Make No Bones About It

A dispute, it would seem, has broken out between York and Leicester over the rights to bones that were recently discovered and reputed to belong to Richard III. The Yorkists naturally base their claim on Richard being one of them, whereas the bones were found in Leicester, and ownership is, as the saying goes, nine-tenths of the law.

The new Mr Popular
The new Mr Popular

Strange such a squabble should erupt over a man whose most endearing fame are the speeches given to him by Shakespeare, the ‘winter of our discontent’ and all that business about a horse. What kind of king Richard would have made will never be known because he was literally unhorsed by Henry Tudor barely two years into his reign. This, of course, after the disappearance of his nephews, who may or may not have met their untimely end at his hands. The only thing certain after his brother Edward IV ate himself to death is that Richard had a slew of people executed and his nephews bastardized, none of which contributed to his popularity. His alienation of practically everyone of importance ensured his support would melt away the minute he was challenged in the field.
     Withal, we have his bones and they have yielded a reconstructed face that oddly enough looks a lot like the famous portrait we already have of him. Who will get his dusty reminders and what kind of elaborate ceremony will be planned to inter them under the media spotlight remains to be seen.
     So how did Richard end up in Leicester anyway? After meeting his end in Bosworth, his body was stripped, displayed on the back of a horse, and buried in an unmarked grave. Leicester at that time was part of the House of Lancaster, the mortal enemies of the Yorkists during the Wars of the Roses, and to hold on to Richard’s remains seems rather peevish if the Yorkists want him back. Leicester, they should argue, would do well to go digging around for one of their own, for it had been an independent earldom before Henry III seized it from the Montfort family and combined it with several other domains to eventually form the dukedom of Lancaster. The last real earl of Leicester, Simon de Montfort, was killed at Evesham by Henry’s son, the future Edward I, after leading a rebellion against the king, one that made great strides forward in parliamentary democracy.
     At Evesham, Montfort’s body was hacked apart in a sacrilege unheard of even in medieval times. Edward, fearing he had created a blood feud between his family and the Montforts (who were, after all, related just as the Lancastrians and Yorkists were), had what remains he could find of Montfort buried in the abbey at Evesham. The reports of miracles being performed at his tomb (more than 200 were recorded) led Henry to order the remains dug up and buried in secret somewhere in the vicinity. Where remains a mystery today. Leicester, however, has shown unwillingness to trumpet Montfort as one of their own, apart from naming the local university after him. Partly, it has to do with the Great Irony.Montfort was a born and bred Frenchman who came to England in his twenties to seek his fortune. Leicester was his by right of inheritance but for the rest of the English nobility, he was always an outsider, an alien. The irony of his rebellion was that the English language made a revival in the political machinery of government, and the locals venerated his efforts to reform a wasteful and capricious monarchy, even if the king and other barons did not.
     The other problem for Leicester is the continuing debate over Montfort and the Jews. After getting the family domains back in 1231, Montfort expelled the handful of Jewish families living in Leicester at that time. Officially he did it for the good of his soul, an act of Christian piety quite familiar in those days, but it was also an act of patronage for his newfound tenants who were fed up with the ruinous business of usury. The leading scholar of the day, Robert Grosseteste, was also eager for the Jewish community to give up usury and find a trade, even if anti-Semitism made that impossible, and gave his support to Montfort’s act. In the end, these Jewish families crossed the border within Leicester to the side controlled by Montfort’s aunt. There they would remain until Edward I expelled all the Jews from the realm in 1290.

Richard and the merc
Richard and the merc

None of this compares to what happened to the Jews of Lincoln under Henry III in 1254, when 18 were executed for refusing to allow a Christian jury to hear charges against them for blood libel; or to those of York under Richard I, when his coronation turned into an orgy of murder. So while Henry enjoys a gilded tomb in Westminster Abbey and Richard holds up a mighty sword in front of Parliament, Simon gets short shrift in Leicester because they are afraid to deal honestly with the events that took place there in the 13th century. Somebody brings up anti-Semitism in Leicester and the automatic response is, ‘Oh yes, Simon de Montfort was an anti-Semite.’ And that’s that.
     This kind of ill-informed debate has now descended on Richard’s bones, because he was not an actor churning out fine speeches about ‘all the clouds that lour’d upon our house.’ He was one of several bloody, ruthless, ambitious players in a civil war between two families, an abominable period in the history of England that did nothing to better the political institutions or the lives of ordinary people. Leicester should be eager to give his bones away and instead go looking for those of one of their own, a man who, though he was perhaps as bloody, ruthless and ambitious as the rest, nevertheless changed England and the English forever.

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