Easter is here again, and in these modern times it is only too often thought of as a time of pretty bunnies, fluffy chicks, chocolate eggs, hot cross buns and the joys of spring. But in the past it was a very different occasion, for it was the most important time of the year for the Christian church, because it marked Holy Week. Many of us still regard it in this more solemn light, of course, but what was it like in the time of Richard III? In particular, what did Richard himself do at this particular time?
I confess here and now that a lot of what follows has been paraphrased from John Ashdown-Hill’s Last Days of Richard III, in which a great many more details can be found.
In 1485, Easter came only a week or so after Queen Anne’s death (Wednesday, 16th March) and Richard must have been feeling bereft and alone. He had lost his son, and now his wife. . .and the king’s Easter duties had to be attended to. I doubt if he felt like doing anything except shut himself away to grieve, but that was not allowed.
On Sunday, 27th March, Richard must have appeared in public for the Palm Sunday procession at Westminster. It was the beginning of Holy Week, and Richard had to attend to certain religious obligations, not least the traditional “touching” for the disease known as the King’s Evil, better known to us now as scrofula. The ritual had been enacted in England since at least the time of Henry II, and was not confined to Easter, but Holy Week was the main occasion. English and French kings were believed to have healing hands that could cure sufferers; only for scrofula, not for any other condition. And first, the monarch had confessed, received absolution and taken Holy Communion, so that he was in a state of grace.
Then, when he was seated, the sufferers came before him one by one. He washed his hands and then touched the terrible sores of each person. At the same time, a chaplain chanted “Super egros manus imponent et bene habebunt.” (“They will lay their hands upon the sick and they will recover.” Mark 11:18.)
When each person had received the royal touch (perhaps one of the new gold angels, with the Archangel Michael on one side, and “Per crucem tuam salva nos Christe Redemptor” (“Christ, Redeemer, save us by your cross”) on the other.
Richard’s ordeal may not have been as great as those afflicted with this dreadful ailment, but it was bad enough because on Wednesday, 30th March, he had to appear at the Priory of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem (Knights Hospitallers) in Clerkenwell to publicly deny that he intended to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York. And this so swiftly upon Anne’s death.
The next day, Maundy Thursday, he must have appeared at St Paul’s Cathedral for the mass of the Last Supper. After a reading from John 13, it was the ancient custom for the monarch to don an apron and go down on his knees to wash the feet of thirty-two poor men – one for every year of Richard’s life. He then presented them with the apron he had worn and the towel with which he had dried them. “Additional gifts followed, including for each man a gown, a hood, a pair of shoes, bread, fish, wine and a purse containing thirty-two silver pennies.”
On the first day of the new month of April, Richard performed the penitential rite of ‘creeping to the Cross’. This required him to “prostrate himself, and then—without getting up, “slowly approach the symbol of the crucifixion” in a semi-prostrate condition.
There was more, but this is enough to show how much was demanded of the monarch during Holy Week. And in this particular year, 1485, it must have been particularly harrowing for Richard. It was also the last time he would ever see Easter, for on 22nd August that year he died at Bosworth.