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Architecture: the discovery of the skeleton of Richard III raises the vexed question of how he ought to be commemorated. A traditional table tomb design has been proposed, but England's last Plantagenet king surely deserves a more ambitious monument.

The recent, extraordinary discovery of the remains of Richard III--England's last Plantagenet king, killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485--presents an intriguing design opportunity. The defeated king is to be rebuffed not in York, as some have urged, but in Leicester, where his body was originally taken and buried, and his final resting place is to be Leicester Cathedral. Modern Yorkists have been disparaging about this, objecting that it is modern and unworthy. It may have been given cathedral status in 1927, but the former parish church of St Martin is in fact a medieval building, albeit much restored and enlarged in the 19th century. And--unlike York Minster--it would benefit from a striking modern intervention such as a royal tomb--or tomb chapel, perhaps.

The Richard III Society has already published a design for a table tomb for the slain monarch: a traditional concept ornamented with the white rose of York and the cross of St Cuthbert, its flat top relieved by an inlaid plaque and coat of arms 'in gold coloured metal' (Fig. 3). But this seems rather dull and unambitious. The model for such a thing is obvious--the majority of England's kings and queens are interred in or under elaborate tomb chests that are topped with an effigy of the monarch, usually accompanied by their consort. And most of these, from Henry III to Elizabeth I, are in Westminster Abbey. The most magnificent is that of Henry VII--the first of the Tudors, who defeated Richard III at Bosworth--set in the centre of the glorious Perpendicular Gothic chapel that bears his name, surrounded by a metal screen and bearing gilt bronze effigies of the king and his queen modelled by the Italian sculptor Pietro Torrigiano (1472-1528).

After Elizabeth, this tradition faltered, largely owing to England's turbulent history in the 17th century. Projects for tombs--including that of Henry VIII--remained unexecuted or incomplete. Of the Hanoverians who ended up in the Royal Vault in St George's Chapel, Windsor, not even George III, who reigned for 60 years, is commemorated with a fine funerary monument. The tradition of table tombs and effigies was, however, revived by Queen Victoria following the death of her beloved consort, Prince Albert, in 1861. She built the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore in Windsor Great Park to contain tomb chests bearing the figures of Albert and, eventually, herself, modelled by Albert's favourite sculptor, Carlo Marochetti (1805-67). The whole conception of this mausoleum, designed by the obscure A.J. Humbert (1821-77), is Germanic; Michael Hall tells me that the inspiration for the effigies was not the ancient royal tombs at Westminster, but the mausoleum built at Herrenhausen outside Hanover in the 1840s by Victoria's 'wicked uncle' Ernest Augustus, the penultimate King of Hanover, to house tomb chests with effigies of himself and his queen.

Another recumbent effigy of Prince Albert is placed on the cenotaph in the small chapel at the east end of St George's Chapel, which Victoria made into the Albert Memorial Chapel. But this space is now dominated by the tomb of the Duke of Clarence, the unfortunate eldest son of the future Edward VII, a monument clearly inspired by the tomb of Henry VII and surely the finest example of royal patronage in recent centuries (Fig. 1). It was created by the sculptor Alfred Gilbert (1854-1934)--he of Eros in Piccadilly Circus--who gave traditional forms a mysterious, art nouveau character and surrounded the effigy of the prince with exquisite small figures. If an heir to the throne who was, by all accounts, dim and useless, was given a tomb of this magnificence, surely Richard III deserves more than a table tomb.

Given the exhaustive, almost indecent, analysis of Richard III's skeleton with its twisted spine by the University of Leicester, it would surely be possible for a good sculptor to make a suitable effigy--after all, many medieval effigies were not accurate portraits. But then the vexed question of style has to be addressed. The figures on the tomb of Henry VII can be seen as the dawn of the Renaissance in England, but the tomb of the king he destroyed should surely not be in that style. It should rather be Perpendicular Gothic, the vigorous, national English style of Richard's time. But who could design such a thing? We now have a small number of competent modern classical architects, but their attempts at gothic are feeble. Perhaps the only person capable of doing convincing gothic today is Warwick Pethers, the architect responsible for the magnificent crossing tower which now rises above Bury St Edmunds Cathedral (see Apollo, May 2005).

Perhaps a less traditional approach would be more suitable. The last monarch to be buried in St George's Chapel, Windsor, is George VI. He lies, under a plain ledger stone, in a new chapel added to the exterior of the building, tucked between the projecting Rutland Chapel and the north choir aisle. Built in 1967-69, it was designed by George Pace (1915-75) with Paul Paget (1901-85) and, by being in the abstracted and stylised rectilinear gothic manner that Pace made his own, it succeeds in being at once modern and traditional while being a discreet addition to the great medieval building. An addition in this spirit would greatly enhance Leicester Cathedral.

As for the tomb itself, a striking modern solution is suggested not by anything in Britain, but by Prague Castle where, in the 1920s, that great genius, Joze Plecnik (1872-1957), demonstrated how traditional forms can be creatively and sympathetically adapted in a historic setting. Within the castle is the medieval Cathedral of St Vitus, completed in 1929. Soon afterwards, in 1934-35, the royal mausoleum under the nave floor was recast by the architect Kamil Roskot (1886-1945) in a manner which reflects the progressive outlook of the recently established Republic of Czecho-Slovakia. Beneath a low vault covered in mosaic, new tombs were made for the old Bohemian kings that are very different in character to the elaborate monuments in the cathedral above. Some are simple and severe monoliths of granite, relying on surface and chamfer. But most impressive is the new tomb of Karel (Charles) IV, the king of Bohemia, later Holy Roman Emperor, who began the cathedral in 1344. It is of metal, streamlined like a futurist military tank, with further interest given by applied heraldic blocks (Fig. 2). This tomb is extraordinary, unprecedented and yet dignified and suitably imperious. If the proposed new tomb of Richard III were to be as bold and imaginative, the much-slandered and abused Plantagenet king would be appropriately honoured.
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Author:Stamp, Gavin
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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