Science & Faith come together in the discovery and reburial of Richard III
This week sees the reburial of King Richard III, beginning yesterday (Sunday 22 March) with his body being received into Leicester Cathedral. Because of the circumstances in which Richard died – killed in battle and his remains taken as a trophy by his opponent, Henry Tudor - Richard wasn’t given a royal funeral or laid to rest in a cathedral at the time of his death. Instead, he was buried in a Franciscan friary which was later dismantled during the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. Consequently, the exact place of Richard’s grave was lost to history.
His rediscovery has captured the public imagination, not least because it was so unlikely. But people have also been fascinated by the science involved in finding out whether this surprisingly intact skeleton really is Richard III. The archaeology established that the remains were in the place where Richard III’s grave would be expected to be. The archaeologists’ careful excavation of the remains allowed them to be documented and examined, with the curvature of the spine, which Richard was known to have, clearly visible. Back in the lab, osteology and micro-CT scanning provided for detailed study of the bones, revealing wounds consistent with those received by Richard in battle. Finally, DNA analysis compared DNA from the skeleton with that of known descendants of Richard’s sister, and these showed that they were members of the same family.
Science has allowed the skeleton to be confidently identified as Richard III. This led to a strong desire to rebury these remains, now that we know that they are Richard’s, with the honour due to a king of England. Faith is at the heart of the ceremonies surrounding his reburial. The rituals of the Church give dignity to the deceased, and enable people to express respect, to acknowledge our common humanity and our own mortality, as well as hope for redemption and a reality that extends beyond the finite, material world that we can see.
The ceremonies accompanying Richard’s reburial have provided an opportunity for those who perhaps have little direct contact with the Church to see it at its best. At the time of Richard’s death, the Catholic Church was the only expression of the Christian faith in Britain, and some have said that he should be reburied in a Roman Catholic Church instead of an Anglican Cathedral. But there is continuity between these two expressions of Christianity, and rather than emphaising differences, what has been expressed are the shared beliefs of Catholic and Anglican churches, and the understanding that these go deeper than any divisions, as evidenced by Cardinal Vincent Nichols’ participation in the service in which Richard’s body was received into the Cathedral. The religious services also offer an opportunity for people to see and hear about Christian beliefs about baptism, death and resurrection.
Nowhere in any of this is there a rejection of the science that enabled Richard’s body to be recovered and identified. Quite the reverse. It is on the evidence of the science that the Church has acknowledged these human remains to be those of England’s last Plantagenet king. Here we see science and faith working together to offer one man dignity and peace in death.