Bones of Contention: Catholic Burials for the Remains of Kings Richard III and Alfred?

Bones of Contention: Catholic Burials for the Remains of Kings Richard III and Alfred?

As the Church of England, known popularly as the Anglican Church – along with its American cousin, the Episcopal Church – struggles to find its place while rapidly incorporating 21st Century social mores and cultural shifts into its flexible theology, there’s a temptation to think of England and her national church as one.

Certainly, the fact that the British monarch is head of the C of E reinforces that notion, but it was not always thus – as emphasized by two recent historical finds connected to great British kings.

Until Henry VIII defied the pope to put away the loyal wife he had already received papal permission to marry (since she had been betrothed to his older brother, who died) in order to marry his mistress, whose head (among others) he later lopped off for infidelity, England, Christian since the first century, had been directly linked to Rome since the 6th century. She was Catholic for a thousand years, building glorious churches and monasteries.

However, under Henry VIII (who reigned from 1509-1547), Catholic churches were appropriated into the new C of E over which Henry appointed himself supreme leader, creating a perfect, enclosed circle in which not even God superseded the authority of the king in any practical way. The monasteries and church interiors were ravaged, sacred art was destroyed, and a millennium of culture was torn apart.

The Catholic Church survived in England (and Scotland, Wales, and, of course, Ireland), but since the British monarchy had made loyalty to the C of E and to the Crown one and the same, acknowledgement of British Catholicism’s deep history and cultural influence rapidly waned. It’s likely that many modern people, even Britons, don’t truly comprehend that Henry, for all his many flaws, was a Catholic, and so were the previous inhabitants of his throne stretching back centuries.

Whatever your opinion of the relative merits of the Catholic Church or the C of E, that doesn’t change history.

In August 2012, human remains were found beneath a parking lot in Leicester in central England. They were later identified by DNA and other physical findings (including severe scoliosis) to be those of King Richard III, who was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. He was hastily buried on the grounds of Greyfriars, a friary of the Friars Minor, also known as the Franciscans, the order founded by the saint who gave Pope Francis his name. Greyfriars was established sometime shortly before 1230 and dissolved under Henry VIII in 1538.

Initially, the plan from the University of Leicester, which partnered in the excavation, was for the king’s remains to be re-interred in a big multicultural, multidenominational ceremony at the Anglican St. Martin’s Cathedral in Leicester.

The university’s website explains: 

Richard III was king of England at a time before the Reformation, when the separation of what we now call the Church of England from what we now call the Roman Catholic Church took place. Neither of those named would have meant anything in his time. The concept of consecrated ground for burial is identical in the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England. All Church of England churches founded before 1537 were originally what we now call ‘Roman Catholic,’ and are full of burials that were originally Roman Catholic. So, the fact that Richard III was Roman Catholic should make no difference for his reburial in a beautiful medieval church building that is now a Church of England cathedral.

Well, the term “Church of England” would have meant nothing in the 1400s because Henry VIII had yet to forcibly split the Catholic Church in England away from the See of Peter. The term “Roman Catholic Church” may not have been in wide usage in the 1400s, but it’s not actually the name of the Church anyway. It’s been used colloquially in recent centuries, mostly in the English-speaking world, to differentiate churches in communion with Rome from those that aren’t, particularly the Orthodox, Anglican, and Episcopalian churches.

However, for their own reasons, some choose to blur that distinction.

As explained in a document at, the website for the Catholic Eternal Word Television Network, “The term caught on mostly in English-speaking countries; it was promoted mostly by Anglicans, supporters of the ‘branch theory’ of the Church, namely, that the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of the [Nicene] creed was supposed to consist of three major branches, the Anglican, the Orthodox and the so-called Roman Catholic. It was to avoid that kind of interpretation that the English-speaking bishops at Vatican I succeeded in warning the church away from ever using the term officially herself: It too easily could be misunderstood.”

The term “Roman Catholic Church” is actually found nowhere in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, which were released in the early 1960s. The proper name is Catholic Church, which has been in widespread use since the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., when the Nicene Creed was formulated. Yet its history is older than that.

The written account of the 155 A.D. martyrdom of St. Polycarp, bishop of the Church of Smyrna – a document which dates to the time of the martyrdom – states that before his death, St. Polycarp remembered “all that had at any time come in contact with him, both small and great, illustrious and obscure, as well as the whole Catholic Church throughout the world.”

Even before that, around 107 A.D., St. Ignatius of Antioch, in his farewell letter before being martyred in Rome, wrote to Smyrna, “Where the bishop appears, there let the people be, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”

So Richard III would have had a clear understanding of what the Catholic Church was and wasn’t, and if told a church had denied the primacy of the pope, he wouldn’t have understood it as being Catholic. So it’s reasonable to assume he’d rather not be buried in a non-Catholic church.

Since, in the War of the Roses between the Houses of Lancaster and York, Richard’s family was on the winning side, it’s also reasonable to assume he’d like to be buried in York.

Subsequent to the original decision, the Plantagenet Alliance – a group of 15 non-direct descendants of Richard III’s family founded by Stephen Nicolay, the 16th great-grandson of Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York (father of Richard III) – sought a judicial review of the Ministry of Justice license that allows the university to decide on the burial site. The group wants Richard buried at York Minster. It’s a former Catholic cathedral converted into an Anglican one, which had a number of tombs, windows, and altars destroyed during the reign of Henry VIII’s daughter, Elizabeth I.

The next court date for this dispute is on March 13.

In addition, other petitions have been started to see Richard also buried in York, but in a current Catholic cathedral, with a funeral rite drawn from Catholic tradition.

Also weighing in on the side of a Catholic burial is Dr. John Ashdown-Hill, whose research led to the discovery of Richard III’s remains. He told the BBC, “There is a lot of evidence that Richard III had a very serious personal faith.”

Regarding burying Richard in a non-Catholic church, Dr. Ashdown-Hill said, “If Richard III had not… died, maybe the Anglican Church would never have existed.”

Writing in the Catholic Herald, leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster William Oddie insisted, wherever the burial is, that it be done with a full Catholic Mass similar to the form that would have existed in Richard’s time. Oddie’s also clear on where he doesn’t want it to happen, writing, “As long as it’s not in Leicester Cathedral (close by the site of his final humiliation), I don’t mind where it happens.”

Now a second king is in the mix.

Earlier in January 2014, archaeologists announced that they may have found the remains of the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred the Great, lost since the Reformation. A pelvic bone discovered in Winchester is now confirmed to either belong to Alfred, who died in 899 A.D., or to his son Edward. A military leader who successfully routed the Vikings from Wessex, and was also a scholar and philosopher, Alfred has near-mythical status. He was never king of all England, but he laid the foundations for the unified nation that came later.

If there was no Anglican Church in Richard’s time, there certainly wasn’t one in the 9th century. Yet there was a Catholic Church. Alfred’s possible remains were originally found in 1999 beneath the former site of Hyde Abbey, a medieval Benedictine monastery also dissolved, looted, and demolished under Henry VIII. Coffins and remains unearthed during the ransacking were themselves desecrated, robbed, and stripped of valuables.

The royal house of the West Saxons – of which Alfred was a member – had its capital in Winchester, and its members were traditionally laid to rest there. Reburying Alfred in the Anglican Winchester Cathedral would no doubt be a grand event.

Dr. Dominic Selwood, a former barrister, novelist, and historian, wrote recently in the U.K. Telegraph, “It would be all too easy, and a splendidly English fudge, to lay him to rest in an imposing Anglican cathedral to the accompaniment of soft, dreamy Reformation motets and a movingly poetic Elizabethan C of E liturgy.”

“But it would be just plain wrong on so many levels. Alfred wasn’t a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, which is a historical absurdity. He was, like all his kin, a White Anglo-Saxon Roman Catholic.”

Selwood writes that Alfred made a pilgrimage to Rome and was made a consul by Pope Leo IV, that he was friends with Pope Marinus I, and that he frequently consulted with clergy and theologians. He also translated Latin texts into Anglo-Saxon, including Scripture, papal writings, and St. Augustine’s Soliloquies.

So, Selwood wants him buried in a proper tomb in Westminster Catholic Cathedral, with a solemn rite in Latin, a language Alfred understood.

“And,” he writes, “at the same time, let’s see if we can cease coughing loudly at the mention of England’s embarrassing Catholic past, deluding ourselves that the heroes of medieval England were all secretly proto-Protestants with a clandestine suspicion of Rome.”


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