In August 2012 a skeleton was uncovered in a car park in the city of Leicester where the medieval church of the Greyfriars once stood. In February 2013 the bones were positively identified as those of King Richard III who had died in the Battle of Bosworth Field on 22nd August 1485 and whose mutilated body was hurriedly and discreetly buried a few days later. Although given a Christian burial, the grave was poorly prepared and remained unmarked – the victor of the Battle of Bosworth, Henry Tudor, did not want to create a site of pilgrimage for supporters of Richard.
Researchers had been working for a number of years on the theory that the skeleton might be buried on the site of Greyfriars and the approval for an archaeological dig was eventually given. Whilst there was every hope that the remains of the friary might be found, the chances of coming across the grave of King Richard were considered to be minute. But within days, the skeleton was unearthed and within months, positively identified. The history of the death of King Richard and the story of this remarkable find are told in a fascinating exhibition housed in the new VisitorCentre built around the original site of the grave where the discovery was made.
The first part of the exhibition briefly tells the history of the Plantagenets and the Wars of the Roses, ending with Richard’s death on the battlefield. This is dramatically depicted in a work of art, showing three weapons smashing through a red glass wall, representing the three fatal wounds inflicted on Richard’s skull. Five other weapons represent the non-fatal wounds also inflicted on his body, some possibly after his death.
The astute among you will notice that in front of this display is a portrait of Shakespeare who is inextricably linked with the story of Richard. He features heavily in the remainder of the exhibition, one important aspect of which is a presentation of the ‘facts’ surrounding the creation of the enduring image we have of Richard as an evil tyrant. Shakespeare, of course, must take his share in the blame for this, although with the benefit of hindsight we now realise that he was simply reflecting the views of the age and specifically, an age in which any questioning of the legitimacy of the Tudor reign could be interpreted as treason and end on the executioner’s block or the hangman’s gallows. The probably much exaggerated fact of Richard’s deformity was a convenient way to reinforce his evil, monstrous nature. It has now been proven by the discovery of his skeleton that Richard did indeed suffer from a curvature of the spine. However, this was not only a quite common condition, it was also one that does not appear to have disabled him unduly – the King could still lead his army into battle. It is extremely unlikely that he had any kind of hunchback and there is certainly no evidence that he suffered from a club foot.
The current exhibition, perhaps not surprisingly, tries to balance the received view with other facts regarding the good Richard did for his country during his short reign and many alternative theories are explored, for instance, regarding the disappearance of the ‘Princes in the Tower’.
The other main aspect on which the exhibition concentrates is the recent history – the actual discovery and identifying of the body. Using excellent displays, the archaeology, history, DNA technology, facial reconstructions, medical techniques and so on that led to the very quick, positive identification of the skeleton are all explained vividly and clearly.
This replica is used to explain in great detail the horrific wounds inflicted on Richard’s body – almost too much information!
But it is interesting to reflect that had this discovery been made even in the last century, it is unlikely that the technology would have been available to determine anything much about it. Perhaps Richard has waited for 527 years to be found so that we can now attempt to piece together his true story.
The Grave Site
The original grave of Richard III is incorporated into the Visitor Centre, though in a room of its own which is sizeable so as to accommodate visitors. It is plain and painted in subdued colours. Glazed panels cover the excavated pit and a glass pillar stands over the actual grave so that no one can stand directly over it. An image of the skeleton, indicating the position in which it was lying, is projected into the pit. The atmosphere is both solemn and respectful. This was, after all, the grave of a king. The Centre has done well in meeting the challenge of displaying what is, on one hand, just a hole in the ground, but one which once held a royal body.
Richard’s bones were reburied in March this year in the newly created Chapel of Christ the King. The impressive tomb is of pale polished fossil stone with a cross incised deeply into it. It rests on a black marble base which displays the King’s name, dates, his motto and his personal coat of arms realised in inlaid marble chips. The stone is tilted slightly towards the east in the traditional way of Christian burial, to face the rising sun and the direction in which Christ is assumed to appear at his second coming. The signage in and around the Chapel encourages visitors to treat it as a place to reflect upon the themes of faith and resurrection, as well as on the story of Richard.
The embroidered cloth which covered Richard III’s coffin at his reburial was particularly beautiful. It is decorated in gold and multi-coloured threads and depicts a number of images: knights, seraphim, Anne, the wife of Richard in full regalia, and various individuals connected with the discovery of Richard’s bones and their eventual identification. Medieval clerics and present day clergy of Leicester Cathedral make up one group of figures, while the scientists of the University of Leicester who assisted with the carbon dating of the bones and the DNA sequencing, formed another. Philippa Langley, who was instrumental in the discovery, is easily recognised. The pall is effective in linking the past and the present and in representing the heritage of Leicester.
Bettina Harris and Jill Francis, Library Support Assistants