I’m a bit baffled by the amount of fuss generated by plans to re-inter Richard iii’s exhumed remains. There’s something a little odd over Roman Catholics and Anglicans, or Leicester and York squabbling over the possession of the bones of a man widely alleged by many historians to have ordered the murder of his nephews. Child killing is not generally regarded as something to boast about in either Anglican or Roman traditions.
Leaving the actual squabble to one side, I do want to comment on the mistaken preconception which seems to lie at the heart of some of the “Roman Catholic or Anglican burial” bit of the debate. Although it mainly seems to be the coin peddled by conservative Roman Catholic bloggers, there’s also an example in today’s BBC report which seems to owe at least as much to the reporter as his interviewee:
Dr John Ashdown-Hill, from Colchester, has now entered the fray saying King Richard would want a Catholic burial. … according to Dr Ashdown-Hill, Richard was “a very religious man. There is a lot of evidence that Richard III had a very serious personal faith,” he said, though added it was impossible to know what Richard III would have made of plans for burial at a non-Catholic site at York or Leicester. If Richard III had not have died, maybe the Anglican church would never have existed,” he said.
The big “what if” in that final sentence is, like most such historical “what ifs”, pretty irrelevant to the “what is” of real history. In real history, the Catholic Church in England underwent a royally commanded, but academically and episcopally led and influenced, reformation in common with many places in Europe. All the first generation of “Anglicans” – a name not then in use – were Catholics who had hitherto owed obedience to the Pope.
The change in loyalty of thousands of hitherto more-or-less papally obedient Catholics, in England and across Europe, created a division which was unknown in Richard’s day. Until the dust of the Reformation settled down there were no such thing as Catholics in contradistinction to Protestants, or Roman Catholics as they are now known by Anglicans quite insistent on taking the “catholic” adjective seriously when reciting the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.
Richard was an English Catholic of the 15th century whether “a very religious man”, an ambitious child-killer, or even both. It is impossible to say whether he would have been a monarch on the side of evangelical reformation, or papalist continuity. Other English and European monarchs and princes took different stances. Because of that the claim that he should be regarded today as either Roman Catholic or Anglican is simply anachronistic, and bad history.
The precedent of the sailor from the Mary Rose seems regularly to get a mention in this context. That was done according to the Sarum rite (a local English variation of the pre-Tridentine Roman rite) but the requiem was celebrated by the Anglican Provost of Portsmouth, with participation from his Roman Catholic opposite number. That seems tacitly to acknowledge that Christians who later divided can co-operate rather than squabble over putting someone’s remains back in the earth when that someone predated the divisions that now exist. But perhaps when royalty is involved, there’s also been a long tradition of people losing their heads.