diamond geezer

 Friday, May 25, 2018


Leicester is one of England's larger cities, and can be found in the East Midlands a nudge further north than Birmingham. It has a long history but has never been a major player on the tourist trail, indeed I was so underwhelmed on a day trip in 1994 that I've never felt the need to go back. But in 2012 the city unexpectedly hit the dead monarch jackpot, and quickly capitalised on it, so now offers a significant sightseeing draw.
[9 photos]

Richard III's death at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 ended the Wars of the Roses and ushered in the Tudor dynasty. The last English king to be slain in battle, Richard's naked body was carried to Leicester on the back of a horse and there displayed to the public as proof of his demise. Henry VII's court historian reported that Richard was "buryed two days after without any pompe or solemne funerall... in th'abbey of monks Franciscanes", a location understood to be the Grey Friars priory. But this was levelled during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and modern-day Leicester gradually grew up on the site.

Now a set of highly unlikely coincidences take over. In the 1990s Philippa Langley picked up a random book at an airport, which turned out to be about Richard III, beginning her obsession with the much-maligned king. In 2004 her research took her to a social services car park in Leicester, never fully built over, where she had "an overwhelming feeing" this was the place. A crowdfunded dig eventually materialised, ostensibly to stake out the former abbey, but which unintentionally uncovered the royal bones in the first hour and a half. The skeleton's curved spine and battle wounds looked convincing, but only because this is the 21st century were scientists able to prove "beyond reasonable doubt" that Richard III's remains had been found. To have rediscovered a king is all but unbelievable.

The city of Leicester has capitalised on its historical good fortune by building a visitor attraction on the site. They already owned the car park, and swiftly bought up the empty school building nextdoor, transforming it into the King Richard III Visitor Centre. Follow the RIII Dynasty Death and Discovery banners (and blimey, there are enough of them), towards the cathedral square where a swish-looking glass entrance awaits. An adult ticket costs £8.95, which is a mite steep for the provinces, but you'll get good value so long as you go round slowly and take everything in.

First up is a Throne Room, i.e. a room with nothing in it but a throne, and five actors performing virtual monologues on two arched screens at the rear. It is perhaps a nod to the Netflix generation, and the school party who followed me round certainly sat entranced. I was more involved by the utterly comprehensive rundown of the Wars of the Roses nextdoor, essentially a heck of a lot of words on some walls, which might be why the vast majority of visitors seemed to give it a miss. The ground floor concludes with an audiovisual reconstruction of Richard's final battle, a bit generic if all you do is watch the walls, so again reading is essential to make the most.

Upstairs, assuming you don't stray into the cafe, modern day interpretations of Richard III are put under scrutiny. A line up of top Shakespearean actors fills one wall, while changing attitudes to disability are challenged on the other. Things pick up when the exhibits reach the story of the hunt for Richard's body, because numerous primary sources are available, and the day-by-day astonishment of the major players comes across well. There then follows an in-depth examination of the scientific evidence which proved this was indeed the dead king, including DNA matching, carbon dating and bone analysis. The sheer improbability of the ultimate announcement packs an emotional punch.

To finish, you return to the ground floor and walk out into a special 'contemplative' room nudged out into the car park to cover the site of discovery. A glass floor allows visitors to look down into the crucial archaeological trench to see a layer of monastery tiles, and a hologram in the shallow indentation where Richard's body was exhumed. The member of staff keeping watch can tell you all about other bodies unearthed in the dig, and which way the choirstalls ran, so again take your time rather than dashing through. Meanwhile, on the other side of the wall, cars are still parked up in as incongruous a way as they must have been Philippa walked in with her lucky hunch, before the last medieval monarch was uncovered.

Several cities claimed burial rights for Richard's body, notably York because he was of their noble House. but in the end Leicester got the nod. This has proved particularly fortuitous for Leicester Cathedral, a parish church given an ecclesiastical upgrade in 1927, which suddenly gained something inside worth seeing. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Benedict Cumberbatch and some notably low ranking royals turned up for the reinterment in 2015, in scenes which you can relive on a touchscreen in the south nave.

Richard's tomb is undeniably impressive, topped by an angled slab of Swaledale limestone cut through with two deep indentations forming a cross. This sits on a darker-coloured inlaid plinth, namechecking the dead king and listing his dates, screened off behind a similarly-updated altar. A sign by the entrance alerts visitors not to use flash photography and, in a modern twist, also outlaws selfies. But check service times before you turn up, because you won't see any of the conclusion to this amazing story if evensong is underway.

And if all this has dragged you to Leicester, what else is there to see? Quite a lot, as it turns out, from across the centuries.

Jewry Wall Museum: Huge excavated Roman public baths, and masonry wall, alongside a repository of Iron Age, Roman and medieval remains [closed for long-term upgrade] [2nd century]
St Nicholas: The oldest church in the county, now seriously overshadowed by modern dual carriageway [10th century]
St Mary de Castro: Other than this church, which recently lost its spire, not much remains of Leicester Castle other than its grassy motte [11th/12th century]
Leicester Market: Much tweaked trading hub, currently spread across undercover benches, formerly home to the famous Lineker fruit and veg dynasty [founded 13th century]
Leicester Guildhall: Mighty-well-preserved timber-framed hall, once used as the town hall, now with historical exhibits attached [free] [14th century]
Newarke Houses Museum and Gardens: Odd historical hotchpotch of a museum, with industrial remnants, period 1940s shopping street and regimental reminiscence [free] [16th/17th century]
New Walk: Charming Georgian promenade, a kilometre in length, linking the city centre to the university (no bikes) [18th century]
New Walk Museum and Art Gallery: Splendid classical repository of the arts and sciences, mostly the former, but whose exhibits include mummified remains, Britain's largest (observed) meteorite and the free-standing Rutland Dinosaur [free] [19th century]
The Golden Mile: A stretch of Belgrave Road renowned for its Indian restaurants and sari shops, where the city's Diwali celebrations are based [20th century]
National Space Centre: Rockets, astronomy, cosmology and a planetarium... but heavily biased towards a family audience, so I gave it a miss [£14] [21st century]

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