, like most Ricardians, today she still gives Shakespeare poor reviews for his grasp of history.

It is actually an open question whether two years before his own death, Richard III murdered his two nephews, both under 13 years old, to secure his crown.

But in a research paper she presented to the Toronto chapter of the Richard III Society, ‘Why Shakespeare Sucks,’ Moorshead points out that in his history plays, Shakespeare has Richard killing off other rivals at the tender age of two-and-a-half.

Shakespeare’s Richard III is popular mostly because its subject is a perfect villain, a “bottled spider” and a “bunch-back’d toad.”

And while Ricardians say they do not want “to make a martyr out of a long-dead king,” they have raised evidence suggesting that Shakespeare and the historians he was reading all had a compelling reason to make a monster out of Richard – namely, the ruling Tudors who wanted it that way.

“Within 100 or so years after he died, historians were saying Richard III wasn’t like that,” said Sheilah O’Connor, a local librarian who joined Moorshead for the reinterment in Leicester.

“But they had to wait until after the Tudors were no longer on the throne.”

In 1619, historian George Buck kicked off the Ricardian movement with a book that detailed several good works in Richard’s short, two-year reign – opening courts to the poor, creating the first bail system, and having new laws published in writing – as well as his right to the throne.

In recent years, the Richard III Society helped to find the last four descendants of Richard III who carry the mitochondrial DNA needed to verify the king’s remains. The Society was also the largest single funder of the archeological dig in 2012.

Even now, in 2015, the debate over the medieval king’s legacy is still unfinished. In the lead-up to last month’s reinterment, a heading in the Daily Mail read, “It’s mad to declare this child killer a national hero.”

“That’s the Mail for you,” says O’Connor.

In Leicester, O’Connor saw plenty of signs that people are ready to put the debate aside.

There was the ‘Glasses Fit For a King’ sign outside a Leicester optician’s, and the “Richard’s roast” advertised outside local coffee shops.

O’Connor and a friend tried to get a seat in a pub serving Blue Boar Ale – the boar was Richard’s heraldic symbol, likely because Eboracum is the Latin name of York – but they couldn’t get a seat.

However, O’Connor did manage to find a seat in an even more sought-after spot – inside Leicester Cathedral during the unveiling of Richard’s new tomb.

“They had something like 14,000 people applying for 600 seats in the cathedral,” she said. “And I got one.”

It was actually O’Connor’s second golden ticket.

Before she flew to England, she got an email telling her to pack a hat and some polite conversation because after Richard III’s requiem concert, she would be meeting a living royal.

His Royal Highness Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is the first to take the title since King Richard III. For the last 35 years, he has also been the patron of the Richard III Society.

When O’Connor met him, she got to forgo any curtsies, but she was instructed to address him as “Your Royal Highness” before relaxing into a more casual, “Sir.”

Arriving a day before O’Connor,  Moorshead was in Leicester the day Richard III’s remains were carried by a horse-drawn funeral cortege that wound through town from the battlefield where he died to the place where he is now buried.

By the end of the day, she would see horses in full plate armour, and dozens of white Yorkist roses thrown over Richard’s imposing oak coffin.

But at six in the morning, when Moorshead was the first person waiting in Leicester Square, all she saw was rain.

“It was cold, cold for England,” she said.

She was glad for the Sainsbury’s grocery bag she brought to keep her dry.

Moorshead said she was amazed to see how many thousands of people stood out in the rain for a king who died more than 500 years ago. Organizers counted some 20,000 people walking past his coffin in the cathedral.

At the reinterment, when actor Benedict Cumberbatch read ‘Richard’ by UK poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, Moorshead said she could hear a pin drop.

“I’m still pinching myself,” she said.

“Also, to see how much news coverage there was over here was surprising.”

O’Connor agreed.

“A whole bunch more people know about Richard III, and that there’s a question about what he was really like,” she said.

“The more people talk about it, the more research is done.”

White roses, symbol of the royal house of York, are laid around the base of a statue showing King Richard III in Leceister during the lead-up to the medieval king’s re-internment at Leicester Cathedral.  Submitted photo
White roses, symbol of the royal house of York, are laid around the base of a statue showing King Richard III in Leceister during the lead-up to the medieval king’s reinterment at Leicester Cathedral.
Submitted photo

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