This is the text of this morning's Thought for the Day on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme:
Having lived for nine years in Leicestershire and now living in Yorkshire, I feel like I inhabit the tension around the final burial place of King Richard III.
His bones will be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral, less than a hundred yards from the hole in the city centre car park that I found myself looking into 2 years ago. Their symbolic journey has of course been much longer.
But, who was he? Was Richard a megalomaniac psychopathic child killer who was as lousy a monarch as he was a warrior? Or was he a sick victim of someone else's arrows of misfortune, caught up in the political intrigues and power plays of his day? Shakespeare hasn't necessarily helped us in his portrayal of the desperate king who, despite not winning very much at all, at least developed a good line in rhetoric.
What interests me in the Richard conundrum is this not insignificant matter of reputation. Once the mud has been thrown, it is difficult to wipe it off. And, 500 years after his violent – and apparently humiliating – death in battle, here we are doing a balancing act between honouring his short-lived status as an English monarch and creating a battleground of judgements on his inability or otherwise to live up to his calling.
Reputations are hard won, but easily lost. And in the culture of blame and scapegoating that we seem to have developed today, it is especially hard for a lost reputation to be regained. Where there is smoke there must be fire – even if the evidence denies this. Just ask people who have been wrongly accused of crimes or dishonourable behaviour.
Shakespeare himself writes in Richard II: “The purest treasure mortal times afford / Is spotless reputation/ … / Mine honour is my life; both grow in one; / Take honour from me, and my life is done.” But, it didn't stop him having a go at the next Richard in such an elegant way that the king has never quite recovered, did it?
A problem for many people is getting trapped in a reputation from which you simply cannot escape. Once a crook, always a crook; one moral failure, always damned. Yet, one of the scandals of Jesus of Nazareth was his anti-social insistence on setting people free from the prisons of their past – offering the possibility of hope, of new life, and of freedom. According to him, redemption is always on offer – even when self-righteous people resent the fact. Remember the prodigal son, the father who waits in hope for him to return, and the elder brother who resents generosity, forgiveness and new life. According to this way of seeing people and their purpose, to fail is not necessarily to be a failure. The story can never be said to have ended.
Perhaps Richard's bones can now rest in peace… and his re-burial invite us to be as merciful to him as we would wish history to be to us.