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.

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.