Expert Comment: Hello, Goodbye: Reburying Richard IIIMonday 30 March 2015
Senior Lecturer in Sociology Dr Michael Brennan reflects on the reburial of Richard III.
The discovery of the remains of King Richard III - the last Plantagenet King of England - in a car park in Leicester in 2013 by a team of archaeologists from Leicester University is a truly remarkable story that has understandably generated world-wide media interest. Last Thursday drew a line under the story, as King Richard's remains were interred in Leicester Cathedral, marked by a panoply of ceremonial events that began the Sunday before, when King Richard's remains began their journey from Leicester University (where they had been kept since their discovery), through Bosworth Field (the site of his death in battle), to Leicester Cathedral (where his remains were placed in 'repose' for members of the public to pay their final respects before being committed to the ground in a crypt in a public, televised event).
With the exception of the latter - a first for an English monarch, the ceremonial events surrounding Richard III's reinterment were rather less remarkable than the discovery of his remains and the subsequent revelations yielded by their forensic analysis - about his diet, his physical appearance, and the precise manner of his death. Perhaps this is partly because we have, in recent decades, become accustomed to the revival of public mourning ritual, after a period in the middle of 20th century when death - and the ritual and talk surrounding it - had been comprehensively hidden from public view.
Less public mourning of the emotional and spontaneous sort seen following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997, than detached observance and participation in medieval pageant meets postmodern media spectacle, the ceremonial events surrounding Richard III's reinterment nevertheless looked remarkably familiar in other ways to those following Diana's death: the throwing of flowers in front of the cortege as it made its way through city streets thronged with bystanders; the multi-cultural composition of the 'mourners'; and the media tendency for hyperbole and use of vox pop interviews with members of the assembled public. There were similarities too among some dissenting voices who objected to what they perceived as a revisionist account of history by which Richard III was effectively rehabilitated in public perception, transformed from the reviled figure of Shakespearian play to an object of veneration that serves as a boon to Leicester's tourist industry. Controversial historian and professional antagonist, David Starkey - who called the whole event a 'whitewash' - was to Richard III's ceremonial send-off what Christopher Hitchens was to Diana's.
Alongside the reburial of the remains of Richard III, another event - the solar eclipse, the first of the 21st century - captured the public's imagination in March 2015. Both events illustrate the human desire to part of something bigger than ourselves, be it the solar system or the long march of history: to insert ourselves within an event and to narrate our biographies and our experiences in relation to it - the 'I was there' phenomenon, replete with 'selfie' to document it and share with others. This tells us something significant about individuals and society in the late modern period: that history and events bigger than ourselves matter but that they are processed and understood through modern media and present-day mindset. That death was viewed differently in the late medieval period has been documented by historians, who have illustrated how the dead and dying were routinely taunted and mocked by their survivors - the humiliation wounds inflicted upon Richard III are fitting testimony.
The brief 'hello' by which we have been re-introduced to Richard III, and the ceremonial 'goodbye' by which we have restored the 'dignity' to the last English monarch killed in battle, are, then, a very peculiar product of modern forensics and postmodern sensibilities, in which the past is refracted through the present.
Senior Lecturer in Sociology