Polly Toynbee Guardian/UK 26 March 2015
He may have been a child-murdering tyrant, but he was a king. So, in a nation where we still think like subjects, not citizens, thousands came to humble themselves before his 500-year-old bones
Pinch yourself, very hard. This must be anti-royalist satire? No, we’re wide awake as the nation mourns its most reviled monster of a king. Never was adulation of monarchy taken to such transcendently absurd heights.
Richard III has been buried with pomp in Leicester cathedral by the archbishop of Canterbury, with the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester and a black-clad Countess of Wessex as next of kin. Another relative, Benedict Cumberbatch, read a poem by the poet laureate. The Queen’s Division and Royal Signals bands saluted the fallen king. York has its own “commemoration” tonight. As they say, you couldn’t make it up.
It’s comical, but tragic too, as a reminder of the indignity the British accept in their accustomed role as subjects, not citizens. Here are church, royalty and army revering a child-killing, wife-slaughtering tyrant who would be on trial if he weren’t 500 years dead. This is the madness of monarchy, where these bones are honoured for their divine royalty, whether by accident of birth or by brutal seizure of the crown. Richard, whose death ended the tribal Wars of the Roses, is a good symbol of the “bloodline” fantasy. Our island story is one of royal usurpage and regicide, with imported French, Dutch and German monarchs who didn’t speak English. The puzzle is that this fantasy of anointed genes persists, even unto Kate’s unborn babe.
I can see the dilemma: you can’t put even a bad king’s bones on show in a museum when preservation of the idea of monarchy requires holy respect. It matters not that so many have been villains or half-wits. The one benefit of a supremely privileged family is to prove, once and for all, that talent and brains are randomly assigned. Forget a super-race, this royal selective breeding with the very best education and top university tutors has produced the least intellectually curious, least artistic, dullest bunch of polo-playing, hunting, shooting, fishing dullards you could hope not to meet. But then their adherents praise their very “ordinariness” as a quality.
Finding Richard in a Leicester car park was a delight. So was the tourist-bait tussle between York and Leicester as last resting place. That 20,000 watched the cortege today is no surprise – what a spectacle, what an event. But the BBC reported tears and the dean of Leicester, the very reverend David Monteith, called the ceremony an “extraordinary, moving thing”. What? The bishop of Leicester said people stood, “humble and reverent”.
Humble – that’s the word. We are all humbled by monarchy, even by a long-dead despot. Royalty forever drags us back to a feudal state of mind from which we have never quite escaped, a fairyland where people know their place. Royal prerogative is an absolute power that is now grafted on to over-mighty prime ministerial authority. Soon we shall see Prince Charles’s interferences with government. After 10 years of freedom of information legal action by the Guardian, the supreme court at last says we can see his letters – perforce, of course, redacted – but they will arrive before the election.
Royalty costs some £299m according to the Republic campaign, counting all costs. But though they’re richer than Croesus with their Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall and their biscuits, it’s less the money than their grip on public imagination that does the damage. Acceptance, even admiration of their phenomenal riches weakens instinctive indignation against the galloping greed of our swelling kleptocracy. Where’s the outrage at bankers and FTSE 100 CEOs with their 27% pay rise while most people’s incomes fell back? Shielded in a culture that celebrates, or at least tolerates, its head of state’s unearned wealth.
Richard may or may not have been the witty ogre of Shakespeare’s imagining, but that was irrelevant to today’s obsequies. The bishop intoned: “Today we come to give this king and these mortal remains the dignity and honour denied to them in death.” Never mind the nature of the man, kingship itself commands respect, however ill-gotten the crown.