I’m just back from Leicester where I attended a service in the presence of the mortal remains of King Richard III. This was such an extraordinary experience, even now, a day on, I’m still trying to process it all. As a long standing member of the Richard III Society, I was overjoyed when his skeleton was found in what were the foundations of the old Greyfriars, a Franciscan friary destroyed at the Reformation. My interest in Richard goes back to childhood. I was born in Leicester and grew up with the old story that the King’s remains had been thrown into the River Soar after the monasteries were dissolved. Growing up, I read widely about Richard and always felt history and, let’s face it, Shakespeare, had painted him with an undeservedly appalling reputation.
Some years ago I attended a Local History conference at the University of Leicester and one afternoon we were taken on a tour of Leicester’s historical sites. On entering the Cathedral I discovered a slab in the ground which stated Richard III was buried at the Greyfriars. I was so surprised I asked the archaeologist who was taking us for the tour how to find Greyfriars. He told me that no-one knew exactly where the friary had been but pointed vaguely in the direction of a road called, unsurprisingly, Grey Friars and I wandered around for some time without finding anything to indicate a location. I know now that I tramped past a certain car park several times without realising how close I was to walking over King Richard III’s remains and the man who pointed me in the right direction – Richard Buckley, the archaeologist now famous for his discovery!
When I arrived in Leicester, I made straight for the Cathedral and was flabbergasted at the long line of people queuing up to see the coffin. Some of the pilgrims had been waiting over four hours to gain entry into the Cathedral. I noticed that the area around the Cathedral had been re-landscaped since my last visit. There was now a large square in front of the main doors and camped out on the grass were film crews and journalists from all over the world with their ladders, tripods and photographic equipment . Next to the grassed area, Channel 4 had set up a portable tv studio from where Jon Snow conducted interviews and reported on events. The atmosphere was unlike anything I have experienced before, a buzz of expectation and excitement that carried on throughout the day and night. I found it quite overwhelming that this story had touched so many people and during the course of the day I met visitors from Australia, Germany and the Philippines who had travelled to Leicester to pay their respects to a king who had died over 500 years before!
The new Richard III Visitor Centre in Leicester is marvellous. Built over the car park area where the grave site was discovered, it tells the story of Richard’s life and death in a variety of interactive and interesting ways. As you enter you find yourself in a palace where characters talk about events in the King’s life. It’s akin to being in a room with them, a witness to all that is happening. Quite amazing. On the first floor of the Centre there is a display about the science and technical knowledge used to find the body and the subsequent examination of the bones. All fascinating stuff. But for me, the most poignant moment was entering the room which displays the grave site. It has all been done with such sensitivity and respect. The floor is glass so you can see the site of the grave and get a feel for the choir where Richard was buried by the friars. Every so often a projection of Richard’s skeleton, as it was found in the grave, is cleverly cast into the grave itself, showing how he was buried in haste after Bosworth. I spent a long time sitting by the gravesite, reflecting on the appalling treatment meted out to a man who was, after all, an anointed king of England.
Sitting by the grave many visitors wanted to be still and pause a while yet they also wanted to talk. I had many conversations with people, some wearing a white rose or Richard III funeral badge or in the case of one German lady, a velvet cap similar to the one he wears in the famous National Portrait Gallery painting. She and her photographer husband had flown in from Frankfurt to pay their respects and would have travelled anywhere to be part of this astounding event.
Later that evening, I queued with about 600 other people who had been lucky enough to be given a ticket for the Richard III Society service in the Cathedral. We took our seats just in time for the seven o’clock start, filing past his coffin which was draped in a specially designed pall, covered in figures not only from his lifetime but with those members of the Society mostly responsible for finding Richard in the first place. It shouldn’t be forgotten that it was because members of the Society and Philippa Langley in particular, persevered with what most people thought was a mad idea, that the grave site was eventually discovered and Richard’s remains recovered.
It was a solemn and moving sight, the coffin, draped in the black velvet pall with a simple crown on the top; a crown very similar in description to the one that Richard wore on his helmet at the Battle of Bosworth.
The service was led by The Reverend Alan Hawker and The Very Reverend David Monteith, Dean of Leicester. The sermon was preached by The Right Reverend Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester. Members of the Society read about Richard from contemporary sources. Philippa Langley’s reading from Sir George Buck’s biography was very touching. Buck was Master of the Revels in James I’s reign, he also served as a government envoy to Queen Elizabeth I. His biography critically analysed the accusations made against King Richard and then defended him, uncovering hitherto unknown sources such as the Croyland Chronicle and the Titulus Regius which justified Richard’s accession to the throne.
There were many moments to reflect silently on this very surreal occasion. How was it possible that a King of England, lost for over 500 years, was now here, in this Cathedral about to be reburied in the county where he lost his life? There was an odd merging of timelines – 1485 – 2015, the king whose name was so completely blackened by the Tudor propaganda machine yet who was, by all accounts, a loyal man, a fair and conscientious ruler; from medieval England to the 21st century. The sense of time shifting back and forth was bewildering! It still is.
As I walked thoughtfully back to my budget hotel room, I was thinking about the connection I have always felt to this enigmatic man. When I reached the Travelodge I was amazed to find that on the site of the hotel had stood the Blue Boar Inn, the place where Richard III had supposedly spent his last night on earth!!