Everyday Heroes, Heroes Everyday

This post is something of departure. It has nothing to do with history and is very personal. I am writing it because I made a promise over the last week or so. This is part of the fulfilment of that promise.

I won’t go into too much detail, but my son has been quite unwell for 11 years now. He had a brain tumour and seven spinal tumours aged 7. He had surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. He has lived with the consequences of these things for a decade, but he has lived. He is at college now. My believe in God and His power to affect our lives has always been with me, a part of who I am. Eleven years ago it was put to the test, and it did not wither. It blossomed.

Having just spent a week in hospital with suspected viral meningitis, he is now on the mend. When he had three seizures in as many hours, my first instinct was panic, but it was closely followed by one to pray. Utterly desperate prayer, but I needed to pray.

The absolutely amazing doctors and nurses sprang into action all about. I was lost on a tiny, dark, island of helplessness. I could do nothing. I was unable to contribute anything to his physical care. That’s a horrible feeling, but then I began to pray. Just as I had hit the emergency button to call for help from the medics who poured into the room, I hit the emergency button in my soul and called upon more help. And I believe that too poured into the room.

I called our friends. No. Friends simply doesn’t do these two amazing people justice. They know who they are, but I don’t know a word to sufficiently describe what they mean to us. They prayed, and they asked others in their church for prayers too. This may be lost on some people, it was not on us.
My faith is strong. I feel it challenged too often for my liking, but it’s not about my liking. I’m weak enough to find doubt hammering at my faith like a wrecking ball sometimes. But my faith is stronger than any doubt, stronger than me, and it does not fall. Without it, I don’t know what the last decade would have been like, but I believe it would have been even worse than it was. I believe that God saved my son. I do not seek to demean or belittle the incredible work of the surgeons, doctors and nurses who treated him. I simply see God’s hand in their work. Mankind is obsessed with understanding every single detail of our world. We never will. It is in that percentage we cannot explain or quantify, however small it is and however it diminishes, that I believe God is.

I am surrounded by heroes. I think I am the extraordinary one for being ordinary. Doctors and nurses spring into action to fix the physical. Family, the best friends a man could hope for, and the community of a church who don’t really know us, but open their hearts and give their prayers for my son, heal every bit as much as the medicine and the care that surrounds him in the hospital. The two are never at odds in my mind. They complement each other perfectly.

My son never complains. He never refuses a treatment, however often and however unpleasant. He is beyond brave, he is beyond strong. He is a hero who approaches life with a joy and enthusiasm that defies the challenges it constantly levels at him.

My other children are a forgotten brand of hero. They keep life going. Their presence and love is nourishment and comfort. Their steadfast strength, care for their brother and ability to cope astounds me. They are the rock upon which I face a tidal wave, certain it cannot reach me. They have been deeply scared by all that has happened, those most terrible of scars that no one can see, but they remain perfect and precious. Their contribution is no less than the doctors and nurses who treat him. A cheeky message from a sibling is a morsel of normality when there is nothing familiar to reach for, a torch grasped by desperately seeking fingers in the terrifying darkness.

People are heroes. God is their superpower. You don’t have to believe that for it to be true. My faith doesn’t need validation or approval from anyone but God. Yet I know plenty will think it folly to believe in such things in this modern age of science and medicine, engineering and progress. There often seems to be a choice between God and the modern world, as though He has no place in it, as though He has to justify our belief in Him. Why can’t the two go hand in hand? Faith is an old fashioned concept, out of time. This couldn’t be father from the truth.

All of this leads me to ask a question: What is faith in the 21st century? For me, it’s personal, but defines the person people know me as. I don’t want to bash anyone with faith. It’s the wheels that keep me moving, not the bright paintwork. If you don’t see it, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. My faith steers me and the way I live my life is the demonstration of my faith. Ministry is important, vital even, but there is more than one way to achieve it.

I want people to think of faith as a soft cushion when life is uncomfortable. It’s jelly and ice cream when you’re feeling unwell. It is the reason I am. It is the reason I do. It is the reason I am thankful, because I do not see God at work when things go wrong, I see Him at work in how thinks turn out. My wife always says that all prayers are answered. The answer just isn’t always yes. That is when faith is hardest to have, when it is tested the most, and when it is most needed. I can’t explain why bad things happen. No one can. For every one that it is tempting to think God should have stopped, I wonder how many He did prevent without anyone even knowing. Who thanks Him for those?

Faith is different to religion. Religion is the group expression of faith, regulated by carefully structured and often fiercely guarded doctrine. Church is an amazing place, but I don’t buy any of the denominational doctrine. I know plenty do, and I respect that. I believe God can hear you, however you speak to Him and wherever you do it. I don’t believe there is a wrong way to worship Him. Worshipping Him is always right. I am often dismayed that doing the same thing in a different way can be a cause for argument and war. Jonathan Swift had it right in Gulliver’s Travels. It’s really like an argument over which end of an egg you should crack. It simply doesn’t matter. You still get egg. The furious argument is wholly manufactured. By whom, when, why and how are all forgotten. Just the argument remains, now self nourishing, set in perpetual motion, and deemed essential in spite of no one knowing why it should be necessary. However you name God, and however you worship Him, it only matters that you do so. This is the bridge that we should build to connect us, not the armed roadblock to be thrown up to keep us separate and desperate when neither are required. Faith should unify the world. Religion instead all too often divides it. We, as human beings, have focussed on, and continue to focus every day upon our differences, and ignore what draws us together.

I have no issue with people of different colour to me, different religion, different sexuality, different political views. I have no issue with these things because that would be to focus on what makes us different. The point many will make is that religious texts order us to despise these differences. Nonsense. Can you really say that you believe in a hateful, spiteful God? I fear Him, of course I do, but I have faith that he will love me as long as I am trying to do right. He doesn’t see success or failure, He sees your intentions. That is what exists only between you and God. And between every other person around you and God. That unites us. It is not my place, nor is it yours, to judge. That power and right is reserved for God. I will not spend my life determining who I am better than, who I am more entitled to God’s love than. That is between them and God. What is between me and God is the way I live my life. Do I choose to live it in hate and judgement, or in love and acceptance, deferring to God that which is His anyway?

I heard a sermon once that I found incredible in its simplicity. The Old Testament speaks of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It excuses, perhaps even encourages, vengeance to a level equal to the hurt inflicted upon us. Or does it? It is equally possible that this was the enforcement of a limit upon revenge rather than an encouragement to it. You may take an eye for an eye, but no more. The limit was required to prevent spirals of vengeance running out of control rather than to encourage the seeking of retribution. It was hope, that one day such a limit would no longer be required because there would be no hate. We still have that hope. It is a mark of human interpretation that we choose to see entitlement to bloody, gory revenge rather than a limitation upon it born of hope.

What is faith in the 21st century? It’s precisely what it was in every other century. It is belief in love over hate. It is hope in the victory of what connects us over what divides us. It is comfort in a hard world. As we push ever forward, what are we trying to reach? Truth? Knowledge? Power? Are we not reaching for God, even if we have forgotten that is what we are doing?

I believe in the power of prayer. I know what God can do. I pray. Because I am human, I worry that it isn’t enough. But I have faith and support. That, to me, is religion.

KRIII Visitor Centre Review

I have heard plenty about the King Richard III Visitor Centre in Leicester. Some positive, including the recent architectural award that the centre won, but plenty that was less complimentary. I finally made it there to judge for myself with my daughter and, for those who may be interested, here are my thoughts on the exhibition, entitled Dyansty, Death and Discovery.

Richard III Statue outside Leicester Cathedral
Richard III Statue outside Leicester Cathedral

After buying our tickets, the first room to which we are directed is a flag stone floored chamber containing a throne, on which sit two discarded roses facing defiantly away from each other. This room offers an introduction to the Wars of the Roses from key figures in the life of Richard III – Cecily Neville, his mother, Richard Neville, the Kingmaker Earl of Warwick, Richard’s guardian as he grew to manhood, Vincent Tetulier, an armourer creating harness for Richard, Anne Neville, Richard’s wife and Edward IV, his brother and king. The brief tales they tell us mark stepping stones in Richard’s passage through the Wars of the Roses.

The Roses on the Throne
The Roses on the Throne

The throne was a cause of some controversy, with talk of the floor running with blood as a marker of Richard’s crimes. This was most likely taken out of context. Throughout the video, landmarks of the Wars of the Roses are projected onto the floor before the throne – the Battle of Towton etc – and shadowy blood seeps down from the throne. This very clearly relates to the prolonged bloodshed of the Wars of the Roses and caused me no offense. With a map of the battles of the Wars of the Roses and a family tree tracing the lines from Edward III to those involved in the troubles, this marks the Dynasty element of the display.

A example of the display in front of the throne
A example of the display in front of the throne

To the left of this room is an exhibition of the fabulous work of artist Graham Turner, whose medieval paintings are stunning. There is a fine array of his work here and it is a display not to be missed.

From the other side of the entrance display, the Visitor Centre walks us through the events of 1483 and Richard’s ascent to the throne. We are presented with the facts and offered opposing conclusions that can be drawn from these. Was Richard out for the crown from the beginning? Or was he reacting to events that happened around him? Whilst the displays may point out that most historians believe Richard was driving the events of that Spring and Summer (which, let’s face it, they do), it proffers the opposing view for the visitor to make up their own mind.

As you would expect from an exhibition that has seen input from the Richard III Society amongst others, the facts offered are just that – facts. I couldn’t fault any of them and there was no malevolent undercurrent dragging the viewer’s opinion of Richard down. A fine example of this is the display relating to the disappearance of Edward IV’s sons, the Princes in the Tower, which goes no further than noting that their uncertain fate cast a shadow over Richard’s reign. There can be no doubt that it did, and still does, but the exhibition does not lead the visitor to a pre-determined solution to the mystery.

The Princes in the Tower
The Princes in the Tower

I gave a talk in a local village recently on the life of Richard III, and told those listening that I couldn’t provide them answers to most of the questions that I would ask. It isn’t an easy approach to take because it sets the message up to be unsatisfying, creating more questions than it answers. The easy thing for the Visitor Centre to do might have been to perpetuate the shadowy myths many believe they know. They have not taken this easy route and I applaud them for taking the risk inherent in not providing definitive answers and presenting the controversy as just that.

As we moved through Buckingham’s Rebellion and displays detailing the influence on events of France, Brittany and Henry Tudor’s rise, and with Bosworth looming, I was struck by the incredible design work done within the displays. Each is crisp, clear and well presented. The information is accessible and the presentation clever. I even raised a smile at the Stanley ‘Swing-o-Meter’, and it’s not very often that that name paints my face happy!

The Stanley Swing-o-Meter
The Stanley Swing-o-Meter

The display unashamedly informs us that the precise events at Bosworth are not clearly known, but that a view of the battle can be assembled from the fragments that have come down to us. Richard’s cavalry charge is dealt with as either a planned gambit, or an opportunistic reaction to the course of the battle, but a miscalculation either way. Is there much there to disagree with? The installation of pole-arms gives pause for thought. It is stark and brutal, just as Richard’s end was.

My one and only criticism of the exhibition comes here. It is a missed opportunity, an unfortunate perpetuation of a long-standing myth and a pet peeve of mine. We are told that ‘Shakespeare puts into Richard’s mouth an APPEAL for means of escape’ (display’s emphasis). No he doesn’t. The ‘A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!’ quote is almost always taken out of context as a display of cowardice. In the context of the whole speech, it’s meaning is perfectly clear:

KING RICHARD III:       A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!

CATESBY:                      Withdraw, my lord; I’ll help you to a horse.

KING RICHARD III:      Slave, I have set my life upon a cast,                                        And I will stand the hazard of the die:                                        I think there be six Richmonds in the field;                                       Five have I slain to-day instead of him.                                       A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!

Richard calls for a horse. Catesby thinks that he means to flee, or at least encourages him to do so. Richard responds vehemently that he has cast the die of fate and will face the consequences. He has no intention of fleeing. He tells Catesby that there must be six Henry Tudors on the battlefield, because he has killed five men who he had mistaken for his enemy. He calls once more for a fresh horse, but he wants it to return him to the fray, to allow him to continue hunting Tudor, not to flee. Even Shakespeare, like every other writer on Richard’s end at Bosworth, concedes Richard’s bravery amongst the plethora of faults he imbues his character with. Even Shakespeare cannot deny him this. It would have been nice to have seen this misconception challenged rather than reinforced.

Shakespeare's Richard III
Shakespeare’s Richard III

From here, the exhibition moves upstairs and it is a clear demarcation between the Death and the Discovery elements of the exhibition. The downstairs area has a thoroughly medieval feel that fits perfectly with its story. Upstairs is bright and crisp, telling the story first of Shakespeare’s version of Richard III and theatrical depictions through the ages. Revisionists such as Josephine Tey and Paul Murray Kendall get a look in at this point to, presenting both sides of Richard’s reputation through the centuries with equal weight.

Richard's Revisionists
Richard’s Revisionists

The connection between Shakespeare and Richard III is something many wish to disentangle as the main source of a conceived and incorrect image of Richard. I don’t think that this is necessarily required. It is the way in which many will first come into contact with Richard III and a proportion will go no further. Ricardians can harness Shakespeare to increase exposure to the truth. I have never viewed Shakespeare’s Richard III as anything but a masterpiece and I will never alter that opinion. But it is fiction. And the exhibition does a very good job of pointing that out to the visitor. For example, the story, we are told, draws upon an ancient notion of the evil uncle. It is clearly presented as fiction and I have to applaud this.

The story then moves through to the Discovery section, with details of the Looking for Richard Project’s initiation of the work, continuing through the University of Leicester’s involvement in the dig. I didn’t feel that the contributions of the Looking for Richard Project were belittled or sidelined. We listened to interviews with Philippa Langley and, although they didn’t occupy as much space as the details of the dig itself, which focussed on the University, their contribution was well presented.

Then there is the now infamous ‘Stormtrooper’ white suit of armour. It is, indeed, very white. Numbered blue stickers relate to a key beside the suit that names each of the pieces of armour that Richard would have worn. I didn’t feel that it created the impression that this was Richard’s actual armour, nor that his armour was bright white. Perhaps it might allow that misinterpretation I suppose. Museum curators have pointed out that such techniques are accepted and not uncommon teaching methods which, if anything, prevent the impression that this is an original suit of armour worn by Richard. That kind of suggests that the display couldn’t win either way. It’s either a Stormtrooper or creates a false impression of having Richard’s actual armour. Which is the lesser of those two evils? A decision had to be made. I didn’t find it ridiculous, though it didn’t quite seem natural either. Maybe it wasn’t meant to. It would certainly have been out of place downstairs, but fits in upstairs.

The Armour
The Armour

We also saw the 3D print out of Richard’s spine and then the 3D recreation of the full skeleton with details of the wounds found on the remains. The marks detailed and clearly visible were powerful reminders of a savage death in a time we barely understand now. It was not only Richard that suffered this fate. Many others did at Bosworth, and many thousands had over the previous decades of civil war, countless further suffering similar fates in France. Neither was Richard the last to suffer in such a way, but it is a very personal and poignant moment to see what was done to a named individual, especially one who I have studied and tried to understand for so long.

The 3D Spine
The 3D Spine
3D Skeleton
3D Skeleton

Moving back downstairs, the final part of the exhibition leads to a quiet room with a glass section of flooring which overlooks the still-exposed site of the grave in which Richard III was found. Across the back wall is carved a verse from a prayer that can be found in his personal Book of Hours, a common prayer in his day, asking for God’s help in time of trouble, and offering him thanks for the gifts that He grants. I thought that this room was beautifully done. I don’t know quite what I expected, but I was thoroughly impressed.

Prayer from Richard's Book of Hours
Prayer from Richard’s Book of Hours

I was fortunate enough to visit the dig site during one of the open days, though we couldn’t see this site at the time. At intervals, a projection of the skeleton identifies the exact spot that the remains were found and how they were laid out. Although I think I see the need for this, I am glad that it isn’t on all of the time. The vacant space was enough for me. Looking into it, surrounded by buildings of so many eras, it reminds me how close the grave site must have come to complete destruction and eternal loss plenty of times.

The discovery of Richard III’s remains is an opportunity that was realised against all odds by a dedicated team at the Looking for Richard Project. I have nothing but respect and gratitude for their work. The University deserve a good deal of credit to for their technical expertise and experience in carrying out the dig. What has followed has often been unseemly and, in my opinion, unnecessary. I thoroughly understand that many deem it more than necessary and I do not seek to diminish their conviction nor challenge their right to it. If we seek to present Richard III as a more tolerant figure than history has passed to us, shouldn’t we also be more tolerant of differing views amongst ourselves?

I recently wrote to The Leicester Mercury and they were kind enough to publish my letter on their website. My call was to stop trying to portray Richard at either pole of the ‘goodie’ and ‘baddie’ scale but to seek out and try to understand the real man. The discovery of his remains has been far more divisive than I wish it had been. I think, if I’m honest, I was dreading the Visitor Centre pouring fuel onto the fire, kindling the destructive flames and peddling unreasonable, traditional nonsense in a sensationalist bid to cash in on the discovery.

I was very, very pleasantly surprised.

Okay, an ardent Ricardian may not learn anything new about Richard’s story, but for me, this should be aimed squarely at challenging what those who are less interested believe they know about Richard III.

The Visitor Centre achieves this.

By presenting the options without defining the conclusion the visitor should reach.

By using stunning graphics in a well defined and delineated space.

By pitching a message at exactly the right level.

By rounding it all off with a stunning, peaceful place to contemplate all that you have seen whilst reminding you that this is a very human story.

The story of a man.

I would thoroughly recommend going to see the exhibitions at the King Richard III Visitor Centre. An informative experience if you know little of the truth about Richard III.

A poignant space if your interest runs deeper.

Whatever you fear – misinformation, a lack of respect – lay those fears to rest. Richard III is done justice in that space. At least, I believe he is. Why not visit and see what you think?

Perhaps it is time for an end to York v Leicester, and a time for united Ricardians v the lies.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences of the Centre.

I have written more about Shakespeare’s Richard III at mattlewisauthor.wordpress.com/2013/06/02/william-shakespeares-richard-iii-the-convenient-villain and at royalcentral.co.uk/blogs/history/the-defence-of-king-richard-iii-part-4-bosworth-shakespeare-that-horse-14699.

The letter on The Leicester Mercury website can be found at www.leicestermercury.co.uk/Richard-III-Stop-looking-saint-demon-try-man/story-24519152-detail/story.html

Matthew Lewis is the author of a brief biography of Richard III, A Glimpse of King Richard III along with a brief overview of the Wars of the Roses, A Glimpse of the Wars of the Roses.

Matt’s has two novels available too; Loyalty, the story of King Richard III’s life, and Honour, which follows Francis, Lord Lovell in the aftermath of Bosworth.

The Richard III Podcast and the Wars of the Roses Podcast can be subscribed to via iTunes or on YouTube

Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor.