Richard III Remembered With Embroidery

Yesterday the body of England’s King Richard III was reburied in Leicester cathedral, over 500 years after his defeat and death at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Archaeologists found his makeshift first grave under a parking lot in 2012. (It’s deliciously ironic how “found under a carpark” is now the phrase that must appear in all news coverage of a man who once wore a crown.)

Although Shakespeare and history books have focused on Richard’s bloody role in the War of the Roses, the proceedings this week were about his historical significance and also his vulnerable humanity.

Perhaps most poignantly, earlier this week Roman Catholic Cardinal Vincent Nichols said a special requiem mass for the dead king. A moment of remarkable Anglican-Catholic cooperation, it also symbolized how even the most powerful people on earth still need God’s redemptive grace.

Better still, Cardinal Nichols wore an historic chasuble believed to be from Richard III’s royal wardrobe. Dating to the late fifteenth century, the embroidered robe is now in the collection of former Catholic seminary Ushaw college. The UK Catholic Herald described its embroidery detail:

The Westminster Vestment is an example of Opus Anglicanum (English work), the rich, complex and beautiful works of ecclesiastical embroidery for which England was famous during the Middle Ages.

It has been made from velvet cloths of tissue linked together with silver-gilt brocading thread, with the figures cut from coloured silks and attached to a golden background.

The chasuble depicts the Crucified Christ with the Roman soldier Longinus expressing his belief that Jesus is the “Son of God”. It features depictions of St Nicholas, St Catherine and St Pancras, the teenage Roman martyr whose relics were brought to England by St Augustine of Canterbury.

Image via Catholic Herald

It’s truly magnificent, and a great example of church vestments of its era. Velvet, metallic thread, and highly symbolic embroidered scenes are all hallmarks of opus anglicanum. The motif of angels collecting Christ’s blood in chalices while He hangs on the cross is a particularly popular recurring image, emphasizing the Eucharist’s connection to calvary.

Intricate chasubles and copes fell out of favor after the English Reformation. Centuries later, as I discovered in my master’s thesis research, Anglicans and American Episcopalians would rediscover the beauty of medieval English needlework and try to replicate its prestige in their own churches.

It’s interesting how the black pall covering Richard’s simple coffin while it was on view this week also featured embroidered figures, including a six-winged seraph. It appears that opus anglicanum has come full circle, once again an important element of royal religiosity in England. As Cardinal Nichols pointed out in his homily, Richard III lived and died as a Catholic, whatever his sins. While some of his successors would have cringed to see such liturgical ceremony, he would have acknowledged the symbolic significance of copes and chasubles.

Whether Richard and his Gilded Age imitators were using that liturgical beauty to pad their own egos is definitely possible. But in the end, everyone dies and ends up helpless under a liturgical cloth.

Via Getty Images

Today opus anglicanum pieces are treasured artifacts in museums, including the V&A in London and from the same time period, like this elaborate velvet chasuble, at The Cloisters in New York City. If you ever visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s castle on the upper West Side, be on the lookout for this velvet chasuble and other amazing vestments.