Richard III Reburial – Open the dressing-up box?

In what should have been a timely story [1], the BBC carried the item – Giving Richard III a reburial fit for a medieval king – suggesting that based upon research into the reconstruction of “how an authentic medieval reburial service should be conducted”, “[t]he first glimpse of how Richard III could be reburied has been revealed”. The author of the work, Dr Alexandra Buckle, is described as an expert in medieval music and liturgical adviser to the committee planning the reburial of Richard III. The basis for this work is outlined on her blog, in which she describes the ceremony used for Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, a contemporary of Richard III, who was reburied in 1475 nearly 40 years after his death.

In view of the associated theology, it is hardly surprising to learn that the reburial service was different from that of the initial burial [2] , and many of the elements of the Richard Beauchamp’s reburial service are still components of a present-day requiem mass: choirs; incense; sprinkling with holy water, although these are seldom followed by a banquet at which guests dine on capons, cygnets, herons and rabbits.

In an earlier post we noted the Press Release issued by Leicester Cathedral on 12th September which stated:

“If the identity of the remains is confirmed, Leicester Cathedral will continue to work with the Royal Household, and with the Richard III Society, to ensure that his remains are treated with dignity and respect and are reburied with the appropriate rites and ceremonies of the church.”

and a suggestion in the Catholic Herald that

“[t]he ‘appropriate’ rites would surely be a Catholic funeral with a full Requiem Mass, and only a Catholic church will do for Richard’s tomb.”

We described the requiem that was held for the sailors of Henry VIII’s ship, Mary Rose, which sank in the Solent in 1545. Although the sinking was post-Reformation it was before the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer at a time when the liturgy consisted of having lessons and some prayers read in English. The Catholic Herald reported the ecumenical approach to the requiem held in Portsmouth’s Anglican Cathedral, for which was decided to use the Sarum Rite – which is very similar to the Tridentine Rite of the Mass – and music by the contemporary composer John Tavener, who died in the year that the Mary Rose sank. (In that connexion it may be worth pointing out that the Provost of Portsmouth at the time, David Stancliffe, is both an eminent liturgical scholar and an early music specialist of note.)  However, it was necessary to seek the assistance of the Cathedral of the Advent, Alabama, US, to secure vestments similar to those used at funerals in the 16th century.


In a recent Nooks and Corners column in Private Eye, No.1351, 18-31 October, commenting on the proposed structural changes to Leicester Cathedral, ‘Piloti’ observed

“it is odd that so much passion has been engendered about which Anglican church should house the body of a medieval Catholic monarch who was scarcely a national hero or founding father. As far as the Dean and Chapter was concerned, what mattered was ‘the possibility of the cathedral and its surroundings becoming a tourist attraction,’”


“for all their ideas about dragging the cathedral into the 21st century, the Dean and Chapter are behaving like their superstitious medieval forbears, for every pre-Reformation cathedral needed a prominent shrine to rake in money from the pilgrims”.

A similar argument might be applied to the reconstruction of an “authentic” reburial service. As with the Cathedral’s proposed structural changes, which are now subject to further consideration following last month’s decision of the Cathedrals Fabrics Commission for England (CFCE), the back-stop is the relevant secular and ecclesiastical legislation.

On the conduct of the service, section 13, Burial Law Amendment Act 1880 c. 41, Relief of clergy of Church of England from penalties in certain cases, states

“It shall be lawful for any minister in holy orders of the Church of England authorised to perform the burial service, in any case where the office for the burial of the dead according to the rites of the Church of England may not be used, and in any other case at the request of the relative, friend, or legal representative having the charge of or being responsible for the burial of the deceased, to use at the burial such service .., as may be prescribed or approved of by the Ordinary, without being subject to any ecclesiastical or other censure or penalty.”

For the liturgy, since no provisions are included in the Book of Common Prayer or by the General Synod under Canon B 2, the form of service used will be subject to Canon B4: Of forms of service approved by the Convocations, Archbishops or Ordinary for use on certain occasions, and Canon B 38: B 38 Of the burial of the dead. In Liturgy, Order and the Law, [1996, Clarendon Press, Oxford], Bursell notes that despite the generality of para.2 of Canon B 5: Of the discretion of ministers in conduct of public prayer which states:

“The minister having the cure of souls may on occasions for which no provision is made in The Book of Common Prayer or by the General Synod under Canon B 2 or by the Convocations, archbishops, or Ordinary under Canon B 4 use forms of service considered suitable by him for those occasions and may permit another minister to use the said forms of service”,

in relation to burial, this must be read in conjunction with para.2 of Canon B 38, which requires the approval of the ordinary or General Synod. However, in the case of the reburial of Richard III, it would be unusual if the ordinary were not involved. More importantly, however would be a reference in prayers for the dead to the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory [3], which is contrary to Article XXII of the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion.

Clearly, a balance needs to be struck between designing a service of reburial for a Catholic former English king in an Anglican Cathedral in 2014, and the reconstruction of events more relevant to the time of his death in 1485. In February this year Digitalnun observed:

“Richard III knew neither the Novus Ordo nor the Tridentine rite, so I suppose a case can be made for the Sarum Rite or that of York, or even the Dominican Rite … currently used at Holy Cross Priory, Leicester, geographically closest to the place of original burial),”

pointedly adding

“I think Richard would want us to pray for his soul, however his remains are re-interred.”

[1] The judicial review, due to begin on 26 November 2013, was adjourned after judges decided Leicester City Council should also be a defendant in the case, rather than an interested party, and will resume in 2014.

[2] However, this is not reflected in present CofE canons, which merely refer to “burial”

[3] 14 Halsbury’s Laws of England (4th Edn) at para. 1044.