You couldn’t make it up! A story that, on the face of it, sounds quite improbable. The King in the Car Park … indeed a sovereign in the Social Services Car Park. Richard III, or at least his mortal remains, were discovered on the site of Greyfriars Friary in Leicester, where Richard was buried in the friary church. Following the friary’s dissolution in 1538 the tomb was lost and there were rumours that Richard’s bones had been thrown into the River Soar at the nearby Bow Bridge.
But who was this king? Many a history buff will be able to position him in the royal family tree perched on a branch adjoining that of his nephews who, one might recall, became the unfortunate Princes in the Tower. Richard was elected Protector of these two, one of whom became King following his father Edward IV’s death. But the young Edward V was never crowned and his reign was cut short. Richard III has always been suspected of ordering the dirty deed, but others would also have had much to gain.
Richard was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field which took place on the morning of 22 August 1485 and was against Henry Tudor, the future Henry VII. The death of Edward IV, the disappearance of the princes in the Tower, and the shady succession of Richard III left Henry Tudor’s slight claim to England’s throne worth fighting for. There are many stories of the battle including the suggestion that Richard lost his horse. ‘A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!’ are famous lines from Shakespeare’s play.
The loss of his mount cost Richard both his kingdom and his life. The bones discovered hundreds of years later showed evidence of the blows struck which were described by chroniclers of the time. It seems he was killed by several sword cuts to the skull.
After the battle Richard’s body was brought back into Leicester across the back of a horse. His body was displayed for a few days, and then buried in the Greyfriars Franciscan Abbey which stood close to St Martin’s Church, now the Cathedral. The burial was carried out with little ceremony. And that’s where it remained for the next 527 years until it was discovered in an archaeological dig in September 2012.
In August 2012 Leicester City Council, the University of Leicester, and the Richard III Society began a dig underneath a car park in order to find King Richard III’s remains and the Greyfriars Church. Five months later, the University confirmed that a skeleton found at the site was likely to be Richard III. A call to fame of this monarch is spinal curvature. It’s well documented and was a very visible clue that the skeleton could be the lost king. The spinal deformity has been attributed to Scoliosis which is a back condition that causes the spine to curve to the left or right. Most cases develop in children between the ages of 9 and 14. Richard’s condition was severe enough to be noticeable and would likely have made his right shoulder higher than the left. There was, however, no indication of the Shakespearian withered arm that always gives Richard III a rather sneaking and cringing appearance in classic plays.
After rigorous scientific examination, the University announced in February 2013 that the skeleton found was indeed Richard III. Richard’s remains will be laid in a lead ossuary (a receptacle for the bones of the dead) which will be placed in a coffin made from English oak. The coffin will be lowered into a brick-lined vault below the floor of the Cathedral. He will be reinterred with a lot more dignity than his first burial. His tomb has been designed by the architects van Heningen and Haward who are also responsible for other works at the Cathedral. The tomb is set between the newly created Chapel of Christ the King at the east end of the Cathedral and the sanctuary (the most holy place), under the tower.
Of course one can visit the Cathedral and it’s beautiful but you won’t learn much there about the king who lies beneath. There is a new eponymous exhibition centre just a few steps away and it’s dedicated to Richard, his life, his death and unearthing. The King Richard III: Dynasty, Death and Discovery Centre illustrates every facet of the story using the latest technology. This isn’t dull and dusty history – the animations introduce the visitor to Richard and the life of the period, the Wars of the Roses and power struggles.
The Discovery section guides the visitor along the amazing path of archaeology partnered with science and analysis which lead to the discovery and eventual identification of the bones of Richard III. We can see a model of his skeleton as well as facial reconstruction, giving visitors the chance to see the man behind the legends. There are various exhibits including a suit of armour, artefacts recovered from the burial site, and replicas of historic objects connected to King Richard.
Leicester might not be the first destination that springs to mind when thinking about away-days or touring but the discovery of Richard III has created great interest and Leicester has risen to the task of presenting the fallen king in an accessible and absorbing fashion. Leicester is closer to London than one might think and both the centre and the cathedral are near the station. This is an attraction that will thrill the kids and engage history lovers. Well worth a visit.
King Richard III: Dynasty, Death and Discovery
4A St. Martins
Monday to Friday and Sunday: 10am – 4pm
Saturday and Bank Holidays: 10am – 5pm
Adult (16+ Years) £7.95
Child (5 -15 Years) £4.75
Family (2 adults and 2 children) £21.50
Senior Citizen, Student £7.00
Phone: 0300 300 0900
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018