The headline on this particular "WorldViews" feature in The Washington Post was crisp and to the point: "Was King Richard III a bad guy?" The problem, of course, is that there are at least three different ways to read those final two words.
Are we asking if he was a "bad guy," in the sense of playing the role of the villain in a mystery play? Or are we asking if he was simply "bad" in the sense that he wasn't good at what he did. Was he a bad, as in ineffective, king? Or maybe -- since much of the historical curiosity about Richard III is linked to his faith, his alleged deeds and his dynasty -- is the question whether or not he was "bad," in terms of being a sinner?
Here's the overture of the piece (sorry to be getting to this after the event itself):
The remains of England's King Richard III, who died in battle more than five centuries ago, will be re-interred ... at Leicester Cathedral. The planned burial has dominated headlines in Britain, where the fate of the late monarch's bones has been a source of national fascination since they were dug up in a Leicester parking lot in 2012 and identified using DNA testing a year later.
Richard III was slain in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field, a moment immortalized by Shakespeare. In Richard III, the cornered king senses his own doom. "I have set my life upon a cast,/ And I will stand the hazard of the die," he intones, and then famously cries out: "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse." But Richard never escaped on a trusted steed and was, instead, cut down by the soldiers of his rival, Henry Tudor, whose descendants would be Shakespeare's royal patrons.
Now, this piece has plenty of "Game of Thrones" style details in it. That's OK. What I was surprised to see was that it contained absolutely nothing about Richard III being a Catholic, in this era right before the Reformation changed the destiny of the Church of England.
I was surprised by this because I had, frankly, been rather pleased to see the amount of ink spilled on the religion angles of this story in many news outlets. If you wish, surf about in the following Google News pool and you'll see what I am talking about.
I think that it helped that Anglican and Catholic leaders were so upfront and cooperative, when it came to dealing with pivotal nature of Richard III and his demise. Then they worked together to produce events linked to the funeral that made it clear that both churches were involved in this dramatic story.
This led to some really fine coverage, such as the Religion News Service piece on the funeral details, written by Trevor Grundy. The key question in looking at all of these stories: Do the Franciscans play a role? As in:
Richard was the last king of England to die in battle while attempting to defend his throne from Henry VII. The latter went on to establish the Tudor dynasty, whose most memorable monarch was Henry VIII.
After the battle, Richard’s remains were hastily buried by Franciscan monks.
That adds an interesting detail to the much-covered story of the discovery and verification of the king's remains. It also adds a nice detail to some of the remarks of Cardinal Vincent Nichols, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales:
Nichols said offering a Requiem Mass for the repose of the soul of Richard III was “a profound and essential Christian duty” and that it is what the former king of England would have wanted.
Richard III, who died nearly 50 years before the English Reformation, was a devout Catholic.
The cardinal raised smiles among members of the large congregation when he said that we live in an age “when saints become villains and villains become saints.”
There was one reference in this simple story that puzzled me. When we talk about believers going on pilgrimage, isn't that usually to a site linked to the life and relics of saints? If that is the case, what do we make of this?
Now some speculate that Leicester could replace Canterbury as the hottest Christian pilgrimage spot in England.
How could that possibly be true, in light of the historic nature of Canterbury for centuries of pilgrims? Or are we talking about, well, "pilgrims" with quote marks? That is implied, methinks, by the word "hottest" in front of the phrase "Christian pilgrimage spot."
But has anyone suggested in any way that Richard III might literally become a saint? Does anyone plan to visit his grave and pray there, as oppose to meditate on the lessons learned in an age when the game of thrones was real?