Leicester’s King Richard III Visitors’ Centre or how to commemorate a king

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King Richard III Visitor Centre, Leicester. Roses on an empty throne.

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Site of Richard III’s tomb with light projection outlining the position of his body

At the end of July 2014, the much anticipated King Richard III Visitor Centre opened in Leicester, almost 2 years after the momentous discovery of the body of Richard III in Leicester’s Greyfriars Church in August 2012 by a team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester, working in collaboration with the Richard III Society in  dig that caused quite a stir, both in anticipation of a possible discovery, and even more so after the announcement in February 2013 that a series of scientific tests had established ‘ beyond reasonable doubt’ that the body discovered in Leicester was indeed that of Richard, Duke of Gloucester (easily confused with his father Richard, Duke of York!), the last of the Plantagenet Kings. The  search for Richard III became a Channel 4 Documentary, The King in the Car Park, and  it’s quite remarkable really that 2 years down the line, there is still hardly a week that goes by without another mention of the King and his discovery in the papers. There is now a MOOC, England in the time of King Richard III, and the University of Leicester has both scooped numerous awards for its outreach work following the discovery of the body in its grave in the choir of Leicester’s Franciscan Friary (the Greyfriars) and also set up a fabulous website, http://www.le.ac.uk/richardiii/ which includes links to the most recently published research on the dig (Richard Buckley et al.,
‘The king in the car park’: new light on the death and burial of Richard III in the Grey Friars church, Leicester, in 1485, Antiquity, vol. 87:336, 2013, pp.519-538). But in all the hullabaloo surrounding the discovery, one question surfaced very early on- what do you OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAdo with the body of the dead king? And, where should it be reburied? This question has only recently (May 2014)  been finally resolved following a judicial review that confirmed that the terms of the original licence for exhumation granted to the University of Leicester in August 2012 should be upheld and that Richard III is to be reburied in Leicester. Preparations for this are by now well underway in Leicester with the opening of the Visitor centre as a first step in an ambitious project that is remodelling both the Cathedral precinct with a new memorial garden and a statue of Richard III, culminating in the construction of the burial site and monument in the nave of Leicester Cathedral itself. All this construction work is being filmed meticulously for another Channel 4 documentary, of course, and work looks on schedule for a week of events starting 22 March 2015, with the reburial itself scheduled to take place on 26 March 2015. So, things in Leicester are certainly moving at quite some pace, but it is worth lingering a bit over the questions of what to do with the body of a dead king and also the question of where it belongs. Most monarchs tend to make arrangements for their own commemoration while in power; Richard III had done no such thing by August 1485 when he rode into battle to meet Henry Tudor, a challenger to his rule at Bosworth, which is a clear indication that he expected to prevail in a battle where he and the clear numerical upper hand. In fact, Richard III had not yet had time to consolidate his rule, and while he was preoccupied with claiming and embedding his personal rule, asserting himself as successor to Edward IV in preference to Edward’s young son, Edward V, he remained an aggressor and battle king whose legitimate claim to rule was asserted and confirmed through military deeds. There is no space for death and commemoration at this point, and arguably, this is one of the reasons why the battles fought over possession of Richard III’s dead body have been fought at least as tenaciously as the Battle at Bosworth that lost him his kingdom- and life- in the first place. Richard III, through losing his life and kingship, became a political traitor, an enemy to the rightful king, Henry Tudor, King Henry VII, who dated the commencement of his reign to BEFORE the Battle of Bosworth; by doing so, Henry was right (and this is proven because he won and therefore had divine favour on his side) and Richard was wrong (which is why he lost), and of course, this affects the status afforded a person in burial. Medieval concepts of kingship are brutal, and based on the king;s fitness to rule; Richard proved himself unfit to rule by being beaten on the battlefield, so his burial befitted a Christian, but he did not deserve a royal funeral. In medieval terms of kingship,  the original decision, taken by the victorious Henry VII  to bury Richard close to

site of Richard III's grave with a light projection outlining the position of the body as found

site of Richard III’s grave with a light projection outlining the position of the body as found

where he died, and honourably, in consecrated ground, and in a respectable location, shows Henry to be a wise, just and merciful king and is a strong signal of the nature of his legitimately claimed rule. All of this may go some way to explaining  how Richard Plantagenet ended up in the prestigious location where he was found, the choir of Leicester’s Greyfriar’s Church. The message was clear: in death, Richard had ceased to be a king and been reduced to a knight who died on a battle ground, and while he was afforded burial, he was denied a resting place with his family. The message was poignant: there WAS no family left to bury him, and in any case, any family would have been tainted with the same claim for political treason that affected Richard. The  rise of the Tudors meant the end of the Plantagenets, so Richard’s burial place in Leicester functioned as a signifier of this momentous shift in  English dynastic rule. Little did Henry VII suspect that soon, with the dissolution of the Monasteries under his son Henry VIII, even the modest monument that marked Richard’s grave would disappear, given the significance of the victory won at Bosworth for the Tudors, but the Reformation swept many physical markers of history aside.

So, Richard’s body rested- and will continue to rest- at Leicester, which is where we come back to the Visitor Centre and Leicester’s task of constructing a legacy for the dead ex-king who died near Leicester in military combat. How do you go about this task? And what do you have in matrial terms to fill a Visitor centre with? The stark answer is: very little! Richard left no material traces in Leicester because the city wasn’t part of his traditional family lands, nor was he in Leicester for any other reason than to enage a political rival in battle; Leicester only made it on to Richard’s map because he happened to die at Bosworth and needed to be buried in the nearest urban centre. So, there are no buildings, possesions, objects, things that could go into a museum dedicated to Richard as he left no material traces apart from his body, but that belongs into consecrated ground and not in a museum. And yet, there is plenty to see because what the Visitor Centre in Leicester draws on very successfully are both interactive digital displays (for example, there isnt a single ‘thing’ on the ground floor of the exhibition, and yet there is plenty to see) and objects documenting the 2012 dig. So what is told in the Centre is the story of Richard III in Leicester, and that story is told superbly well, and in imaginative and thought-provoking ways that kept not just me busy (and let’s face it, I was always going to be interested) but also the more discerning and difficult to please audience of my two children, aged 9 and 11 years who raved about the interactive displays when we left. In a nutshell, what you are presented with is

Shadows, reflection, suggestions- and still, much to think about...

Shadows, reflection, suggestions- and still, much to think about…

an initial introduction to the very complicated story of Richard’s accession to the throne, told through an effectuive combination of a solid, carved wooden throne with roses- of no colour!- left on the empty seat, against the backdrop of a recording that tells the story through the eyes of the various protagohists; we see Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV, Richard etc- nicely done, simple, but clear, and a great introduction to the next gallery which uses another video instalkation to evoke the Battle of Bosworth, with a firm focus on the significance of this for Richard III. The visitor then ascends stairs to the first floor where we again have two galleries presenting different stories: the first one looks at Richard’s historiographic legacy, as especially shaped by Shakespeare’s play (here, it could have been interesting to think a bit more about why Richard needed to be cast as a villain by the Tudors) and there is even a replica of Ian McKellan’s costume for his portrayal of Richard III (the kids were very excited to see clothes worn by Gandalf (!)…. The next gallery tells the story of the dig, and this is the one that kept us longest, with its displays ranging from welly boots to hard hats to a superb 3-D printed copy of Richard’s skeleton as discovered in the dig to the brilliant interactive displays that had the children hooked. And then  there is the opportunity to see the actual burial place, now turned into a plain but tasteful ‘chapel’ with a light installation that projects the outline of the body into the  grave where it was found. For a museum where there isnt actually that much to see, there was a lot to think about. Nicely done, tastefully handled, well done Leicester! I’ll be back to see how the Cathedral complex develops in preparation for the actual reburial of Richard III. As far as legacies go, Richard is doing allright here…

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5 thoughts on “Leicester’s King Richard III Visitors’ Centre or how to commemorate a king

    • Thank you for eagle-eyed reading- fixed now and Richard restored to his proper title as Duke of Gloucester. I just KNEW I’d make that mistake somewhere. Hope this didn’t spoil the rest of the piece for you.

  1. Pingback: Leicester’s King Richard III Visitor Centre: (much) more than meets the eye | renaissanceissues

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