Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Medieval Funeral for a Medieval King?

I happily admit to taking a more than average interest in such matters, but I am really quite amazed at how much interest there seems to be in the recent discovery of the body of England's last Yorkist sovereign, King Richard III - including such unlikely venues as Bill Maher's Friday night show on HBO and a radio game show I caught part of while driving home from Church this morning. Of course, I suppose no one should be surprised that royalty fascinates - that's part of its purpose - and nowhere more perhaps than in a country constitutionally deprived of real royalty (and hence excessively devoted to every other form of celebrity). I admit I am surprised, however, by the level of interest in the question of where and how to re-bury the famous royal villain! (Richard was almost certainly not the villain Shakespeare, as Tudor apologist, made him out to be. But he was at best a usurper of his nephew's crown - and is still the most likely suspect in the murder of his two nephews,)
Then there is the argument being advanced in certain Catholic circles - including the British Catholic journal The Tablet - that the King, who, of course, lived and died before his Tudor rival's son's Reformation - should be buried in a Catholic Church. Frankly, I think that particular suggestion makes little sense. Modern British Catholic Churches are just that - modern. None of them existed in Richard's time. The logical place for him to be buried would be either in Westminster Abbey, where many medieval kings were buried (but no modern ones are) or else in an historic English Cathedral - preferably one with some connection to him or his family. Yorkminster might be a good choice in that respect. Apparently, however, the decision has already been made to bury him in Leicester Cathedral - in one sense an odd selection since it is in Lancastrian territory, but in another sense a choice that reflects the reality of where (and how) he died, in that it is walking distance from where he was originally interred.
On the other hand, a very valid case can - and should - be made for a Catholic funeral for Richard. Indeed, it seems almost like adding insult to injury to bury him accoridng to the rituals of the Church of England - a Church whose only reason for being created was to guarantee the Tudor dynasty's secure succession! A Catholic funeral in an Anglican (and formerly Catholic)  Cathedral would cover all the historical bases, so to speak, in a way which would be respectful of real history.
But what kind of a Catholic funeral? The contemporary Catholic rite would be even more unrecongizable to Richard than the Anglican one. Nor does the somewhat celebratory, pseudo-canonization character of the contemporary Catholic rite recommend it in this instance. What Richard really should get is a medieval funeral for a medieval king - i.e., a Sarum Rite Requiem.  (I read somewhere that the remains of the sailors of the Mary Rose received a Requiem in medieval England's Sarum Rite. If so, then there seems to be a precedent!)
It may or may not matter much to Richard himself at this point, but it would tie a lot of historical loose ends together and offer a fitting context for further discussion and renewed appreciation of the Medieval Church. Modern historians have long been challenging post- Reformation propaganda's calumnies againt the Medieval Church (a bit like Shakespeare's distorted portrait of Richard). As John W. O'Malley (Trent: What Happened at the Council, 2013) has recently written: "In fact, as historians have conclusively shown over the past fifty years, the situation was complex to a degree that defies summary and that challenges the negative stereotypes that still prevail in the popular media. ...It may be possible to judge the religious fervor of the age as misguided but impossible to deny its vitality and intensity."

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