The Oscar-nominated actor explained why he felt compelled to be involved in Thursday’s service of reinterment at Leicester Cathedral, where he read the poem Richard by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy.
Cumberbatch, who is the king’s third cousin, 16 times removed, plays him in the forthcoming BBC series The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses.
He said: “Having just played his very different Shakespearean characterisation I was intrigued to see what the real historical event would be like and to be a part of this extraordinary moment of remembrance. Then what really sealed the deal was this beautiful poem.
“It’s an extraordinary moment to be witnessing a monarch who has been found after hundreds of years in a car park being reinterred in a cathedral hundreds of yards away. It is a very special thing to witness, let alone be asked to perform at.”
The Sherlock star, 38, revealed how he watched with amazement the Channel 4 documentary, The King In The Car Park, which showed historian Philippa Langley leading the Leicester excavation in 2012 to reveal Richard’s skeleton, 527 years after his death at the Battle of Bosworth.
He said: “As it unfolded you realised the discovery was real, the drama was unheard of in a documentary like that. It wasn’t a high profile programme but it became so because of what they discovered. There was a glorious romanticism about that.”
Cumberbatch believes the rediscovery of the much maligned monarch’s bones has changed the world’s perception of him. “I think the debate in historical and archaeological terms about the reality of him and his kingship is what’s extraordinary to witness now,” he said.
“We’ve all known the play for a long time but now it feels we’re getting to know the king better and to be living in that era is very special.”
Cumberbatch is still in two minds about the king, who remains accused of killing his cousins, Edward V and Richard, the Duke of York, the so-called Princes in the Tower. “I’ve no qualms in viewing both entities of the man in completely different categories,” he said. “The fi ctionalised Shakespearean version of him, while based on some truths, has taken huge dramatic licence. I don’t come down on one side. Both need to co-exist.
“It has brought up a debate about how history can be re-imagined and retold and how something so important to us of old can suddenly have new life. Those are positives we should concentrate on.
“We’ve got an extraordinary play about power and about an adolescent outsider being turned into a despotic ruler but it is called a tragedy. He realises by the end of the play the error of his ways.
“That is extraordinary dramatic art but the real Richard story is becoming equally dramatic so I think both have a place in our culture and one should not cancel the other out.”
The newly married actor, whose wife Sophie Hunter is expecting their fi rst child in summer, recently fi lmed scenes for the Sherlock Christmas Special and will play Hamlet at London’s Barbican Theatre from August to October.