Back home and my energy and bank balance are exhausted after Leicester and York last week. The ‘street’ feeling in Leicester was unbelievable, the city packed with visitors and well-wishers, Richard’s cortege applauded and strewn with white roses as it passed. The James Butler statue, cleaned and re-endowed with its original full-length sword, found itself surrounded by a mounting heap of floral tributes.
I didn’t attend many of the services, but of those I did, I found Bishop Tim Stevens spoke the most sense. Where others waffled, Bishop Tim came straight out and said we’re talking about a mediaeval king here, what do we know of his times and his challenges? Precisely the issue I struggle with myself. Rushing to judgement seems to be a leftover from the Victorians that remains alive and well today, even with the internet and libraries so easily accessible to those who wish to inform themselves.
I had the privilege of meeting General Sir Richard Dannatt at the reburial. It occurred to me that in his profession, where lives are in jeopardy on a daily basis, he would probably understand his namesake better than any of us. Few people, from the comfort of their armchairs, care to imagine the terrible reality of kill or be killed.
Being at the tail-end of quite a long life, I find it difficult to reconcile myself to the minimalist approach to anointed royalty. In Britain we’ve always had proud traditions of wheeling out centuries-old ceremonial complete with the full panoply of horse-drawn coaches, military parades and regalia. Was it a deliberate judgement on a figure from the past whose reputation has been decided by the media? (‘Psychopathic child-killer’, blared the BBC’s Today programme on 20 March.) Or was it that our long-lost king must conform to aesthetic standards exemplified by the cathedral’s impersonal makeover, complete with exterior art installation that no one seemed to look at, let alone understand?
The Butler statue depicted a human person, and attracted flowers. Is there something wrong with that? The Reformation destroyed and whitewashed out some sublime works of art. Are we doomed to repeat this all over again? OK, de gustibus non est disputandum. The dean wanted to go down in history: let history decide.
Those very few echoes of the 15th century that weren’t vetoed were, to my mind, the most affecting aspects of Richard’s last journey. At Bosworth, though slashed to the bone, the small procession eventually permitted was reverential and emotive. At the kerb-side in Leicester, if you asked anyone what impressed them most, my guess would be the two mounted and authentically harnessed knights who flanked the gun-carriage. How moving it was to see them stand guard at the cathedral doors as Richard made his lonely entry, unaccompanied by anyone whose care it was to mourn him.