There is a phenomenon that I haven’t yet read as being tackled in academic literature to date: funerary re-enactments. In this post I suggest they can serve as a ‘second funeral’ for historical personages, and sometimes they do involve archaeologically derived funerary remains and medieval cityscapes and buildings, as well as re-enactors.
They truly bring history to death.
I’m aware of Viking enthusiasts recreating funeral scenes, and there is most famously the Shetland ‘Up Helly Aa‘ festival. However, this is now becoming an integral part of civic ceremonies serving to honour the medieval dead.
I’ve discussed the problematic nature of the public dimensions of the excavation and narratives spun around Richard III before. Here, it is worth noting that this constitutes a funeral re-enactment of sorts, since his remains were afforded an elaborate city spectacle of a second funeral in 2015 with many overtly antiquated (‘medieval’) dimensions in terms of clothing, costumes, art, architecture and setting. This certainly shows the dramatic scale and character of public spectacle that are now being reached resulting from the endeavours of mortuary archaeology, from car park to cathedral.
Richard III’s funeral and reburial was a public television phenomenon in 2015 that lasted 5 days. The University was fully in on the pomp and ceremony. The events began with handover ceremony at the University of Leicester where the remains purported to be Richard III’s were placed in a full-length modern coffin and then processed to the Bosworth battle site on a gun carriage. The coffin was therefore treated like the war dead and royalty: the gun carriage procession was however last afforded to Margaret Thatcher. The cortege was a heavily militarised event, and there were both modern serving personnel and re-enactors at the battlefield. Cannons fired a salute in Richard III’s honour.
His remains were then processed in a modern hearse around Leicestershire villages before a procession, back on a gun carriage, with knights in armour on horseback, through the streets of Leicester towards Leicester Cathedral. In addition to the many thousands who participated at the University, battlefield and villages of Leicestershire, 20,000 people queued to pay their respects at the coffin and its shroud in the cathedral before his second funeral service took place. After this ceremony within the cathedral, the remains were laid to rest in an expensive newly designed tomb, again carried by military personnel.
As the funeral service articulated: ‘here in a cathedral, history meets the present. Here, eternity breaks into time’. John Simpson described it as a ‘time collapse’ when the medieval period ‘burst through into the 21st century’.
Everyone is watching Doctor Who these days.
More than this though, the entire process was one of ritualised rehabilitation. The elaborate multi-staged and multi-location ceremony did not simply perpetuating existing modes of remembering Richard III. It was all invention, focused on restoring Richard III to some imagined ‘rightful’ place in English history and his relationship with Leicester, its cathedral and its university.
Of course it is a cheap shot but not irrelevant to point out that, for the most ethnically diverse city in the UK, with only 50.6% or so describing themselves as ‘white British’ in 2011. Yet the media reports I’ve seen portrayed the celebrations almost entirely white. While school kids and families from the city and surroundings were wheeled out and young people accompanied those attending, this was largely a white middle-aged to senior citizen event by all accounts. And as noted, it is a military, Christian and royal one, and thus an overtly political ceremony for the establishment. Again, it must also be noted that it was an international phenomenon, with people travelling from over Europe to attend and see his remains. However, it was primarily a celebration of the English regions: the East Midlands city, and the Yorkist affinities of the king. Hence, from within England, Yorkshiremen showed considerable interest, celebrating ‘their’ king, with a faction lobbying hard and wasting vast amounts of money in a legal bid to have his remains ‘repatriated’ to York.
So with Richard III’s funeral, we have perhaps the most ‘gammon’ public mortuary archaeology to date. Medieval mortuary remains were deployed to celebrate fantasies of national origins, and fantasies of a nation that might have been.
What could possibly come next in the zest for public engagement with archaeological discoveries involving funerary re-enactment/second funerals? Well, there are always plenty of ‘anniversaries’ that might involve re-enacted funerals and/or second funerals, and yes, you’ve guessed it, we’ve just had another.
Well, we’ve just had another prominent funeral re-enactment, if not as momentous in scale as that of Richard III. In this case, no human remains (dead ones) were involved. Still, why this particularly interests me is that it relates to a late Anglo-Saxon royal figure: the daughter of Alfred the Great, Aethelflaed (as recently featured in The Last Kingdom).
To mark the 1100th anniversary of the passing of Aethelflaed ‘Queen of the Mercians’, there’s been a host of events. A new statue was unveiled last month in Tamworth celebrating her popular status as a ‘warrior queen’ brandishing a spear. Now Gloucester is hosting a series of events this weekend. This evening there are talks by Carolyn Heighway and Michael Hare, Janina Ramirez and Tom Holland, but yesterday there were other events, most notably a ‘Saxon Funeral Procession’.
The website states that:
‘This year marks the 1100th anniversary of Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia’s death and her burial in Gloucester. Gloucester will be celebrating this occasion with a series of living history, archaeological and musical events.
So what can we learn about this ‘Saxon funeral procession’? Well, it was a Christian procession, with a local actress – Samantha Swinford, 27, – winning a competition to lie like a corpse for a good long while, and thus play Aethelflaed herself in death (she died aged c. 48-49 years old).
We can see from the clips on BBC news that the procession went from the Severn where her body arrived in a very small (apparently 19th-century) Viking-style longboat announced by the blowing of a horn. The slow and tedious arrival of the boat led to an awkward attempt to disembark her ‘cadaver’ from the ship.
She was then processed through the streets of the city led by Gloucester’s town crier. The bier (described by the town crier as a palanquin) led the procession: it was decked with flowers and tapestries suspended from its sides. It was carried by 8 monks in black and grey habits with incense wafted in front of it and a bell rung.
Behind the bier were two ‘Saxon warriors’ on horseback followed by a crowd of people in vaguely early medieval clothing, some plausibly early medieval. I was pleased to see at least one person sporting later medieval costume and one in a plastic horned helmet and some kind of deer-antler staff, so at least some people weren’t taking it quite so seriously.
There is a longer narrative of the early part of the procession here, where her importance is framed around her roles as a ‘warrior princess’ who laid out Gloucester’s cityscape and who was probably interred at St Oswald’s. During the procession, someone asks ‘is that really her?’ The journalist replies ‘I don’t think she’d look quite like that, given it was 911 AD when she died’.
There was chanting, seemingly involving nuns and the town crier then blowing his horn before a speech is made. He makes the point that this coincides with 100 years of the winning of women’s suffrage as well as the 1,100th anniversary of Aethelflaed’s death.
There was then some kind of open-air Christian memorial service held at St Oswald’s Priory at the end of the procession. I presume they didn’t bury Swinford in the abbey ruins, and thus kill a promising actress and (more importantly) damage a scheduled ancient monument.
We can clearly see how this was an attempt to create a multi-focal spectacle in the city to mark the anniversary and to link together the river, the street-plan and her final resting place at the priory.
What can we make of this? One can be quite anthropological about it if you like. Drawing on Robert Hertz’s influential essay of 1907, we might regard these as a ‘second funeral’ process, by which, after an extended duration, a new narrative is woven around the ancient dead. Through this funeral, the dead body, the soul, and survivors, enter a new realm of understand of the past and the dead person. In this fashion, it could be perceived to be a transformation of identities of both the living and the dead; constructing an historical celebrity and civic ‘ancestor’.
Like aristocratic funerals in early Rome where actors could be employed to play ancestors, here we have a similar process but in this case the individual was playing dead.
A sense of historicity is essential, and the costumes and the weapons and armour are all part of rooting this in the past (or bringing ‘history to life’). More than this though is the sense of place: linking together the Anglo-Saxon cityscape of Gloucester and her place of burial, now lost in specific terms, but estimated amidst the later medieval ruins.
Of course age is key too: the dead are made to look young and beautiful, not old and ridden with disease.
If you weren’t convinced by my critique of the funeral of Richard III, the Aethelflaed funeral makes it clear. Sure there have been others: the 500th anniversary funeral of Prince Arthur at Worcester for example. We are living in a neo-Victorian era of royal necrophilia, in which the medieval dead are fair game for appropriation for civic celebrations, and thus for patriotic evocations of nationhood.
What will future anniversaries and archaeological digs provide in terms of these ceremonies? Well, that’s one thing about mortuary archaeology, it is the gift that keeps on giving: bringing history to death as much as bringing it to life.