Richard III’s reburial has reignited a Facebook War of the Roses

Debate is raging online as to where the newly-rediscovered royal remains should be buried.

 

If you thought the Wars of the Roses ended with the death of Richard III at Bosworth, then think again. The question of where his bones are to be laid to rest is proving divisive among legions of the maligned King’s twenty-first century followers. But instead of raising their halberds and swords in defence of the House of York, their chosen field of battle is the complex and often anonymous arena of social networking sites. Historians have long rejected the notion that a neat line was drawn under the Plantagenets in 1485, but with news emerging this week that death threats have been made to the Dean of York, it is clear that the war is far from over.

When the Leicester dig was first planned, the University had to make provision for the suitable reinterment of any human remains that were unearthed. At the time, their chances of finding Richard were slight and have since been calculated by University mathematicians as being less than one per cent before the first diggers even lifted the tarmac in the car park. Unexpectedly, though, a combination of incredible luck and careful planning meant that they hit the jackpot on day one. After the euphoria of the press conference faded, the thorny question resurfaced of what to do with his bones. While the University thought it had that covered, Richard’s fans have other ideas.

The two main contenders for guardianship of the bones are the Cathedrals of Leicester and York. Usual archaeological practice supports burial at the nearest possible location to the exhumation site but many Ricardians around the world have questioned this. The King’s connection with Leicester is that of ignominious defeat, whilst he was known to have been fond of York and his plans to establish a chapel inside its Cathedral are suggestive to some of his desire to be buried there. It was also the Mayor of York’s sergeant who raised a lone voice in lamentation of Richard’s “piteous” murder “to the great heaviness of this city”. Westminster Abbey is the usual burial site of English kings, although Richard’s reign was brief and his identity as a Lord of the North has been well established in recent scholarship. The bones of his wife, Anne Neville currently lie in the Abbey under a slab erected by the Richard III Society, following her death in March, 1485. There is also St George’s Chapel Windsor, where his elder brother Edward IV lies and All Saints’ Church at Richard’s childhood home of Fotheringhay, where his father was reinterred during Edward’s reign. Yet, the debate, which has become polarised now between York and Leicester, is taking such a vituperative turn that it has provoked debate in the House of Commons and intervention by the police.

An engraving of Richard III. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty

The case against Leicester is being fought passionately. Some campaigners have cited the pattern of wounds on Richard’s body, many of which were inflicted purely for humiliation as he was carried back into the city, as a powerful reason to lay him to rest elsewhere. There is also the diminutive size of Leicester Cathedral, which was only designated as such in 1927. This week, plans for the king’s tomb have provoked more controversy, as the initial seven foot limestone casket, designed by the Society may prove too large for its intended location. Plans for the £30,000 monument have been developed since 2010 and have been well received, although the problem of size has been raised since they were formed. A floor slab has been offered instead but this will not satisfy the thousands of visitors who are expected to flock there to pay their respects. Over 24,000 people have now signed an e-petition to revoke the planning order to lay his bones in the city where he was found. Nine of Richard’s living relatives, descendants of his siblings, also added their voices to the melee, asking for him to be “brought home” to York.

Richard’s battle has even infiltrated Parliament. In response to such strong feeling, York MPs Hugh Bayley and Julian Sturdy raised the matter in a Private Members’ debate in the House of Commons this Tuesday, claiming that the original decision had been made in the interests “of the state”, not the people. After all, this was an anointed King of England, but one that has warranted unprecedented interest and devotion. They suggested that a committee be set up to investigate his reburial and that all current proceedings by the University of Leicester be halted. Bayley referred to the Wars of the Roses, now commonly called the Cousins’ War, as “a nasty, bloody civil war that tore our country apart.” It is in the modern media of online forums, that the war has turned nasty.

It was to be expected that Facebook would be set alight by the story. What was unpredictable though, is the level of nastiness into which some participants have descended. While a number of new pages have popped up like mushrooms since the Leicester excavations, there were already a number of history groups in existence, active in the promotion of Richard’s life and times. Equally popular are those dedicated to his immediate successors, the Tudors, whose founding member, Henry VII, defeated the last Yorkist king at Bosworth. The debate began good-naturedly, with the vast majority of participants in these sites being friendly and united in their passion for the past. Some are unfailingly partisan in defence of their chosen side, which is to be expected but sadly, a few have descended into unpleasantness. Facebook and discussion forums can be wonderful places to share knowledge and make new friends. Unfortunately, their anonymity also offers a platform for extremists and trolls, whose intention is to provoke upset. Richard’s cause has attracted a number of these.

Thankfully the online troublemakers are in the minority. The nature of their interactions makes them easy to spot. Of course there is a difference between those who argue their case with vehemence but remain respectful and others whose intention is to abuse. In the last few weeks I have witnessed personal insults, slanders and accusations directed against intelligent and interested parties taking part in particular discussion threads. Some have been called “non-believers” or criticised for not caring about Richard in “the right way”. This is regrettable, as all participants are theoretically on the same side, united in their passion for history. It is indicative of a subjectivity that refuses to allow new interpretations of Richard’s life and reign, excluding some of the best academic research. Fortunately, the majority have been appalled by this behaviour and are prepared to say so publicly. Now, though, the debate has tipped over into the criminal. It emerges that the Very Reverend Vivienne Faull, Dean of York Cathedral, recently Dean of Leicester, has received a number of abusive letters and emails. She has put these in the hands of the police but calls for calm and respect for the King’s memory, while the matter is resolved.

While feeling will always run high on this issue, such activities have damaged the debate. Many original participants have become disillusioned with the tone it has taken and are now keen for it to end. On Wednesday 13 March, Leicester Cathedral published the design brief for the architects responsible for creating the king’s last resting place. Their timescale predicts that the “reception of his remains” will take place in May 2014 and conform with English Heritage’s 2005 document “Best practice for treatment of human remains excavated from Christian burial grounds in England.” No doubt through the next fourteen months debate will continue to rage but at this point, it is worthwhile considering what we can learn from history. If the bloody conflicts that ended Richard’s life teach us nothing else, let us conduct ourselves with civility, dignity and a sense of proportion. Surely those who care about Richard’s final resting place will agree that reason argument is the best way to prove their loyalty to him.

 

The newly-rediscovered skull of Richard III. Photograph: Getty Images

Amy Licence is a late medieval and early Tudor historian focusing on women's lives. She is the author of the forthcoming biography Anne Neville, Richard III’s Tragic Queen and her blog can be found here.

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser