Monday 23 March 2015

Them Bones

The extraordinary brouhaha surrounding the reinterment of Richard III's bones in Leicester 'Cathedral'  shows that certain strains in the English character still thrive. We have a native genius for inventing pageantry, along with the rituals - and indeed the history - to support it; and a strong streak of sentimentality animates our enjoyment of a 'good show'. The events in Leicester at times seem weirdly reminiscent of the public mourning for Diana, but emptier and infinitely less understandable. Perhaps the Richard III business is essentially about 'putting Leicester on the map', but its apparent success is surely due to these deeper forces in the English character - and to the enduring place of Shakespeare in the public imagination. All of which is rather heartening, however little any of it has to do with the historical Richard, last of the bloodiest dynasty in England's history. Richard himself, whose crooked bones were found under a municipal car park, would surely be appalled at what is going on - partly because he would have wished to be buried in York, but largely because such scant provision has been made for his immortal soul: no chantry, no priest clearing the immense deficit of masses accrued in all those centuries in his unknown grave... For a clearer-eyed view of the whole thing, let us turn again to Geoffrey Hill -

Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings

For whom the possessed sea littered, on both shores,   
Ruinous arms; being fired, and for good,
To sound the constitution of just wars,
Men, in their eloquent fashion, understood.

Relieved of soul, the dropping-back of dust,   
Their usage, pride, admitted within doors;
At home, under caved chantries, set in trust,   
With well-dressed alabaster and proved spurs   
They lie; they lie; secure in the decay
Of blood, blood-marks, crowns hacked and coveted,   
Before the scouring fires of trial-day
Alight on men; before sleeked groin, gored head,   
Budge through the clay and gravel, and the sea   
Across daubed rock evacuates its dead.

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