The Reinterment of the King: Why Richard III is being buried live on TV

Historian Philippa Gregory on the 15th-century monarch who is getting a royal re-burial after 500 years in a makeshift grave...

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On August 21 1485 the warrior King Richard III rode out of the small medieval town of Leicester to confront an invasion force led by Henry Tudor – a remote claimant to his throne who had never fought in a pitched battle. Richard, dressed in finely worked armour, must have ridden his war horse with grim confidence through the quiet streets of the town. He was the ordained king of England, he had defeated one rebellion, the other, better, claimants to the throne had mysteriously disappeared and the country had accepted his rule on the death of his brother Edward IV.

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What happened at the battle was an unexpected turn of fortune, masterminded by Margaret Beaufort, the determined mother of the 28-year-old Henry Tudor. Her husband, Thomas, Lord Stanley, changed sides and swept his private army against the king he had sworn to support, cutting Richard down as he made the last cavalry charge of an English king on English soil.

Richard’s words were not a fearful yell for a horse to get him away (as Shakespeare, a Tudor propagandist, wrote) but showed his horrified understanding that he had been betrayed. Tudor historian Polydore Vergil records him as saying: Treason! Treason! Treason!”

The crown on his helmet was ripped off and presented to the victor. Richard was stripped of armour, battered and stabbed, and buried without ceremony. The whereabouts of his grave was then forgotten as Henry Tudor marched on London, where he spent the remainder of his reign defending his throne against pretenders claiming to be the rightful heirs.

That would have been the end of this monarch’s story, but for determined historians who, in August 2012, found his body in a car park in Leicester. Now, 530 years after his death, Richard III is to have a magnificent reburial in Leicester Cathedral – neither in his family vault at Fotheringay, nor at the minister of York where he planned an expensive chantry, and certainly not in a language or form he would recognise.

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Richard was a pious Roman Catholic, with all services in Latin. But Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, will lead one of these three services this week. More than 14,000 people applied for the 600 places available to the public at those special services, which are spread over five days.