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Richard III: A Medieval Relic?

By no stretch of the imagination was Richard III a saint, but the furore that sprung up around his discovery and reburial was strongly reminiscent of a medieval cult of sainthood.

'No cathedral has seen anything like this before.' These were the words of Channel Four's Krishnan Guru-Murthy, spoken at Leicester Cathedral on March 22nd, 2015, ahead of a week of celebrations marking the reburial of Richard III.

The arrival of the last Plantagenet king of England at his 'final resting place' was the climax of an extraordinary journey, one which began for the general public in February 2013 when archaeologists from the University of Leicester confirmed the identity of the skeleton excavated from a city centre car park six months earlier. From this moment on the British public became intimately familiar with the posthumous affairs of a long-dead, short-lived monarch. They involved, among other things, a squabble between ecclesiastical institutions competing for the remains, the modification of a church chancel to accommodate a new tomb and prospective visitors, an ambitious public relations campaign and a grand religious ceremony marking the relics' reburial in a prominent place in a cathedral.

We have indeed witnessed a unique episode in history, at least in the opportunity it has provided for ordinary people in the 21st century to observe the reburial of a medieval king. Nonetheless, the series of events leading up to the reburial is not as unusual as we might suppose and Leicester Cathedral is not the first English place of worship to have become the focus of public excitement centred on the discovery of ancient bones.

Souvenirs from the King Richard III visitor centre in Leicester.

In the 11th century, for example, a peasant ploughing a field belonging to Ramsey Abbey unearthed a strange object: a coffin containing ancient human remains. The monks of Ramsey were informed and the bones were washed and placed on the altar of a local church. News of the discovery quickly spread and parishioners hurried to the church, 'their spirits raised', praying that the identity of the man might be revealed.

Divine revelation came to their aid when the dead man appeared in a vision to a local smith. The spirit claimed to be a seventh-century archbishop and demanded that his remains be treated with reverence. The relics were duly placed in a specially commissioned shrine and so many pilgrims flocked to Ramsey Abbey for the accompanying religious ceremony that the fields around the church 'could scarcely hold the rush of people'. The monks of Ramsey had successfully transformed their surprise find into a pilgrim attraction and the cult of St Ivo was born.

The account of St Ivo's discovery and reburial was recorded by Goscelin Saint-Bertin, a Flemish hagiographer living in England, who specialised in recording – and promoting – the lives, deaths and miracles of saints. St Ivo's posthumous story closely echoes those of other Christian saints of the 11th and 12th centuries, for the recovery of long-lost relics was not an uncommon occurrence in this period. The cult of saints was blossoming and religious tourism was proving to be a profitable source of income. Hoping to cash in on the booming pilgrimage trade, Ramsey Abbey was just one of many religious houses acquiring the 'must-have' religious accessory of the time: a holy relic.

Hagiographers like Goscelin made much of two key episodes in a saint's posthumous career: the 'finding' (inventio) and 'translation' (translatio) of their relics. As in the case of St Ivo, the inventio – the discovery of relics – was the event which launched a lost saint into stardom. However, it was the translatio – the ritual transference of a saint's remains into a new shrine – which signalled the formal beginning of a cult. Translation ceremonies were often grand affairs, conducted by the local bishop and, in the case of important saints, attended by leading churchmen and nobles. They also attracted ordinary pilgrims, keen to be present when the newly enshrined saint was revealed to the public.


For medievalists, then, there is much about Richard III's recent discovery and reburial that has a familiar ring. Particularly noteworthy is the service in Leicester Cathedral on March 26th, 2015, celebrating the ritual relocation of Richard to his new tomb. Leading churchmen, senior royals and celebrities played prominent roles and the less exalted were also present. Those unable to get into the church congregated in the cathedral gardens outside. Although the ceremony, which was based on a documented 15th-century reburial service, was not technically a translatio, it is difficult not to see more than a hint of saint veneration behind this determination to honour Richard III in an appropriate, 'medieval' way.

Crowds watch the procession of Richard's coffin, Leicester, March 22nd, 2015.

It should be stressed that no-one is claiming that Richard III is a saint, nor suggesting that he should be honoured as one. The English Protestants rejected relic veneration at the Reformation and, although some monarchs attracted cultic attention in the Middle Ages, Richard was never one of them. Not only was the political climate against such a move in the late Middle Ages, but by the time of Richard's death papal canonisation required candidates for sainthood to have led demonstrably pious lives and performed posthumous miracles. For a cult to take hold, devotees would also need to believe that their saint had a hotline to God and could help them in their daily tribulations.

Although these key criteria for sainthood are absent, Richard's mortal remains have nonetheless undergone some intriguingly cult-like adventures in their journey from discovery to reburial. This can be illustrated by considering one of England's best known saints, the ninth-century bishop of Winchester, St Swithun. His legendary request to be buried beneath the dripping eaves of his church went unheeded by later generations of Winchester monks and, after the demolition of the Anglo-Saxon minster in 1093, Swithun was – not for the first time – dug up and translated into a new church.


A translation prompted by the rescue of relics from a demolished or ruined church was a fairly frequent event in the 1th and 12th centuries. The recovery of Richard III from the site of a Franciscan priory is, then, entirely in keeping with cultic tradition. However, it is the subsequent history of these original burial sites which provides one of the most unexpected parallels between Richard and many medieval relics. At Leicester, the archaeological trench which had once contained Richard's skeleton now forms the main attraction in the new visitor centre. This kind of heritage tourism may seem very modern, but medieval cult promoters were also cognisant of the attraction of empty graves and there are numerous hagiographical references to the veneration of burial places formerly occupied by saints. St Ivo's empty tomb in the fenland village of Slepe, for example, drew crowds of pilgrims looking for miraculous cures. In the case of St Swithun, his old grave outside the 'Pilgrim's Door' of Winchester Cathedral was turned into a paved area known as 'Memorial Court', which became a popular stopping-off point for devotees visiting the shrine.

Whereas modern curiosity in Richard's former grave has not aroused much media interest, the same cannot be said for the legal row between the cities of Leicester and York over the site of Richard's reburial. Disputes over the possession of 500-year-old bones may not be everyday occurrences in 21st-century England, but in the Middle Ages rival claims to newly discovered relics were not uncommon. Ecclesiastical institutions fighting for the custody of dead celebrities were usually motivated by the hope of fame and fortune. However, strategies to win possession of a favoured relic were rather less polite then than now, as a hagiographical motif known as furta sacra ('sacred theft') attests. The bones of London's patron saint, St Erkenwald, were reportedly the subject of a foiled smash-and-grab raid when thieves broke into the crypt of St Paul's in the dead of night. According to a 12th-century account, the crime had been engineered by one of several covetous monasteries.

It is difficult not to see more than a hint of saint veneration behind the determination to honour Richard III

Having acquired an important relic – by fair means or foul – it was the responsibility of medieval custodians to provide their saint not only with a worthy resting place, but also one that balanced the needs of pilgrims with those of the working clergy. English churches in the late 11th and 12th centuries frequently underwent alterations to create new spaces for their saints in areas mutually convenient for clergy and visitors. The chancel at Winchester, for example, was remodelled so that pilgrims could view St Swithun's shrine by moving around a purpose-built ambulatory without disrupting the monks' daily office in the choir.

In the 21st century exactly the same considerations dictated the location of Richard III's new tomb at Leicester, as is made clear by the cathedral's 'Brief for Architects' for the grave. The tomb now sits in a 'reordered' chancel, away from the liturgical areas, and visitors are encouraged to circulate anti-clockwise around the church, filing past the tomb sited in a specially constructed space described as an 'ambulatory'. Particularly striking is the decision to position Richard III's tomb in the place usually reserved for important saints in the Middle Ages – directly behind the high altar – rather than to one side of the chancel where the bodies of lesser mortals were more usually buried.

Visitors circulate around Richard's tomb in the chancel.

There is, nevertheless, one crucial difference between Richard's resting place and those of medieval saints. As the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Reverend Tim Stevens, was quick to point out on March 27th, Richard is interred in a tomb below ground level and not – as is normally the case with saints – elevated above the church floor in a shrine. Notwithstanding this distinction there are, however, curious nods towards saint veneration in the material environment and iconography associated with Richard's tomb within the cathedral.


As Richard is not considered a saint he has no chapel or altar dedicated to him. However, hints of a cultic setting suggest themselves in the new chapel lying directly behind the tomb dedicated to 'Christ the King'. Since the dedication derives from the chapel's east window – a First World War memorial depicting Christ the King in Glory – we might assume that any implied association between the 'kingship' of Christ and Richard to be coincidental. After all, although medieval saints were presented as Christ-like, such comparisons would be unusual for secular individuals such as Richard.

Nonetheless, a pair of stained-glass windows, commissioned for the Katherine Chapel to the north of Richard's tomb, makes a more explicit link between Richard and Christ. Designed by stained-glass artist Tom Denny, and still under construction at the time of writing, the windows will (according to the cathedral's brief) 'reflect aspects of the life, death and subsequent treatment of Richard III', while at the same time signifying 'the death and resurrection of Jesus'. In addition to being reminiscent of the medieval 'Becket windows' of Canterbury Cathedral commemorating the 1220 translation of St Thomas' relics, the 'Richard' windows at Leicester set the lives of Richard and Christ side-by-side.

Leicester Cathedral is careful to frame the religious symbolism of its new windows in generic, rather than specific, terms. From this perspective, Richard does not stand apart from the crowd as an exemplary human being. Rather, he is to be viewed as a Christian 'Everyman': someone to whom we can all relate. Visitors to the cathedral are invited to identify with Richard. In his sermon at the re-internment service, Tim Stevens drew attention to Richard's human side. Richard, he said, 'bore his disability with courage and knew the pain of bereavement and loss'. Richard's story, in other words, is also ours.

Designs by Tom Denny for the stained glass windows in the Katherine Chapel of Leicester Cathedral.

Attachments to historical figures, forged through a sense of shared understanding, were likewise endorsed by the medieval church. Pilgrims were encouraged to empathise with the suffering of saints and martyrs and they brought their own hardships – often in the form of disability, bereavement and loss – to saints' shrines in the hope of spiritual or practical help. Local saints, such as Swithun and Ivo, owed a great deal of their popularity to the fact that they were felt to be approachable because, fundamentally, they were 'like us'. As the historian Peter Brown said, medieval saints were envisaged as 'invisible friends'. It is easy to imagine that Tim Stevens' comment that Richard 'belongs to all of us' would have struck a chord with pilgrims listening to stories of their favourite saints in the Middle Ages.

'Reaching out to all, we witness to Christ holding all things in unity.' This is the mission statement of Leicester Cathedral and extends, as we have seen, to Richard III who also 'reaches out to all' in religious symbolism. The principle was put into practice in Leicester during the reburial week services: representatives of multi-faith communities were invited and the heads of both Anglican and Catholic churches presided. The message of social and religious unity was echoed by the city's tourist industry and enthusiastically taken up by the media. The universality of Richard's appeal became a popular concept, frequently evoked to remind us that visitors came from all over the globe and from different faiths and cultures. In particular, Richard's reburial was presented as an occasion for reconciliation, for example bringing together Catholics and Anglicans and symbolically healing the strife of the 15th-century War of the Roses through a token gathering of 21st-century Yorkshire and Lancashire peers.

It is interesting to note that medieval hagiography also made numerous references to the wide-ranging nature of a saint's appeal. In an effort to draw attention to the popularity of a favoured saint, hagiographers repeatedly stressed – and possibly overstated – the social diversity of pilgrims and the long distances they travelled. As with visitors to Leicester today, those who had come from overseas received a special mention, such as the man said to have journeyed from Rome to Winchester to see St Swithun at the turn of the 11th century. Motifs of social unity and reconciliation also appear as part of the medieval discourse about saints. It was thought that sins were forgiven at a shrine and hagiography makes much of the fact that saints had the power to heal fractured communities, reconciling troubled souls not only with God but also with their neighbours.

Although some aspects of the so-called 'Richard effect' – such as unity, universality and reconciliation – may seem closer to wishful thinking than to reality, one frequently repeated theme does appear to correspond to the thoughts and feelings of the general public. This is the idea that people have 'taken Richard to their hearts' because he is someone to whom they feel emotionally connected.


Speaking to visitors waiting to see the newly revealed tomb on March 27th, I asked what had brought them to Leicester for Richard's reburial. For most the primary reason was an interest in history. However, the way that this interest was expressed is revealing. Seven out of ten stated that they felt some sort of personal connection to Richard. One woman told me: 'He has come alive as a person this week to me' and another confided that she felt close to Richard because she had read that he had been 'devastated when his son died'. A third passionately championed Richard because he was an 'underdog'.

These responses, delivered with feeling, suggest a human tendency to externalise our emotions by projecting them onto someone, or something, else. This possibility was hinted at by Tim Stevens in his reburial sermon when he commented that people had come to Richard that week 'bearing their own grief'. The idea that Richard provides a focus for our own emotions was brought out again when interviewees were asked whether it was important to them that Richard was reburied in a place of Christian worship. There was unanimous agreement that a Christian burial, and the religious services provided by Leicester, were entirely appropriate. Asked why this mattered, six out of ten replied, 'it was what Richard would have wanted'.

As is well known, Richard was given full Catholic obsequies at his first funeral, so a second burial service made palatable for a post-Reformation audience by expunging all references to the very thing that lay at the heart of Richard's concerns about his afterlife – purgatory – was, in all probability, not what the 15th-century Richard would have wanted. Indeed, Richard's one and only documented request in this area – that provision be made for 100 priests to say masses for his soul – has, as far as I am aware, not been granted.

It is likely that popular notions about 'what Richard would have wanted' are a further example of unconscious emotions being attributed to another person, with the views expressed about Richard's funeral wishes revealing more about our own hopes, fears and values than his. A second point of interest here is that making emotional connections with a historically distant figure such as Richard necessitates closing the five-century gap between his story and ours. One way to achieve this, it seems, is to conflate the 15th and 21st centuries and create a kind of fictional fusion between the two.

It is this merging of historical periods which has been one of the most striking features of the Richard III phenomenon. From the funeral cortege with its escort of police cars and armoured knights to the burial service with its curious mixture of medieval and modern elements (such as Judith Bingham's anthem set to the words of the medieval mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg), much of the ceremony of Richard's reburial week seems to have been orchestrated to blur the line between past and present. This gave the impression, as noted by the novelist Philippa Gregory, of 'the veil of time ... almost disappearing'.


Of course, the desire to draw the past into the present is not new: in the Middle Ages historical figures, including Christ, were continually refashioned for the medieval present. Saints were similarly updated and made relevant for each new generation. The iconography of the 'Richard windows' in Leicester Cathedral will continue this tradition in its merging of Christ's life with Richard's and Richard's with that of today's viewers. In the words of Tim Stevens, 'history meets the present … here, eternity breaks into time'.

Why is the idea of reliving the past in our own times, and on our own terms, so attractive? 'Myth and ritual' theorists, such as the cultural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, have sought to explain this perennial yearning with reference to commemorative rituals which conceptually collapse the boundary between past and present. 'Myth', in this context, does not necessarily refer to a fictional past, but to a re-imagined one which ritual attempts to recreate in the present. In anthropological terms, the ritual expression of myth is generally seen as socially beneficial, as it binds communities together by fostering a sense of belonging and shared cultural values. For their part, participants are said to find emotional links with historical events and people comforting. The feeling of being closely connected to the past provides a reassuring sense of continuity and gives meaning and hope to the present.

A portrait of Richard III in the choir of Leicester Cathedral.

Myth and ritual theories make sense in the religious or folkloric context for which they were intended and may account for the popularity of saints' cults in the Middle Ages. However, the idea that we have a tendency, in our postmodern era, to 'mythologise' national history is a less than comfortable one with implications for how, and why, we engage with history. One might argue that sentimentality engendered by the 'Richard effect' is an inappropriate reaction to the past. Yet, without an emotional need to connect ourselves with our history – stimulating us to discover, explore and constantly reappraise historical narratives – there might be no 'history' at all.

This last point was brought home to me when I spoke to visitors queuing to see Richard's tomb on March 27th. Many explained that their interest in history had been invigorated, or even triggered, by the events of Richard's reburial week and one American lady made a point of telling me that she had been inspired to enrol on a medieval history course. The mortal remains of Richard III may not be credited with miracles or the granting of prayers, but it seems that they nonetheless have the ability to affect those who are drawn to them in powerful, and perhaps even life-changing, ways.

From his discovery in a lost grave to his reburial behind the high altar of an English cathedral, Richard III's posthumous journey in many respects follows in the tracks of medieval saints. The cultural discourse he has accrued along the way would have been familiar to people in the Middle Ages and his relics – like those of saints – have generated strong emotions. Is the 'Richard effect' relic devotion in a secular guise? Perhaps not, but for a week in 2015 King Richard III was the closest thing the Anglican Church had to a saintly relic. The 'veil of time' may have remained intact, but we could be forgiven for imagining a faint echo of the Middle Ages.

Anne E. Bailey is a member of the faculty of history at the University of Oxford.

Richard III: A Medieval Relic?

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