A visit to Leicester to see a King who died 530 years ago and is being re-interred on Thursday 26th March 2015.
When a skeleton was found in a car park 2 ½ years ago in September 2012 just six hours into the start of an archaeological dig that was funded on the feeling, no one knew just how much attention they would receive. After countless scientific tests and DNA matching it was confirmed the skeleton in a Leicester council car park was that of the lost King, Richard III. The last English monarch to die in battle in 1485 at Bosworth.
After 2 ½ years of testing, planning and even the odd argument about the treatment of Richard’s mortal remains it is finally time to put the last Plantagenet King to rest. A stunning final journey began on Sunday 22nd March where a coffin made from Richard’s descendant left the University of Leicester for the last time and placed in a hearse where his journey began. Travelling to Bosworth and the location of Richard’s death he was given a private ceremony before beginning his final journey. A more dignified journey than the last time he was taken from the battlefield, slung naked over a horse where he was attack and abused from the army escorting him to his grave. The cortège travelled through all the local villages whilst heading back towards its final destination of Leicester Cathedral. What started in a car park would end in a Cathedral.
When it was announced that King Richard III would lie in repose until he was re-interred and the public could visit the Cathedral to pay their respects, I was in no doubt, I had to go. So on Tuesday 24th March at 9am I set off for the hour’s drive towards Leicester. I was hoping more than anything that the weather would stay nice and the rain would hold off.
I parked up and consulted the map of how to find my way to the Cathedral, I really didn’t need to do that though as I only had to cross the street to find myself with the end of the vast queue in front of me in Jubilee Gardens. After reading reports from the previous day’s queues I prepared myself for a long wait. However, the queue was moving quite quickly and before I knew it we were the other side of Jubilee Gardens. Whilst here Phillippa Langley joined the queue to talk to a group of Richardians, it was quite strange seeing the lady ultimately responsible for all these events just standing casually chatting to others.
As the queue began moving towards the Cathedral we soon approached the corner of Peacock Lane and was greeted with the ‘Waiting Time 2 Hours’ sign but we had been previously informed that the queue was moving at a quicker pace and it was be significantly less than the two hours. As we were moving along Peacock Lane many of the team who were involved with the dig for Richard were walking along the queue chatting to those waiting this included Richard Buckley (lead archaeologist), Dr Turi King (genetics analysis) and Jo Appleby (osteology expert).
It was an honour to see them talking away to everyone and sharing in the experience of the day. Richard Buckley even said that about the interest and events’ surrounding Richard III was “anything beyond what anyone could have ever imagined”. I can understand what he meant, when it was predicting finding Richard was going to be a one in a million chance to then actually finding and identifying him, it’s so unbelievable they must constantly be pinching themselves.
The queue then began its approach towards the Cathedral, via the back of the Channel 4 temporary studio in the corner of the Cathedral Gardens. The queue was so well organised everyone was very patient with the wait and just got on and chatted to others. It was very well managed as well with clear signs as to where to go and how long was left. The Cathedral itself is magnificent and to see the approach adorned with Richard III’s banners and emblems really added to the spectacle of the event and brought medieval history into the present.
At 1pm we reached the front of the queue just as a Eucharist was about to begin. The Cathedral was staying open but photos were not allowed so I decided to move to the other queue and wait. So it was another hour but it was worth it. This is probably my only critism of the event we were moved to a smaller area where a queue began to form but as more joined it turned into chaos. It was clear it would be an undignified rush to get into the Cathedral but the security did handle it well even dealing with the few that were annoyed. But with that out my mind and not finding it much of a problem as we would all still get in I finally began my walk into the Cathedral at 2.15pm.
There were so many white roses walking into the Cathedral and walking in the coffin of the last Plantagenet King greeted us, a humbling moment to see history in front of my eyes. The black funeral pall embroidered with Richard’s life to his discovery. On top of the coffin lay a crown designed and commissioned by John Ashdown-Hill especially for the re-internment and also a 15th Century bible. Richard was a very pious man in a time when religion was everything. We were hurried through to keep the queue moving which meant I could not take a minute to think about the man, who controversial as he was, ruled England for just 777 days until I was back outside the Cathedral looking back into the coffin. The coffin was surrounded by a vigil of four retired veterans who did a fantastic job keeping the mortal remains of the King safe with honour.
Leicester Cathedral did an amazing job. The tag line of ‘With dignity and honour’ has certainly been fulfilled by all of those involved.
After seeing Richard III I decided to go to the King Richard III visitor centre. It was also very busy with a small wait until an available slot. The centre itself is an impressive former school building overlooking the car park in which the King was found. To the left of the entrance the group was directed to a small room where a selection of art work was on display that depicted the events of the Wars of the Roses. With the instructions to return to the first room upon hearing the bells tolling we saw an introductory video that shows where the country was just before Richard’s reign began.
The start of the exhibition sees the death of Richard’s brother, Edward IV and the resulting chaos. It doesn’t focus much on the ins and outs of Richard taking the crown. There is a section of the Princes in the Tower, just enough to get you interested in the story so you can research it more when you leave. It swiftly moves onto what Richard achieved as King in his short reign before a good section on the Battle of Bosworth and the events that led to Richard’s death at the hands of the Tudor army.
The next part of the exhibition is via the cafe to warm up after spending so long queuing I needed a hot drink. Once refreshed I continued upstairs where we are to examine the many different interpretations of Richard over the years from Laurence Olivier’s Shakespearean Richard to Aneurin Barnard’s portray in Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen. It was an interesting and thought provoking section as to what we think of Richard. Was he evil? Did he kill the Princes? Or did he do a lot for his country in a short space of time?
Beyond this was the part many wanted to see how King Richard III was found. Many amazing artefacts from the dig accompanied the exhibition including documents that were filled in and the responses from parliament about the exhumation of the bones they found. This led into the science behind the discovery including a replica of the bones for all to see how he was found.
The exhibition then led towards the facial reconstruction of Richard, newly updated to incorporate the recent news that he had blue eyes and blonde hair as a child. I saw the replica at Sudeley Castle in 2014 with the dark hair so seeing it now did feel a bit strange with all the portraits and images we have of Richard with dark hair now to see him blonde just didn’t feel right to me.
With the upstairs part of the exhibition done I headed back downstairs to the highlight of the exhibition, the exact spot where archaeologists found the remains of Richard III. After seeing Richard earlier in the Cathedral to see the place where he was originally laid to rest was special. Seeing the cramped location that Richard was hastily buried in really made me appreciate that he was found and now is being buried in a more dignified and royal way.
Both Leicester Cathedral and King Richard III visitor centre did a fantastic job dealing with the crowds and attention that has been received over the last few days and tomorrow (Thursday 26th March) we will see Richard III re-interred with a service befitting a King.