Sermon: Choral Evensong to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Richard III
Saturday 20 August 2016
The Revd Pete Hobson, Director – Leicester Cathedral Revealed
Richard III lost both his kingdom and his life in a brief but bloody battle down the road, 531 years ago on Monday. On this weekend we mark those events, deeply determinative for English history, in a number of ways. There is battle re-enactment; there are talks and entertainments; there are visits to the sites of his death, his place of long-term burial and now that of his reinterment – with elements both of tourism and pilgrimage.
Here in this cathedral there is a particular tone to those commemorations. And if you’ve not visited us recently, you may not yet have had a chance to see the remarkable Redemption windows made for us by Tom Denny as one way of marking the story of Richard’s life and death – and its meaning for us today. I want to return to those shortly.
But at this stage in our nation’s life we’re also marking, year by year and month by month, another more recent part of our troubled history – the centenary of the First World War. I’ve just returned from two weeks’ holiday, during which I came across in a 2nd hand bookshop in North Wales (as you do) a book that may be familiar to some of you, Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer’, in which he relates his first-hand and life-changing experience of that war.
July 1916 saw what was marketed at the time as the ‘Big Push’, designed to break the stalemate of the trenches, but what we now know as the bloody, and ultimately pointless Battle of the Somme. Sassoon was in the heart of that, and I’d like to read to you just some of his words, reflecting on a July night, as he and a colleague watched members of their Battalion returning from the slaughter of the front line.
An hour before dawn the road was still an empty picture of moonlight. The distant gunfire had crashed and rumbled all night, muffled and terrific with immense flashes, like waves of some tumult of water rolling along the horizon. Now there came an interval of silence in which I heard a horse neigh, shrill and scared and lonely. Then the procession of the returning troops began. The campfires were burning low when the grinding jolting column lumbered back. The field guns came first with nodding man sitting stiffly on weary horses, followed by wagons and limbers and field-kitchens. After this rumble of wheels came the infantry, shambling, limping straggling and out-of-step. If anyone spoke it was only a muttered word and the mounted officers rode as if asleep. The men had carried their emergency water in petrol-cans, against which bayonets made a hollow clink; except for the shuffling of feet, this was the only sound. Thus, with an almost spectral appearance, the lurching brown figures flitted past with slung rifles and heads bent forward under basin-helmets. Moonlight and dawn began to mingle, and I could see the barley swaying indolently against the sky. The Flintshire Fusiliers were a long time arriving. We had been sitting at the crossroads nearly six hours and faces were recognisable when Dottrell hailed our leading company. Soon they had dispersed and settled down on the hillside and were asleep in the daylight which made everything seem ordinary. Nonetheless I had seen something that night which overawed me. It was all in the day’s work – an exhausted Division returning from the Somme Offensive – but for me it was as though I had watched an army of ghost is. It was as though I had seen the War as it might be envisioned in the mind of some epic poet a hundred years hence.
The aftermath of battle, pictured in this extract, is also captured in Tom’s Redemption windows, whose role in this Cathedral is to help point us to the sort of creative reflection that may just be good for our souls. The two windows broadly follow the same pattern. In the outer two panes, and the tracery above, scenes are depicted from Richard’s life and death – and in the middle panes some sort of Christian commentary on these is offered. Tom has told us himself that they are inspired by words from the prayers of Richard’s Book of Hours that we often imagine him using: “Lord Jesus Christ, deign to keep me and defend me from all evil, and from all peril, past, present and to come, and always to deliver and help me”.
So, in the left hand pane of the left hand window, at the bottom we see a scene of in the aftermath of bloody battle, with women grieving over their dead and wounded. Above it, a naked body is slung over a horse, and is paraded before crowds on the streets of Leicester. And in the right-hand pane we see below ground a skeleton, and with it all sorts of other artefacts and memorials of past ages, all buried and lost to sight, and memory.
In the right hand window, at bottom right we find Richard and Anne mourning the loss of their young son, Edward, who died aged 10 towards the end of 1484 – and then above that Richard stands on his own, having lost Anne to illness only months later. Beneath him are symbols of royalty – crown, sceptre and orb – cast aside, and in front of him a wood and perhaps a perilous journey. He stands alone.
All of these scenes – and there are others, some of them far more positive – pick up on the essential humanity of Richard, not the monarch but the man. They also raise questions of what really matters to us, who view them, in the light of the fragility of our lives, and the passing of time.
In the centre of the left-hand window is an encounter on a road – two people meeting a stranger. It’s based on the account of our second reading today, of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Meeting Jesus, but in their grief not recognising him – until, that is he breaks bread in their home – which itself is shown in the top tracery of the window. And in the centre pane of the right hand window, another meeting with the risen Christ, offering hope and consolation to an abandoned and grieving Richard. It’s a hope also foreshadowed by the words of Job in our first reading – a reading that comes of course from Hebrew scriptures, and which points us to a wider religious and human understanding. In the midst of his proverbial sufferings, powerfully articulated in our reading, Job can also cling to his own hope, in words familiar to us from Handel’s Messiah: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth, and in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold and not another.”
So what thoughts might this anniversary, and the work of art that is Tom’s windows, prompt in us today? Yes, it might be we can enter more powerfully into the sufferings of the last Plantagenet king? Or indeed of the many more, for the most part nameless, who perished on both sides in that fateful battle? Bringing it closer to home, we might see ourselves as Sassoon’s epic poet of 100 years on, who enters into the pain of the Somme, and the War to End all Wars – that led within less than a generation to a second, equally devastating, world war. Or watching today’s news we might recognise the suffering of the children pulled from the ruins of Aleppo, or the devastating impact of mustard gas, outlawed since that first world war, but seemingly now back in use. But such thoughts, un-tempered by hope, can lead us equally to cynicism or despair.
What Tom Denny’s windows are seeking to voice; what the very design and location of Richard’s tomb in this Cathedral speaks; what the words of scripture read and sung and prayed today bear witness to – is that the many troubles that beset us in life, from whatever source, are not, and need not be – the last word. That the hope of meaning and purpose, of forgiveness and accepting love within and beyond this life – is real and solid. That in Job’s words we can know of a Redeemer God “whom I shall see on my side” or in the joyful exclamation of the first disciples: “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared.”
Whatever our faith or tradition, that hope can shine through. It was most definitely Richard’s hope, in life and in death. The whole point of this Cathedral is to tell you that it can be ours too.
As we invite you to join in with this last very Christian hymn, based on those words of Job, I hope you can do so with your own understanding that, in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “Goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, through him who loved us.”