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Opinion

Opinion: Richard III - the good king?

A good monarch, or a villain? The sensational discovery of the remains of Richard III under a parking lot in Leicester and his reburial have sparked heated debates about the king's reputation. Why?

The bones of Richard III were laid in an oak coffin lined with lead. A funeral procession then led through Bosworth Field, where the king died in battle at age 33. On the altar of the Cathedral of Leicester, the coffin stood on a wooden trestle next to a replica of a crown, a bible and three burning candles. Thousands lined up to get a look at the coffin of the dead king. Cameras immortalized the moment in all its angles: Richard III's second burial, 530 years after his death, took place on Thursday (26.03.2015).

Did he deserve such a ceremony stretching the limits of kitsch?

In William Shakespeare's play "Richard III", Richard of York doesn't come across as very friendly. The medieval king is depicted as a hunchback monster, "a lump of foul deformity," a child killer reveling in evil deeds.

Britain's history books describe him as the last English king who fell for his crown on the battlefield, in 1485. Over five centuries later, many Brits see him as a progressive ruler. Supporters claim he reformed the British legal system by allowing suspected felons to go on trial before imprisonment.

Does his bad reputation result from Tudor propaganda? Did the victorious Henry VII posthumously ruin the image of his dead rival to legitimize his own rule? His granddaughter Elizabeth I was Shakespeare's patron.

British understanding of history

Masses gathered towatch the reburial of King Richard III on a screen near Leicester Cathedral. Copyright: REUTERS/Darren Staples

Masses gathered to watch the reburial of King Richard III on a screen near Leicester Cathedral

Those are the questions kindling the British controversy.

In the meantime, the Leicester authorities have demonstrated that the story boosts tourism and business. An old school near the parking lot where the remains were found was turned into a Richard III exhibition center, attracting more than 100,000 visitors within a few months.

The debate surrounding the deeds of the purportedly sinister king and the enthusiasm of the British population for such historical events can be puzzling for the rest of Europe. How do the Brits interpret their history?

In Great Britain, it is prestigious to be a member of a conservation organization like English Heritage or the National Trust. People are proud of their history. Insularity might allow the Brits to be more self-sufficient than the rest of Europe. The countries on the continent are more dependent on each other. The difference becomes noticeable through the Europeanization of national policies: Great Britain often prefers to go its own way.

The singularity of British identity is also supported by its cult of history. By celebrating a dead king, Great Britain reaffirms its values. This explains why a dead king is always a good one.

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