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March 26, 2013 – Reinterment of Richard III…and a Nod to Thomas Wolsey

Original Burial of Richard III, by Hezekiah Butterworth (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

After the wonderful reception to his last guest post (about the execution of Jane Grey – you can read it here), I have invited back David Field for another of his takes! David is a writer of historical fiction who is coming out with six Tudor-era novels this year (for you mystery lovers, he already has a great series – the Esther and Jack Enright Mysteries). Hope you enjoy – and there are more details about him following the post…

Two Leicester Graves – Two Eras of History

Today marks the sixth anniversary of the re-interment, in Leicester Cathedral, of the mortal remains of Richard III.  The Archbishop of Canterbury officiated, and in keeping with the pomp and ceremony appropriate to the occasion the congregation was studded with dignitaries, obscure relatives of the last Yorkist monarch, and stars of the entertainment world, including two famous actors who had portrayed him in recent film dramas of his life.  A right royal send-off for the much-maligned loser of the Battle of Bosworth whose body had been thrown unceremoniously into a grave at the former Greyfriars Priory, and had spent the past half century under a Council car park.

But down the road in what is now Abbey Park lie the remains of a man who arguably did far more for England than Richard ever did.  No-one knows precisely where, since his grave in the former Leicester Abbey was lost to history when – ironically – the Abbey itself was dissolved by a process that the man himself had begun, and had been eagerly pursued by his former Secretary Thomas Cromwell, at the urging of Henry VIII, the king who had been loyally and assiduously served by the man whose final resting place was about to become forever lost.

There’s a memorial plinth there now, but the actual remains will probably never be discovered, because they belong to a man who was not royal – and therefore not deserving of a pompous memorial service under the full glare of television lights – and who died in obscurity on his way to the Tower, hounded to his death by an ungrateful Henry VIII who had relied upon him for sound counsel from the day that, as a clueless and pleasure-loving boy approaching his 18th birthday, he became King of England. The man buried somewhere in the remains of the Abbey was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Papal Legate, Archbishop of York, and Lord Chancellor of England, and he was a victim of a rigid class system that he himself helped to destroy.

Born the son of a somewhat disreputable Ipswich butcher, Tom Wulcy became the prototype of the new age that was dawning. Until Richard of Gloucester got his come-uppance at Bosworth, England was governed by bands of robber barons with fancy titles. When Henry Tudor came to the throne, he was anxious to break the power of the old noble families, and he abolished ‘maintenance’ and ‘livery’ – the keeping of private armies.  But he needed men to assist in the running of the nation, and he had learned from humble officials such as his mother’s Comptroller of Accounts Reynard Bray that the most talented public servants are not necessarily the highest born. He therefore began a policy of appointment by merit, and they didn’t come any more talented than Tom Wulcy, a graduate of Oxford at the age of 15, and a man who combined a prodigious intellect with boundless energy and ambition. He would be followed in turn by the son of a Putney blacksmith and alehouse keeper, Thomas Cromwell, who became Wolsey’s Secretary once the former Ipswich schoolboy reached high office at breakneck speed.

But such elevation of the lowly born was anathema to those who felt entitled to rule the nation by the simple qualification of birth, and Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, was the most resentful of all. He put paid to Wolsey, and then became embroiled in a lifelong feud with an outraged Cromwell that did neither of them any good. But the mold had been broken, and henceforth England would be governed by men of ability and selfless dedication – William Cecil being a prime example during the reign of Elizabeth 1st.

Thomas Wolsey was no candidate for sainthood.  Apart from the fact that he had a mistress and two children while officially celibate, he was proud, vainglorious and ostentatiously wealthy.  The Dissolution of the Monasteries that he began had nothing to do with a burning desire to reform the Church – instead, the sale proceeds went into his personal coffers.  But he did not deserve his fate – harassed into his grave by a frustrated and confused Henry VIII who was prepared to listen to the poison poured into his ear by Norfolk and his niece Anne Boleyn.  On his way back south in the custody of the Constable of the Tower of London, sick in body and mind, trembling in the face of a meticulously invented false charge of treason, Wolsey stopped to rest at Leicester Abbey, where he announced to its head ‘Father Abbott, I am come hither to leave my bones among you’.  Rumours remain that he committed suicide as he finally accepted that he was finished, and his final reflection on the life that he was about to end is well recorded in his observation that ‘If I had served God as diligently as I have done the King, he would not have given me over in my grey hairs.’

He would never know what he had achieved as the flag bearer of a new wave of public servants, whose qualifications for high office lay in their ability rather than in their genes.  The English public service had been transformed through the example of one man, and he deserves far more than a memorial plinth when others arguably less worthy of national kudos receive adulation more befitting the latest Internet sensation.

About David Field

David was born and educated in Nottingham, England, and even as a school student he loved to combine English with History.  This former hobby became a new career when he retired after fifty years as a lawyer, and took to writing historical novels on a fulltime basis.  By then he had emigrated to Australia, where he now lives with his wife on the borders of New South Wales and Queensland.

David has written a series of six novels set in the Tudor period, all of which will be published by Sapere Books during 2019, and which between them cover the entire era, from the early life and accession of Henry Tudor right through to the final days of Elizabeth 1st.  The second in the series, ‘The King’s Commoner’, brings alive the life and times of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.

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Published inGuest Posts

4 Comments

  1. Banditqueen Banditqueen

    Thanks for your article. However, as expected from a Tudor blog, more incorrect information about Richard iii.

    Today is the 4th Anniversary of the Reinternment of King Richard iii, not the 6th.

    Both His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury and His Eminence the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster officiated at his translation to his new tomb in Leicester Cathedral.

    Richard iii was not “thrown unceremoniously into a grave” . These remarks show the lack of knowledge of Medieval Catholic burial rights. He was taken to the Greyfriars , to the monks for burial and there is no way his body wasn’t prepared for burial. There is no way he was tossed into a grave and no way he was buried without proper ceremony. Burial prayers would have been said and there is no evidence that his body wasn’t laid out correctly, although his head was placed higher as the grave was cut shorter due to haste from the August heat. It has also been suggested he was buried in a Franciscan habit or shroud which has worn with age. Masses would have been said later and his body was actually placed in the centre of the Choir of the Friary Church, near the High Alter. His grave was covered by a marking stone and ten years later Henry Tudor paid for a decent tomb over it.

    However, this was dismantled by the Tudor mob in the 1540s after the Reformation but the graves left undisturbed. A house with a garden which marked the spot with a beautiful column and plaque to commemorate the place were Richard was buried. We know the history from then on.

    Now Richard lays in a lovely tomb vault, in a lovely Cathedral and I have been there on a number of occasions. I enjoyed the week of his Internment. It is just a pity that articles like this, full of errors and putting more insults on his memory with comments such as “When Richard iii got his comeuppance at Bosworth” on the 4 th Anniversary of his resting with dignity and honour. Richard iii didn’t get his comeuppance at Bosworth and this is an unworthy comment from someone claiming to be a historical writer. Richard was a controversial but a good King, his laws favoured the ordinary people over the nobles and he ended the illegal practice of benefice payments to the King. He administered ordinary justice with impartiality and although his becoming King is hotly debated, there was nothing illegitimate about it. Henry Tudor took the crown by force. He too gets a bad deal with history but nobody was as maligned unfairly as Richard iii. In your article he continues to be so.

    • Oof. I have to say, when I first read the post I glossed over the Richard III section. To me, it was so much more about Wolsey – mainly because the author’s interest came from there (it is one of the books he’s written) and I really enjoyed that part. I should have realized/remembered that the topic is an inflammatory one (I have seen fights erupt on social media, after all!) but I confess that this is not one of “my” fights (I get much more impassioned arguing Tom Seymour with Rebecca Larson!!). If you would ever care to send me a post to set the record straight, I would surely welcome it.

  2. I’ve clearly trodden on a Ricardian landmine, and not for the first time. My blog was more about the eras of history that the two Leicester burials represent, and not how they came to be. So much effort was expended in searching for Richard’s grave that one has to question how its precise location was allowed to become so obscure in the first place, if indeed he was so well respected by history. No-one but Thomas More and William Shakespeare can be blamed for the reputation he didn’t deserve (which I concede), but it reflects the majority view of those who have been imperfectly taught ‘history’. An historical novelist is as much an interpreter of old events as anyone else, and is entitled to expand on the popular themes that have been left to us.
    My comments were primarily intended as a reflection, not on the men themselves, but the contrasting eras of history in which they lived, barely a generation apart. Richard’s generation left the English countryside strewn with corpses, and not just his own, whereas the generation that followed – closely advised by men of learning and vision such as Thomas Wolsey – built a ‘modern’ England that is recognisable even today. If they ever find his actual grave, will they even conduct a religious service alongside it, despite the fact that he was a Cardinal of Rome? A bad one, it was conceded in my blog, but one who at least worked towards the future of a nation that now cannot even acknowledge where his body is buried. He clearly doesn’t possess such a dedicated band of followers as Richard of Gloucester, which also says something about how history is viewed with 20/20 retrovision..

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