As someone who works in heritage but also loves to visit and enjoy it, my time off often has the feel of a busman’s holiday. This Easter was no exception. As well as visiting a local museum and a National Trust property, I also took a trip to Leicester to visit the Richard III Visitor Centre and to see his new tomb in Leicester Cathedral.
Until the public announcement of the discovery of Richard’s body in early 2013, I had little knowledge or interest in him as an individual. Like many people I suspect my view of him was coloured by Shakespeare’s characterisation in his eponymous play, and particularly by Laurence Olivier’s somewhat odious, although absolutely brilliant, portrayal in the 1955 film of the play, a clip from which is below.
With an interest in battles and battlefields I had visited Bosworth (22 August 1485) and seen where Richard fought his final battle. Although the exact location of the battle is now a matter of dispute, so perhaps not – but I digress! Nonetheless whilst being interested in the battle that led to his demise, my knowledge of him as a person was limited. However, the 2012 project to search for, and ultimately discover, his remains piqued my interest, and in April 2013 I made a trip to Leicester to visit the temporary visitor centre that had been created, very enterprisingly, to pick up on the excitement around the discovery. This small display was well executed, particularly as it had been put together at short notice, and I came away feeling that there was more to Richard and his story than I first thought.
In 2015 I watched his re-interment in Leicester Cathedral with the splendid pomp and ceremony that accompanied it, and was surprised by the levels of public interest that the whole process seemed to attract. As a result I undertook to re-visit Leicester and the expanded, and permanent, visitor centre that had been opened in July 2014 ahead of the reburial.
This new visitor centre is located in the old Alderman Newton’s School, a Victorian building, which itself sits on the site of the old Grey Friars Church, in which Richard III’s body had laid buried for over 500 years. The entrance is an impressive new glass construction with a large portrait of Richard to welcome you, and friendly and helpful staff to greet you on arrival.
The visitor journey begins with a short overview film that sets Richard’s life in context. One then enters the museum proper, which is divided into two distinct parts. The first, on the ground floor, introduces Richard the man, his rise to power and his crowning in July 1483. At this point the rehabilitation of his reputation begins as the positive aspects of his reign are highlighted, which included legal reforms, the banning of restrictions on the printing and sale of books, and, on his orders, translation of the written Laws and Statutes from the traditional French into English. At this point one is being persuaded that he wasn’t really all that bad! The museum also addresses one of the more controversial issues surrounding him, the infamous deaths of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ and offers some plausible explanations. This part of the museum then includes coverage of the Wars of the Roses, a section on the Battle of Bosworth and the death of Richard in combat. Finally it concludes with his, first, burial in Leicester.
The museum displays then continue on the upper floor of the building with a two part exhibition. The first area looks at how Richard has been portrayed, particularly in popular culture, and especially how Shakespeare helped to shape his, rather poor, reputation. The second half of this floor looks at the archaeological project that was started in September 2012 to discover and uncover the body. This section is particularly impressive as it highlights the various stages and techniques involved in carrying out the search, the dig itself, the discovery and recovery of the body, and the identification and investigation of how he was killed. Further displays look at how DNA fingerprinting was used to prove the skeleton was Richard III and how CT scans were used to help build a 3D facial reconstruction of Richard, which is now housed in the exhibition. This part of the museum is fascinating and has content that appeals to a wide-ranging audience, both young and old, expert and amateur.
The visit concludes back on the lower floor again where the actual grave site in which the skeleton was found can be seen under a glass floor. In all the story of both Richard himself and the discovery project are very well told, with understandable and engaging interpretation. The content strikes a good balance between accessibility and detail, and there is a nice range of interactive elements both physical and digital. And like any good modern museum, the centre has a cafe and a small, but well-stocked, shop.
Concluding the visit to the Visitor Centre does not however have to be the end to a Richard III themed trip to Leicester. A minute’s walk away across the road one can enter Leicester Cathedral and visit the tomb of Richard where he was re-interred on 26 March 2015. As can be seen in the picture below, the tomb is very impressive. The top is made from a single piece of Swaledale limestone from Yorkshire, whilst the base is Kilkenny marble and bears his coat of arms.
But a visit to the cathedral is also not the end and there is more to see in the city. A Richard III walking trail has been developed to guide visitors around Leicester city centre, and to highlight a number of relevant sites such as the location of the famous Blue Boar Inn where it is said Richard stayed the night before the Battle of Bosworth. The City of Leicester has clearly identified that this discovery has captured the public imagination and has done an excellent job of integrating the wider city into the overall Richard III experience.
So having visited this museum, and the city of Leicester, has my view of Richard III changed? Well I think it has. I am afraid I can’t now accept at face value the Shakespeare (or Olivier) portrayal of Richard. I am sure that he was no angel, but to be a ruler in the late Middle Ages must have required a high degree of ruthlessness and determination. On the other hand it is clear me that in his short reign he did make some efforts at reform, and had a genuine desire to improve the governance of England. I would therefore encourage people to visit Leicester to draw their own conclusions about Richard. Although I have to conclude by saying that for me, on the matter of ‘Princes in the Tower’, my jury’s still out!