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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Friedrich Nietzsche, the conqueror with the iron hand

Gavin Jacobson considers the great philosopher’s plan for society as revealed in Nietzsche’s Great Politics by Hugo Drochon.

In 1893 Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche returned to her mother’s adopted home town of Naumburg in Germany. She had been living in Paraguay with her husband, Bernhard Förster, a nationalist and anti-Semite who had founded an Aryan colony to begin “the purification and rebirth of the human race”. Elisabeth’s brother, Friedrich Nietzsche, had condemned her husband’s anti-Semitism and her decision to join him in South America. The experiment failed in any case. Blighted by disease, poor harvests and intercommunal strife, the outpost collapsed in two years. Förster committed suicide in 1889. Around this time, Nietzsche began his final descent into madness and Elisabeth came back to take care of him and his legacy.

Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, published in 1872 while he was a professor at the University of Basel, received marginal attention. It wasn’t until the 1890s that his writings gained a wide readership across Europe. Elisabeth soon took control of Nietzsche’s literary estate and, little by little, transformed him into an instrument of her fascist designs. She began to rework his notebooks and to clip, cross out and fabricate quotations, so that, in the public imagination, her brother went from an opponent of German nationalism to a lover of the fatherland, from the author of The Antichrist to a follower of the gospel, and from an anti-anti-Semite to a venomous ­Jew-hater. Before his death in 1900, Nietzsche had asked his sister to ensure that “no priest or anyone else utters falsehoods at my graveside, when I can no longer defend myself”. He could not have foreseen this betrayal by Elisabeth, as she cast him as the lodestar of National Socialism.

Since the 1950s, scholars have endeavoured to rescue Nietzsche from his asso­ciation with Nazism. Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (1950) was a formative work in which the German philosopher became a humanist and progenitor of 20th-century existentialism. His thinking was directed not at the triumph of Teutonic supremacy but at reviving, as he wrote in Twilight of the Idols (1889), an “anti-political” high culture.

The problem was that, in stripping away the layers of external disfigurement that had built up and set over the years, Kaufmann and others denied Nietzsche an interest in politics. The task that Hugo Drochon sets himself is to reinsert some political content into Nietzsche and show that he had a systematic political theory. The result is a superb case of deep intellectual renewal and the most important book to have been written about him in the past few years.

Drochon’s study takes place against the backdrop of 19th-century Europe, as that is where Nietzsche’s account of politics – the fate of democracy, the role of the state and international relations – is best understood. Nietzsche’s sane life coincided with the main political events of his time. He served as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War, witnessed German unification and experienced at first hand the traits of a modern democratic order: party competition, secret ballots, voting and the influence of mass media. He also lived through Britain’s and Russia’s “great game” for control over central Asia. He went mad in the year Bismarck tended his resignation to Wilhelm II.

Drochon traces Nietzsche’s “intelligible account of modern society” in response to these events. Inspired by the Greeks – especially Plato and his mission to legislate a new state and train the men to do it – Nietzsche wanted to establish a healthy culture in which philosophy and great art could be produced. He was certain that slavery was necessary for this (a view that led to his eventual split with Wagner). The “cruel-sounding truth”, he admitted, was that “slavery belongs to the essence of culture”, as the artistic class, “a small number of Olympian men”, is released from the drudgery of daily existence to focus on producing art.

His disagreement with Wagner over the role of slavery led Nietzsche to describe the genesis and decay of the state. He saw clearly, like Hobbes, that the state of nature was “the war of all against all”. But whereas Hobbes imagined the state arising through a contract, Nietzsche saw it originating from a “conqueror with the iron hand”, who “suddenly, violently and bloodily” takes control of a people and forces it into a hierarchical society. Nietzsche then plotted its evolution, from a space within which culture flourished to the modern Kulturstaat, in which culture was appropriated for its own sake. If the state’s birth was violent, its decay was slow and was linked to Nietz­sche’s notorious phrase about the death of God: given that the Christian God was no longer a self-evident foundation of morality upon which societies could support themselves, the state faced dissolution.

Tracing with great forensic skill the minutiae of Nietzsche’s arguments across multiple sources, Drochon never loses the overall narrative thread (an occupational hazard of studying the history of political thought). Nor does he shy away from his subject’s unsavoury views. If Nietzsche’s remarks on slavery were harsh enough, his thinking on eugenics, or his physiologically inflected theories about democracy (which he regarded as the victory of a slave morality – associated with the “dark-skinned and especially dark-haired man” – over a master morality of the “Aryan conquering race”) sound even more repellent. Without wishing to justify these ideas, Drochon reminds us that theories of racial classification were prevalent and acceptable modes of inquiry in the 19th century. It would have been strange if Nietzsche had not drawn on them.

His darker side notwithstanding, many of Nietzsche’s insights speak to our politics now. He foresaw the privatisation of the state, in which “private companies” (Privatgesellschaften) would assume the business of the state, including those activities that are the “most resistant remainder of what was formerly the work of the government” – that is, “protecting the private person from the private person”. He showed how democracies gave birth to aristocracies and could become hostage to a “herd morality”, majoritarianism and misarchism: “the democratic idiosyncrasy of being against everything that dominates and wants to dominate”. He explored the question of wage labour and the increasing hostility between workers and employers and predicted the erosion of trust in
public institutions.

Nietzsche also described how statesmen revive the kind of pathologies that are corrupting European and American societies at the moment: nationalism, racism, intellectual parochialism and political insularity. He knew what he was talking about: Bismarck’s power politics, a tribute to blood (war) and iron (technology), was a “petty politics” that divided nations and peoples. Nietzsche’s “great politics”, by contrast, imagined the unification of Europe led by a cultural elite, the class he termed “good Europeans”, bred by intermixing Prussian military officers and Jewish financiers. Continental union would not only constitute a geopolitical counterweight to Britain and Russia. Good Europeans would, as Drochon writes, create “a new trans-European culture, which itself is specially called on to lead a world culture”.

So, this book has come at the right time. In the light of Britain’s vote for Brexit, which threatens to take us back to a petty politics of nationalism and continental division, Nietzsche’s writings are more significant than ever. Those of us who desire a more integrated and peaceful union with our neighbours cling despairingly – and with receding hope – to his dream that, in spite of “the morbid estrangement which the nationality craze has induced and still induces among the peoples of Europe, owing also to the short-sighted and hasty-handed politicians . . . Europe wishes to be one”.

Nietzsche’s Great Politics by Hugo Drochon is published by Princeton University Press, 224pp, £34.95

Gavin Jacobson is a writer and book critic

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt