Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Richard III: of hearses and hearse cloths

Though last Sunday's procession for Richard III may seem impressive and stately to us, I invite you to consider the possibility that funerary processions (though perhaps not to the same scale) were a relatively common sight even among the commons of the Middle Ages, thanks to the efforts of the guilds. The procession to the church was a visible call for the entire community to come together to mourn and pray for the deceased's soul.
A hearse cloth dating to 1539, London.
After being brought into the church, the medieval; denizen's coffin was borne over a hearse; not the car or carriage used to transport a body, but a metal frame which suspended candles over the body while it rested in the middle of the church for one to three nights before the burial. Traditionally, it would have been placed on the hearse, covered with a hearse-cloth (or a pall), and then the clerks would sing the evensong Office of the Dead, beginning with the Placebo. Most parish churches owned a simple hearse cloth for all parishioners to share, but among the wealthier classes, it was common to commission a specially embroidered cloth with fantastical designs to ensure that the deceased would be remembered.
Artist Jacquie Binns embroidered the hearse cloth that currently lays over the coffin of Richard III while it awaits reinterment. While it's not what I would have designed, to say the least; and I'm perplexed at how the organizers neglected to build a hearse at all; I can at least appreciate how the artist decided to incorporate the likenesses of several people who were instrumental in the recovery of the king's remains, including Philippa Langley and Dr. John Ashdown-Hill. Some of those personages appear in Channel 4's excellent documentary on the search for Richard III's remains below (even if, as Langley later complained, the documentary made it seem as though she was in love with Richard): Richard III - The King in the Car Park.

One of the more elaborate examples of a hearse, in the medieval sense.
One of two or three surviving hearses in all of England. This one is over the tomb of Sir Richard Beauchamp in Warwick.
Another is the Marmion Tomb, West Tanfield.

Other entries during "Richard III Week":

-Today in history: Henry IV: the man whose claim to the crown started the troubles that led to the Wars of the Roses

-The first day: Richard on tour: select photos from the procession on Sunday, and the cardinal-archbishop of Westminster's Compline homily

-The Bible in Richard's day, and, was Richard a proto-Protestant?: on the king's reading habits and what to make of his Wycliffe New Testament

-A requiem for Richard: on the Requiem Mass, the king's faith, his book of hours, the cult of purgatory, and the chantry chapels of Richard's age

-Of hearses and hearse cloths: looking at Richard III's funeral pall and dressing the dead in medieval times

-Richard III's claim to the throne: sanguinity, statue, or sacrament?: Examining Richard's dynastic claims and what makes a king the king

-O God of Earth and Altar: a hymn by G.K. Chesterton, used at the reinterment on Thursday

-The poet laureate on Richard III: the poem at the reinterment. Also, Benedict Cumberbatch.

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