On Richard III of England, reputation and ceremony

Another historic day, another display of colourful if at times puzzling pageantry. The ever-present 24-hour social media revealed the English city of Leicester as having ground to a halt yesterday, as the cortege containing the remains of Richard III of England was transferred along the streets to the Cathedral. The actual burial service there is scheduled for this Thursday. It is worth purposefully giving the former king’s title a geographical suffix, as too many journalists tend still to forget that Richard lived in a time before the various Acts of Union, and so was monarch of England only.

It has certainly been an interesting day for tweet-watching. Some of those tweeting the event had difficulty getting the monarchical annotation right – making it look like we were watching a ceremony about King Richard the 111th. Leicestershire Police’s chief constable Simon Cole pronounced the event “unbelievable, wonderful, emotional”, while another commentator complained on Facebook that the whole affair was an “undignified, money-grabbing pantomime” – although it is worth pointing out that the commentator in question had previously campaigned for the ex-king to be buried in York rather than Leicester.


I remember the furore surrounding the discovery of the last Yorkist king’s skeleton in September 2012, when the clamour began for him to have a proper state funeral. I casually remarked on Facebook how few child-killers have ever had that privilege before, and was soon assailed with angry ripostes from friends, acquaintances, and strangers who just happened to supporters of the Richard III Society. With the discovery of their hero’s body after its five-century disappearance they were even more determined than ever to pin the blame for the murder of the Princes on the Tower on Henry Tudor/the Duke of Buckingham/the Man on the Grassy Knoll…everyone and anyone, it seemed, except for Good Uncle Richard – even though he had access to the boys, was the next in line to the throne, and failed to produce them when so petitioned. It is, to say the least, curious that Richard is one of just two former English heads of state to have his own official “fan club” – the other being Oliver Cromwell.

My point was that, even if you do leave out the histrionics of Shakespeare’s play, the man’s reputation was so damaged that there really was little, if any, point in trying to rescue it, whatever his achievements. The same is true of Cromwell. While there is considerably more doubt over claims that he targeted civilians in his massacres in Drogheda and Wexford, thanks to the scholarship of the Drogheda historian Tom Reilly, it hardly makes up for his other transgressions in Ireland – like crop burnings and land seizures throughout most of the country east of the Shannon. The cause of rescuing the reputation of England’s only republican head of state is effectively a lost one, at least as far as his impact on Ireland is concerned.

Then again, reputation and the historical record are never always comfortable bedfellows. Naive tourists visiting Northern Ireland are often given to wondering what members of the Loyal Orders would think if they knew that William of Orange owed much of his success in his campaign against James II in Ireland to a good deal of support from (of all people) Pope Innocent XI. The then conflict in Ireland was part of a Europe-wide power struggle, in which William was at near-permanent war with Louis XIV of France – and the Bourbon monarch was the Pontiff’s deadly foe at the time. As in many wars, before and since, it was a case of “My enemy’s enemy is my friend.” The tourists in question, however, need to wise up – as however often this irony has been pointed out to Orangemen it still has not stopped, and will not stop, them from marking the Twelfth as a time to celebrate their religious and civil liberties. The tradition pretty much transcends historical accuracy. King Billy’s reputation as Defender of the Protestant faith is what the revellers want to focus on – rather than the fine print of how his foreign policy was worked out.

Likewise, the fact that some of the leading figures of the 1798 Rising, such as Napper Tandy and Arthur O’Connor, were megalomaniacal drunks is unlikely to prevent republicans from lionising them and their work. Their reputation as among the first Irish Republicans, and therefore automatically qualifying for hero status among today’s republicans, is likely to outlast any other consideration of them and their lives.

It may be that yesterday’s ceremony in Leicester could, in a strange kind of way, improve Richard III’s reputation in a way that his eponymous Society could never hope to do so on their own. One couple vox-popped on BBC Radio Leicester immediately after the event told the interviewer how the day had made them proud to live in Leicester and proud to be English. Ceremony and spectacle have that effect. From Leicester to Portadown to Belfast to Derry, pageantry and processions work wonders in instilling pride and awe, and nudging tangential (and sometimes inconvenient) details such as historical fact to one side.