The War of the Roses – Part: the Second

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Richard III in his grave, © University of Leicester

It seems that there is a tussle over the recently discovered remains of King Richard III.

I am in Leicester to find out about the burial site which was uncovered in the choir section of the Grey Friars church – just a couple of metres beneath the ground in a council car park. The remarkable discovery here of the remains of King Richard III seems to have kicked off the War of the Roses all over again. The Yorkists want ‘their man’ back where he belongs; a society called the Plantagenet Alliance, which includes descendants of Richard’s family, are legally challenging the decision to inter Richard in Leicester. They want him in the former seat of the Plantagenet Kings, York. In the opposite corner are those, loosely, representing the Tudors and want Richard kept in Leicester where he met an infamous end and has laid, buried, for the last 500 years. King Richard was pretty much in enemy territory when he went off to defend his crown at the Battle of Bosworth Field, losing out to Henry Tudor decisively.

Richard III being exhumed © University of Leicester

Hopefully, this time around, there won’t be any hits ‘below the belt’ or ‘body punches’ and it will be a clean fight and not a bloody mess.

Richard became the last English king to die on the battlefield on August 22nd, 1485 and it is remarkable that there was anything left of the vilified king to identify. This was before mass communication, so, seeing was believing. His naked body was slung on the back of Henry’s horse and taken back to Leicester for all to see. Richard was then hastily buried by the friars of one of the local monasteries in a holy section of their church, – a place the public would have never had access to.

At the urging of the Richard III Society, and particularly author Philippa Langley, it was decided late in 2012 that the University of Leicester would dig trenches in the approximate location of where the Grey Friars monastery had been. When uncovering the remains of a slight male skeleton with scoliosis amongst the ruins, the archaeological team knew they might be onto something very important. Using carbon dating and comparing a mitochondrial DNA sample from a descendant of Richard’s sister, Anne of York, they were able to verify this incredible find.

The world’s media were given the final verdict on 4th February 2013, and descended on this former market town in droves. The momentous announcement became an unexpected global sensation with cameramen, journalists, producers and newsreaders in their hundreds covering and broadcasting the story.

reconstructed face of Richard III © University of Leicester

In response to this unbelievable find, guest numbers to Leicester have soared. The city has responded and is making changes for these visitors. First, there is a whizzy new interactive exhibit at the city’s ancient guildhall which details the dig and the discovery. Laura Headland, the curator of this exhibit, had only eight weeks to put it together – rather than the twelve months it would normally take. She had been told in advance of the excavation and that there was every likelihood they would have a significant archaeological find on their hands. Everything would have to be ready, in case this was true, for the announcement on 4th February.

The exhibit features video interviews of four of the University’s academics and focuses on the new information that has been uncovered based on these, and other experts, having analysed the grave site. For instance: the actual grave itself may have been dug hastily and was probably too small for Richard due to the head of the skeleton being found upright. The hands are still tied and his feet are missing due to subsequent human activity (probably gardening). It’s worth taking a peek into the 14th century guild hall next door to see the original stain glass windows decorated with Corpus Christi symbols as well as the prominent cinquefoil. Still riveting and still beautiful.

An excursion out to Bosworth Battlefield, approximately 17 miles away, means seeing where the action took place. There is also a museum, exhibits and monuments in the grounds. Here, another interactive museum allows children and adults to get an idea of what it might have been like to fight a battle in medieval times.

wax model of a foot soldier © Lynn Houghton

A reproduction coat of mail is on hand to try on as well as faux weapons and even helmets, not to mention an excellent exhibit of swords and weapons. Our tour leader, Richard Mackinder, who is one of the metal detectionists on site, really brought the battle to life for us. He explained that the first clue that this might be a battle site was the amount of round shot that was left behind. There have been incredible medieval finds uncovered in farmland nearby, most significant being a white boar (Richard’s symbol) pin probably, at one time, covered with gold. It could have even belonged to Richard himself.

And when you are needing refreshment, the visitor’s centre cafeteria comes to the rescue. I recommend the Blue Cheese and Broccoli soup which is delicious.

Back in Leicester, there will be an entire new visitor’s centre due to open next year that will be housed next to the car park (burial site) which was once a primary school. The excitement will, again, be enormous, particularly if Leicester succeeds in its bid to inter Richard’s remains in Leicester Cathedral. It is clear that the cathedral is making plans in confidence – even though Richard may end up in York. A Swaledale fossil limestone tomb will have pride of place and be engraved with a cross and set into the city’s famous cinquefoil symbol. There will be a further dark Kilkenny limestone section engraved with that white boar symbol and his motto: ‘Loyaulte Me Lie’.

Richard was only King for two years before being usurped. He had been asked by his brother Edward IV, when Edward was on his death bed, if he would become his young nephew, Edward V’s, protector until he was old enough to be crowned king. Soon after the Edward IV’s demise, Richard had both his nephews, put in the tower of London allegedly for their protection. They were never seen again. This is only one of the dastardly deeds and acts attributed to Richard and featured in Shakespeare’s play, Richard III.

Richard III at the Nottingham Playhouse © Robert Day

If you have the opportunity, go to see the first production of Shakespeare’s Richard III since the discovery of the skeleton. It is currently playing at the Nottingham Playhouse until 16th November then transferring to York Theatre Royal. New information gleaned about his death has been injected into the final battle scene, which brings the action bang up to date. The set design is modern, intriguing and atmospheric. Action takes place in the audience space as well which engages everyone in the action.

I can’t say it is easy keeping up with the shenanigans of Plantagenet Kings or the fighting between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians. Authors like Philippa Gregory make it easier with her novels about medieval royal mechanisations. And these novels are now a popular BBC series. It is an interesting part of history that, seemingly, never ceases to fascinate and entertain us. We should know quite soon where Richard’s remains will be interred as, by law, they can only be out of the ground for two years. He will be given a burial by 31st August, 2015.

Whether Leicester or York is the evental resting place of Richard III is immaterial in one sense. Wherever the body lies, visitors will be travelling from far and wide to see the Leicester car park in the first place and his resting place in the latter. New tourist destinations are born.

Watch this space.

Homage to Richard III © Lynn Houghton

For more information on the discovery of King Richard III in Leicester, click here.
To book a Richard III short break in Leicester and Leicestershire call Visit Leicester on 0116 299 4444 or click here.

For a previous Richard III story in CD-Traveller, click here.

Lynn travelled by East Midlands Trains to Leicester.

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