Maybe I’m missing something but I just don’t get it. I watched incredulously the scenes from Leicester as thousands of people lined the streets and waited for the passing of a coffin with the bones of a dead king who died over 500 years ago.
I do appreciate history and wished that I’d taken it for my O-levels, (younger readers ask your parents or grandparents!) whilst at school but was badly advised by the careers master who said I should keep my options open and do a broad range of subjects. Consequently I did miserably in physics and GED (Geometrical and Engineering Drawing) when I would have loved to have done art and history. I did however do drama and should have known a little bit more about the king as I played the part of Brackenbury, standing on stage as the school theatre curtains opened to Act 1, Scene 1 of Richard III. I remember Gloucester’s opening lines of the play, more than those of my part, Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York or as a clever advertising slogan had it back in Middleborough outside a camping shop “Now is the winter of our discount tents made glorious summer by this sun in York”.
I vaguely remember that other famous line from the play, My horse, my horse, my kingdom for a horse. Therein lies my knowledge of this king for whom thousands are paying homage, lining the streets of Leicester, queuing for hours just to look at the wooden box with his remains in it. He has been bestowed with honour by our present Queen, had a military fly past and the Archbishop of Canterbury has led the prayers at his second burial service.
I don’t think I’d queue for hours, as many have done to catch sight of the coffin. I’d hardly manage to queue for more than four hours to get tickets to watch Middlesbrough in the cup final!
The thing that I just don’t get is why such homage is paid to a dead king. Maybe he is a fine example, an inspirational figure? You don’t hear much in the news about Leicester, apart form the fact that they may be relegated from the football Premiership soon, so maybe the media attention that has been focused for the last two years since the discovery of the king’s remains, can help the city project itself positively and boost its economic prospects. Well a little digging (excuse the pun) has me even more puzzled; Richard was a king of very dubious character, a murderer, a scheming villain who, (and now this bit is coming back to me from my appearance in medieval costume which included teal covered tights and what resembled a tamo-shanter on my head!) King Richard ordered Brackenbury, who was in charge of the Tower of London, to kill his nephews and thus have no rivals to his throne.
Richard the III was a Machiavellian character who rose to power by bloody means and exercised his short reign with brutality and violence. So why on earth are we celebrating and making such a big thing of his life? He has been afforded the privilege of a burial in a cathedral, lying in state and all this to be buried a second time.
I confess to a mixture of amusement and puzzlement as several in the crowds bowed their heads and spoke to one another in hushed tones of reverence. Everyone should be afforded a decent burial but its hard to justify two!
And what an odd person to celebrate. I can’t think of anything other than horror at recalling his life but then again, consumer society will sensationalise anything and no doubt there’ll be a string of “exclusives”. And as for Leicester, surely there are better icons, other figures in the cities history to be celebrated and to draw inspiration from?
Among the contenders would surely have to be George Fox, an English dissenter and founder of the Society of Friends, the Quakers. Fox was a 17th Century Leicester Weaver and lived in a time of social upheaval and war. Civil strife between royalist and parliamentary forces was rife. Through Fox, God raised up a movement of the Holy Spirit that embraced and demonstrated strong elements of holiness, religious freedom, inclusive and participatory worship, integrity in business, social justice in wider society and peace and reconciliation. Fox and other pioneers of the movement often suffered persecution from the church and state who disapproved of their beliefs and practices. However, their influence and growth as a movement paved the way for religious tolerance and the freedom of worship. Surely in the 21st Century multi-ethnic society with many expressions of different faiths, Fox would be a more fitting person to commemorate.
How Britain now could do with heroes who are standard bearers of morality and ethical behaviour in private life and in the public domain. In an age of hypocrisy, spin, manipulation, violence, in a world that is witnessing a renaissance of tribalism and conflict within and between nations, a movement that promotes peace and reconciliation, tolerance and good neighbourliness is surely worth considering.
Other contenders who might deserve more honour than a vicious child-killing king, would be William Carey, founder of the Baptist Missionary Society, the father of modern missions whose work blessed hundreds of thousands of people through education, social reforms and in Bible translation.
Or what about Hugh Latimer who was one of the three Oxford martyrs. An influential preacher, an earnest student of the Bible, he encouraged the scriptures to be known in English by all citizens. His sermons emphasised that we should serve God with a true heart and inward affection and not just an outward show of religiosity. He was renowned for caring work among prisoners. He refused to believe than any one man, Pope or any other, carried authority for the church and he refuted the mass as a means of salvation and as a consequence was burned at the stake in Oxford for his beliefs.
Thomas Cook, another Leicester citizen, was arguably the most famous person from the city, who effectively invented tourism. A legacy of travel agents, glossy brochures, websites and package tours, Cook instigated a peaceful movement of people travelling the world not for war but in peace, surely a better person than that of a child killer?
Una Stubbs would be among my choices as someone to commemorate and celebrate. She’s currently one of the television presenters on The Big Painting Challenge. She comes across as a really lovely lady; empathetic, encouraging, bright and cheerful, surely far better than a scheming, plotting, insecure, vengeful king.
Or what about Leicester Tigers? As my good friend, a Leicester man has just pointed out, they are the most successful English Rugby Union Club of all time, supplier of many many great International players, the greatest number of supporters of any club in England (other clubs best home gates of the season are usually when the Tigers are in town). Who could not mention Dean Richards, The Underwood brothers, as well as the current crop of England players. But really Chris, could Dean Richards be the new iconic figure for such a great city?
There is also a piece within me that feels that as one commentator puts it “Royals still trump commoners”. There’s an insatiable appetite and blinkedness behind our royalty obsessed culture. And I’m not saying this as a particularly anti-royalist but we must not be blind to the plight of ordinary citizens, and particularly the needs of the poor. Such attitudes that bestow honour on the rich and famous, wealthy and influential, economically, politically and militarily strong is dangerous and negates the cry of ordinary people, notably the poor. We still in the main bestow honour on the rich and famous, with token gestures of Honours being awarded to ordinary citizens whilst the celebrities and the powerful gather fame and reputation and the adulation of the crowds.
As I look at the scenes from Leicester and all the paraphernalia concerning a dubious past monarch and all that it conveys about British society my mind in contrast recalls that breathtakingly brilliant creative, inclusive and representative opening at London Olympics opening could not be more stark.
That was a truer and more appropriate commemoration of British history, where among the undoubted role kings and other monarchs have played, the contribution of ordinary citizens was remembered and celebrated.
And as a final thought for Easter; why all the fuss about a dead king, whose bones will now reside and rot away in an ossuary when there is a King who died but who rose again, whose resurrection should really be making the headlines. Now that is cause for celebration!
Christ is risen: He’s risen indeed!