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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Literature in News: Catholics In England Gather to Pray for Richard III

Well, this isn’t quite literary news per se, but when I think of Richard III, I don’t necessarily think of the historical king, but the character in Shakespeare’s play titled after him.  First the news.  As you may have read, the remains of King Richard III were recently discovered and confirmed in 2012, and so a proper burial is now in order.  From the Catholic News Agency

In preparation for the reinternment of the remains of Richard III, a 15th century English king whose body was only recently rediscovered, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster has offered Compline and a Requiem Mass for the late monarch.

“This evening we fulfil a profound and essential Christian duty: that of praying for the dead, for the repose of their eternal souls,” Cardinal Nichols preached during a March 23 Requiem Mass said at Holy Cross Priory in Leicester.

“The prayer we offer for him this evening is the best prayer there is: the offering of the Holy Mass, the prayer of Jesus himself, made complete in the oblation of his body and blood on the altar of the cross, present here for us on this altar.”

Richard III was born in 1452, and reigned over England from 1483-1485, when he died in the Battle of Bosworth Field. He was the last king of the House of York; he was succeeded by Henry VII, founder of the House of Tudor.

His corpse was buried without pomp, and subsequently lost. It was found in 2012 under a parking lot in Leicester, 30 miles south of Nottingham, on the site of Greyfriars, a Franciscan friary dissolved during the English Reformation.

Richard III’s reign obviously predates the Protestant Reformation, and so is a Catholic.  I’m not sure if it’s obligatory, but his remains should have some sort of Catholic blessing as a religious closure.  Again from the CNA article:

His body has been kept at the University of Leicester, and was processed to Leicester Cathedral, an Anglican church, on Sunday.

That evening, Cardinal Nichols led a Compline service at the cathedral, during which Richard's coffin was sprinkled with holy water, and incensed.

“This sprinkling with holy water is a reminder that King Richard, at the beginning of his life, was baptised,” the cardinal reflected. “He was thereby called to live as a follower of Jesus Christ.”

“The deepest intentions of Richard have always been hard to fathom. Yet that is often true for many of us. Within the depth of his heart, amidst all his fears and ambitions, there surely lay a strong desire to provide his people with stability and improvement.”
Cardinal Nichols noted Richard's achievements, including a development of the presumption of innocence, the concept of blind justice, the practice of granting bail, and translating laws into the vernacular, while adding that “nevertheless his reign was marked by unrest and the fatal seepage of loyalty and support.”

“All of this reminds us, if we need reminding, that baptism does not guarantee holiness of life or saintliness of nature. But it gives a fundamental and enduring shape to a journey through life, in all its struggles and failures.”

He recalled Richard as a man of prayer and “anxious devotion,” who composed a surviving prayer and established chapels.

“We pray that, being brought into the presence of that Divine majesty, Richard may be embraced by God’s merciful love, there to await the final resurrection of all things in the fullness of time.”

When the Cardinal said that “ the deepest intentions of Richard have always been hard to fathom,” he is referring to the nature of Richard III’s character.  Richard has come down in history as an evil Machiavellian who killed people on his way to the crown.  I’m no historian here, especially of English medieval history, but whether Richard was as truly evil as history remembers him seems to be in dispute.  Richard III ultimately lost in a power struggle which resulted in a civil war, and, since the winners in history tend to write the history, of course every possible negative was placed on Richard.  But even more significantly I think Shakespeare fossilized our perception of Richard III when he took history’s view and developed a most enticing character, a character not only malicious, but enjoyably malicious because you can see the working logic of his malice in his brain, if you will.  It’s a great play because the evil Richard III comes alive to the audience.  The perceptions we moderns have of Richard III has been formed by the play.

I’m not going to quote character developments in the play, but I do want to quote that last scene, since it is tinged with religious reverence for the dead.  It’s Act V, Scene V, and the Battle of Bosworth is coming to an end, and the two antagonists, Richard III and Richmond, who will become king with the victory, meet.  It is also worthy to note that in the previous scene Richard could have run off in the face of defeat but decides to fight to the end.  

SCENE V. Another part of the field.

Alarum. Enter KING RICHARD III and RICHMOND; they fight. KING RICHARD III is slain. Retreat and flourish. Re-enter RICHMOND, DERBY bearing the crown, with divers other Lords

God and your arms be praised, victorious friends,
The day is ours, the bloody dog is dead.

Courageous Richmond, well hast thou acquit thee.
Lo, here, this long-usurped royalty
From the dead temples of this bloody wretch
Have I pluck'd off, to grace thy brows withal:
Wear it, enjoy it, and make much of it.

Great God of heaven, say Amen to all!
But, tell me, is young George Stanley living?

He is, my lord, and safe in Leicester town;
Whither, if it please you, we may now withdraw us.

What men of name are slain on either side?

John Duke of Norfolk, Walter Lord Ferrers,
Sir Robert Brakenbury, and Sir William Brandon.

Inter their bodies as becomes their births:
Proclaim a pardon to the soldiers fled
That in submission will return to us:
And then, as we have ta'en the sacrament,
We will unite the white rose and the red:
Smile heaven upon this fair conjunction,
That long have frown'd upon their enmity!
What traitor hears me, and says not amen?
England hath long been mad, and scarr'd herself;
The brother blindly shed the brother's blood,
The father rashly slaughter'd his own son,
The son, compell'd, been butcher to the sire:
All this divided York and Lancaster,
Divided in their dire division,
O, now, let Richmond and Elizabeth,
The true succeeders of each royal house,
By God's fair ordinance conjoin together!
And let their heirs, God, if thy will be so.
Enrich the time to come with smooth-faced peace,
With smiling plenty and fair prosperous days!
Abate the edge of traitors, gracious Lord,
That would reduce these bloody days again,
And make poor England weep in streams of blood!
Let them not live to taste this land's increase
That would with treason wound this fair land's peace!
Now civil wounds are stopp'd, peace lives again:
That she may long live here, God say amen!


Look how Catholic those lines are, especially “ta’en the sacrament.”  Of course Shakespeare has the excuse of setting a play in pre-Reformation England, and so for verisimilitude has the excuse to incorporate Catholic language, but he didn’t have to.  One of these days I will pull all the evidence together to show Shakespeare was a Catholic, but until then you’ll have to take my word.  

And so, my prayers for Richard III.  May he have embraced Christ in the end and asked for forgiveness of his sins.  Requiescat in pace.

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