They gave him the Archbishop of Canterbury, scattering holy water. Plus John Sergeant, from Strictly Come Dancing. And Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey.
For his service of reinterment, Richard III was honoured by a congregation of the truly great and good.
And then, towards the climax of proceedings, the formerly maligned monarch was granted possibly the greatest honour 21st-century Britain can bestow. A slim figure in a dark suit, white Yorkist rose badge in his lapel, strode to the lectern. Yes, Benedict Cumberbatch, star of Sherlock, really was going to read a poem by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy.
“I once dreamed of this,” he intoned, his sonorous delivery filling Leicester Cathedral, “Your future breath in prayer for me…”
No more was Richard the royal maligned by dark forces, portrayed as a tyrant in briefings from Tudor courtiers and compliant scribblers like William Shakespeare.
He was The People’s Plantagenet, his memory honoured by his blood family – (well, Cumberbatch is his third cousin, 16 times removed.)
Hundreds lined the street outside, straining for a glimpse of proceedings. No-one demurred when, during the eulogy, Professor Gordon Campbell, public orator of the University of Leicester, declared: “Richard III has the greatest following of all English monarchs, apart from our present Queen.”
Her Majesty had herself provided her own message for the order of service – surely out of genuine respect, rather than any need for concessions to strong public feeling.
“We recognise a King who lived through turbulent times,” she wrote, with practised diplomacy, about a monarch who had he won the Battle of Bosworth would have ensured a very different line of royal succession.
There was, of course, some polite acknowledgement of those who don’t buy the image makeover and keep banging on about an alleged murder of princes in the tower.
“Whether we are Ricardians or Shakespeareans,” insisted the Right Reverend Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, in his sermon, “whether we see through the eyes of Olivier, McKellen or Cumberbatch, today we [all] come to accord this King, this child of God, the dignity and honour denied him in death.”
But it felt a lot like we were all Plantagenets now – even if our ancestors fought on the other side at Bosworth.
In 1485 Conrad Penny’s ancestor William Stanley led the charge that ended with Richard III being hacked to death. But as he prepared to attend yesterday’s service, the 63-year-old property broker from Johannesburg, South Africa, was playing up his Plantagenet side, stressing he was also descended from Richard’s brother George, Duke of Clarence.
“I am essentially aligned to the Plantagenets, not to the behaviour of Stanley, the naughty ancestor,” he said.
On the order of service, Richard III was styled as he was in his lifetime: “By the grace of God, King of England and France and Lord of Ireland.” They had commissioned Richard’s 17th grand nephew Michael Ibsen, 58, a Canadian-born, London-based cabinet maker to make the oak coffin.
And they had borrowed from Lambeth Palace, not just the Archbishop of Canterbury, but also Richard III’s personal prayer book, his Book of Hours.
As a bearer party of six Army sergeants carried the coffin towards his final resting place, HRH the Duke of Gloucester, chest bristling with medals, accompanied them, bearing the Book of Hours.
Archbishop Justin Welby splashed the coffin with holy water, wafted the incense, and said the final prayer – “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The coffin was lowered beneath the floor of the cathedral.
The grave will be sealed by a tombstone consisting of two tonnes of Yorkshire Swaledale stone. Already the plinth bore the revered king’s name, his coat of arms marked out in semi-precious stones.
Perhaps Her Majesty will be relieved to learn that at the end of the service, everyone did still sing “God Save The Queen”. Two verses.
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