As a regular-person history buff who has read about the life and followed the weird afterlife of England’s King Richard III with some interest, I was disappointed to read a recent Ship of Fools Mystery Worshipper report about his re-interment service. As we all know, the ceremony was full of pomp and circumstance, people in great outfits, and a lovely poem written by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and enhanced by the mellifluous voice and eerie alien beauty of Benedict Cumberbatch.
(That’s a bit off-topic, but I’m not going to miss an opportunity to post a Cumbervideo). Sadly, the actual sermon delivered by the officiating clergyperson was, according to the Mystery Worshipper at least, rambling and insipid. If true (I haven’t actually listened to the sermon myself) I think that’s a shame. I would have no trouble coming up with a homily that’s relevant to the story of Richard III, and I don’t know why nobody asked me. Other than me not being a Church of England clergyperson, I guess. Anyway, since they didn’t ask me, here’s the sermon I would have preached for the re-interment of Richard III, had I been given a shot.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to re-bury the mortal remains of Richard of York, Duke of Gloucester and King of England, remembered by most people for the last five hundred years as a hunchbacked usurper whose physical disfigurement mirrored his misshapen soul, and whose crimes culminated in the brutal murder of his two young nephews, the Princes in the Tower, the elder of whom ought to have reigned as King Edward V.
Why, then, have we laid on the pomp and circumstance to re-bury this notorious villain? Largely because of the historical significance of the discovery of his bones — it is, after all, a piece of our past, whether or not it is one we are happy to claim. And also, perhaps, because both scholarly and popular reflection in the last century has caused us to re-examine Richard’s legacy, to at least entertain the possibility that he might have been a good king maligned by history, accused of a heinous crime he never committed.
Most of the scorn heaped on Richard III after his death is due to Shakespeare’s undeniably excellent play Richard III. There is no doubt that Shakespeare’s Richard is a brilliantly evil villain. There is plenty of doubt about whether that character accurately represents the historical character whose name he shares. What’s not in doubt is that Shakespeare did very well off the royal patronage of Queen Elizabeth I, granddaughter of the man who defeated Richard in battle and took his crown. That man, Henry Tudor, had good reason to encourage the belief that Richard was a usurper and a murderer, as did his Tudor descendants. Shakespeare’s Richard III is a masterful piece of drama — but it’s also a masterful piece of political propaganda, one that has shaped our interpretation of history for centuries.
Shakespeare knew the power of words to make or break a memory. In one of his most famous sonnets he tells the object of his admiration that while the beauty of a summer’s day, and the darling buds of May, will all fade with time, his beloved’s beauty will never fade — it will last eternally. Why? Because, as the closing couplet assures us,
As long as men can breathe, or eyes can see
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
What is “this,” the magical potion that guarantees immortality? The poem. Shakespeare’s words. We know very little about the person for whom Shakespeare wrote the poem — not even, some might suggest, that person’s gender — but we know she (or he) was beautiful to Shakespeare, because Shakespeare wrote it down. When a gifted writer writes that you are beautiful, those words endure, inscribing the memory of your beauty in literary history. Likewise, if a gifted writer writes that you are hunchbacked villain, misshapen both in body and soul, that version of you becomes part of our historical memory.
Shakespeare, who probably had a larger part than anyone in destroying Richard’s historical reputation, knew the power of reputation. He knew how words can shape reality, including the way we see a person. In Othello, he has another of his great villains, Iago, say:
Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.
Even Scripture appears to affirm the importance of reputation: Proverbs 22, verse 1 assures us that “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.”
But good name, and the esteem of others, are fickle, changeable things, as the man we are re-committing to the earth here today could surely tell us. Richard III seems, according to many contemporary accounts, to have been well-liked and trusted in his own time — certainly by many of those he ruled. A historian writing in his own time described him as “a good lord” with “a great heart.” Richard’s reputation was unmade by the words of men — mostly those who lived long after his death. Such rehabilitation of his memory as has gone on in the last century has also been done by the words of men — and of women (if you only know Shakespeare’s version of Richard, and want to explore the other side of the story, read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time and Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour). Words can make or destroy a person’s reputation — but the words others speak about us reflect imperfectly, if at all, who we really are. Reputations rise or fall like royal houses and fashion trends. What remains? What is reliable?
Scripture — at least, the proverb we read a moment ago — seems to suggest that reputation matters. And it does — in this life, there’s no denying that people judge you by what others say about you, and what others say about you is at least partially influenced by what you do. Those who urge us to live lives beyond reproach are giving at least partly good advice, difficult advice though it is to follow in this tell-age age of social media. But the Scriptures also reveal that there is something deeper than reputation, truer than what others can see in our Facebook feed. God Himself expresses this deeper truth to the prophet Samuel when Samuel was about to anoint David’s handsome, strapping older brother as the next king of Israel. In that case of royal succession, which was to lead to conflicts every bit as bitter as the Wars of the Roses, the prophet received a divine message:
“But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
Due to the discovery and authentication of his remains, we know a good deal more about Richard III’s appearance and the height of his stature — both issues hotly debated by scholars — than we did when we had only the words of historians to go on. But no archeological dig can reveal the state of the man’s heart. In all likelihood, Richard was a man like most of us — a mixture of good and bad, loved by his friends and hated by his enemies. He may or may not have ordered the murder of his nephews, but he certainly did, as did every medieval autocrat, deeds that would horrify a modern citizen of a democratic society. Reputation changes. Reputation, and the facts behind it, may be subject to debate. But as we commit Richard’s mortal remains to the soil in a ceremony far more grand than was granted him by his victorious enemy over 500 years ago, we recognize that his soul, like all our souls, can be committed only to God. God is the only true Judge, the only one who truly knows the secrets over which both historians and gossips love to speculate.
In the end, Richard’s eternal fate, like yours and mine, does not rest on what people say, or what scholars or novelists write. Nor does it rest even on the deeds he did, anymore than on the deeds we do. Scripture assures us that “by grace are we saved, through faith, and that not of [ourselves]; it is the gift of God.” The presence of God’s saving grace in a life is something that those around us may never see, something that may never be inscribed in the historical record. It is known only to the Judge before whom Richard III, and you, and I, will at last stand, in a light both more clear and infinitely more loving than that which falls across the pages of history.