Of Plantagenets, and people, and patriotism
These things presage the death or fall of Kings…
Well, I confess – that’s actually a line from Shakespeare’s Richard II, but it seemed appropriate to the day. I spent last Sunday joining a surprising number of people to see the funeral cortege of Richard III, who died on the battlefield of Bosworth, about ten miles from where I now live, in 1485, and whose mortal remains were rediscovered buried under what is now a council car park in the middle of Leicester some three years ago.
I’m not a great monarchist; in fact, it’s an issue I’m quite neutral on. If this country chose to become a Republic, I wouldn’t be weeping and wailing and gnashing my teeth. But we have the system we have, and I’ll go along with that for the time being. I certainly wasn’t one of those people who went into deep mourning over Diana, Princess of Wales, and I would never been seen with a copy of Royalty magazine. But the British monarchy does have a back-stop role in the (unwritten) British constitution. I’ll give you a f’rinstance…
Come with me down Memory Lane, to the 1982 Tory Party conference. In that conference, the then Secretary of State for Defence, “here today, gone tomorrow” John Nott (as my namesake Sir Robin Day once famously addressed him in a tv interview that was very shortly afterwards terminated in a fit of pique) spoke about the British recapture of the Falkland Islands, and exhorted the conference to “congratulate our wonderful fighting forces and their leader, Margaret Thatcher”. At their following Tuesday meeting, the Prime Minister was informed very firmly by the Queen that Mrs. Thatcher was not the leader of Britain’s fighting forces; she was.
And whilst it would be entirely possible to devise a method to ensure that a President worthy of the position of Head of State could be elected, just looking at all the options we’ve had over the past thirty or forty years of those who might have aspired to the job gets pretty depressing: President Blair, President Major, President Kinnock, President-for-Life Thatcher! And our own version of President Kennedy would have been something of a disaster…
So when I heard that the funeral cortege of Richard III would be passing the end of my road, at first I was fairly unimpressed. I’d seen the stories about the rediscovery of his mortal remains and followed them with a degree of historical and archaeological interest; but the reburial wasn’t something that I thought I’d want to participate in, even as an observer.
But when I posted this question online, an old friend of mine who is a staunch Ricardian begged me to take pictures for her. (Mind you, that might have been because it saved her the conflict of interest in trying to decide whether to come to Leicester or watch the Manchester United vs. Liverpool football match, in which she also has a great partisan interest.) At first, I thought I’d just go to the end of the road, take the pictures and then come home again. But as details emerged, it turned out that the coffin would be being transported in a modern hearse along this main road; hardly a fantastic photo opportunity. The procession, with the coffin on a horse-drawn carriage, would only be through the centre of Leicester. I toyed with the idea of going into Leicester itself; but that would involve getting into town, parking up and then contending with potentially large crowds to get the best position to get useable pictures. Finally, I hit on a far more interesting plan; I’d go to one of the villages on the route of the cortege. The coffin was to be taken to the Bosworth battlefield, where Richard fell, and then be taken on a progress through Leicestershire, calling at various villages with a connection to the battle en route before arriving in Leicester for the cathedral service.
I finally settled on visiting Dadlington, partly because there was going to be an open-air service on the village green, partly because some of those who fell in the battle are buried (in a common, unmarked grave) in the churchyard, but mainly because I have a friend who lives in the neighbouring village, and where I might be able to park my car and possibly have a drink with afterwards. Except that he’s an airline pilot, and it turned out that he was away on the day. So it goes. But the day dawned bright anyway, one of the few properly spring-like days we’ve had so far, so this still seemed like a good plan.
As I approached the village, it became clear that a large number of people were converging on it. Cars were parked on the side of the road and there were a large number of cyclists and pedestrians heading for Dadlington from possibly two miles away. I was able to park on a school playing field especially set aside for the purpose, and then started to walk into the village along with many others. Eventually, we congregated at one corner of the village green, where it became quite clear that many others had had the same idea. I happened to be standing next to a mixture of locals and a group of Ricardians – identifiable by their white rose buttonholes – who seemed to have come from across the country and met up to come to Dadlington. One of their number had come up from Twickenham, and the others had come from equally far afield.
Although Richard III died more than five hundred years ago, there are still people in Britain who consider that he has had a poor deal from history. Most people’s knowledge of Richard comes from the Shakespeare play, which paints him as a villain. But Shakespeare was a) writing about a hundred years later, and b) was looking for patronage from the monarch of his day, Elizabeth I, who was the grand-daughter of the man who deposed Richard, Henry Tudor (later Henry VII). And the accusation that he murdered, or ordered the murder, of his nephews who were next in line to the throne – the “Princes in the Tower” – is an accusation, nothing more. So the image that has come down to us of Richard III is coloured by later politics; and even if we take Shakespeare as a broadly accurate relater of events, that would do little more than show us that medieval monarchs were not exactly paragons of virtue at the best of times. There is an active Richard III Society, which works to examine the contemporary historical record, and was responsible for the search for his remains, as it was known where he was buried, but the location of that building had since been lost. There are also people who hold the traditional British value of “support for the underdog”, who support Richard the way other people support football teams. And as Richard died in the deciding battle of the Wars of the Roses, the dynastic civil war that contended which of two powerful and regionally-located families, the House of Lancaster or the House of York, would hold the Crown, you can see how the conditions for some good old tribal rivalry could be created.
Anyway, we stood in the sun on the corner of Dadlington village green for about half an hour. We couldn’t see where the planned religious service was to be held, and the buzz of conversation drowned out whatever PA system the organisers had set up. The first thing we knew that something was happening was when a police motorcyclist drew up in front of us; within a couple of minutes, the heads of two mounted knights in armour became visible over the crowd. They were leading the cortege, and so stood for the five minutes or so that the outdoor service took. Then they slowly moved off, and almost immediately behind them came the hearse, with the plain coffin inside. It moved slowly past, turning the final corner of the village green before dropping down the hill and out of the village on its way to the next location.
And that was it.
The people standing around me, even the Ricardians, weren’t cheering, or applauding. They were like me; curious about this event, and perhaps motivated by a sense of history. After all, it’s not every day that the remains of a medieval monarch get paraded through your streets; and I suppose that a sense of history is one of the indicators of Britishness. Now, just as I’m fairly neutral on the monarchy, I’m equally neutral over patriotism. Whilst I take pleasure in my Britishness when it’s expressed through an appreciation of our history, or our technical and scientific achievements, I’m not proprietorial over it. I don’t feel the need to wrap myself in the flag, or to loudly shout about “my country” – I don’t own any of it, I just identify with it. And equally, I recognise a shared European heritage and culture – much to the disgust of some people, I am happy to assert that we are also Europeans, with a shared culture and a language with clear and identifiable European – in fact, Indo-European – roots.
But there was certainly no histrionics, no weeping, and only a very few people threw white rose petals – anyway, if people want to throw rose petals, why shouldn’t they?
The crowds were so big that I knew that if I went straight back to the car, I wouldn’t be able to get out of the car park very quickly, so I instead chose to have a look around the village. I bought a locally-sourced sausage in a not-so-locally-sourced bun; I took some photographs of the village green, and I then went to look at the church. Visitors were queueing out of the door, so I restricted myself to a look around the outside. The church is on a bit of a prominence, and from the edge of the churchyard it was possible to look out over the rolling countryside towards Market Bosworth across the land that was contested in the battle. (Recent archaeology has suggested that the area currently identified as the Bosworth Battlefield, with its Visitor Centre, may not be the actual battlefield. But it was almost certainly somewhere in the land visible from Dadlington.) And then I spent some time watching some Morris dancers. Morris has had a bit of a bad press in recent years, because to our modern eyes it looks a little ridiculous. But why should this worry us? The British are noted for a slightly off-the-wall sense of humour, so why should it bother us that a group of men (and sometimes women) choose to dress in traditional costume and dance? There are those who are fond of saying to recent immigrants “Respect Our Culture!” Well, it might help if they practised what they preached. Morris dancing is our culture, it has ancient roots in the pagan religion practised in these islands before Christianity came, and it should be respected by anyone who chooses to call themselves ‘British’ or ‘English’.
The funeral cortege, meanwhile, made its roundabout way into Leicester for a service in the Cathedral preparatory to re-interment of Richard III on Thursday. A number of people have looked at the coverage of this and concluded that it was a meaningless, touristy, bread-and-circuses diversion; and certainly some of the television coverage, especially with some of the talking heads, seemed a bit over the top. But out in the villages where ordinary Englishmen engaged in civil strife and died on the land they worked, it seemed very real. In our modern technological age, when our lives seem very detached from physical matters of soil, and kin, and growing or making things, we need reminders of the basics of life. Richard III’s funeral cortege was one such reminder.
(This link takes you to the Ralph McTell song Red and Gold – performed here by Fairport Convention in 1990 – which although it concerns itself with the later Civil War between King and Parliament, expresses many of the same sentiments, and indeed was in my mind whilst I was walking around Dadlington. Cropredy in Oxfordshire, where Fairport hold their annual festival, is similar to Dadlington and indeed was the site of a Civil War battle. I find it a very moving song, in part because it speaks of these fundamental matters.)