I was told by a friend that there was a spare seat for the trip to Leicester with the Richard III Society, would I be interested?
Indeed I was!
We were greeted by a rainy morning at Plymouth station where the mini-bus was due to collect us on Tuesday 11 July. A rainy motorway for most of the journey to Leicester! We picked up a couple of people at Exeter Services and had another lunch stop along the way. It was still raining in Leicester when we were dropped off at our various hotels. Mine was what is politely known as ‘cheap and cheerful!’ It had one big advantage in that it was two minutes away from the Richard III Visitor Centre.
Before my tour begins it might be useful for those of you who are not up to speed with the reign of the Plantagenets to impart a little information:
In England Henry II is seen as the start of the Plantagenet line. He was married to Eleanor of Aquitane who was previously married to the King of France. Henry and Eleanor did not have the most perfect of marriages by any account? The genesis of the line originated in Anjou in France and the monarchs of that region tend to be known as the Angevin monarchs.
Henry acceded to the throne in 1154 following the death of Stephen. Matilda and Stephen had struggled to gain supremacy of the throne but eventually the power struggle was settled in Stephen’s favour with the agreement that Henry II would succeed him when he died. Stephen did not waste too much time in the land of the living after that and Henry was King! Sadly his greatest claim to fame is the death of Thomas a’Becket. He is quoted as saying, ‘Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?’ A few knights eager to find favour took him at his word. Henry’s children continually caused him problems but in the end Richard of Lionheart fame succeeded him after he died a miserable and broken man. This part of history brings us to the crusades and the mainly fictional story of Robin Hood. John was the younger brother always cast as the villain in popular history. He had a troubled reign, unpopular in England and losing battles and land in France. The culmination of these problems was the loss of Anjou and being forced by his barons to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. John died the following year and his son the nine year old Henry became the third of that name. Henry was one of the longest reigning Kings of England and died in 1272. His reign was notable for the Barons Revolt which he defeated and his success in rebuilding Westminster Abbey. From then until 1377 we had Edwards one, two and three. Edward IIIs son Edmund established the House of York when his father made him Duke of York. Richard II followed but his was a troubled reign and he ended up dying in Pontefract Castle. Murdered by starvation being the popular story. Thus ended the main Plantagenet line for the time being. Such were the complexities of royal lineage that the Plantagenet line would continue. The lines of Beaufort, Neville and Mortimer start to intertwine and the Houses of Lancaster and York seem to merge then separate and it would require many more pages to untangle this complex royal mixture. Suffice to say the House of Lancaster now moved to the English throne and Henrys four five and six became King. Henry V one of our most famous kings following his victory over the French at Agincourt. Sadly he died young and his son who followed was the polar opposite of his father. No warrior he. In certain publications the word ‘wimp’ has been used! Somehow he survived until he was forty-nine undoubtedly murdered on the orders of his successor, Edward IV. We are now back with the Plantagenet line. Edward’s brother was Richard Duke of Gloucester and it would be him who would become Richard III. Edward IV was reported to over six foot tall. A giant in comparison to the normal male height of the time. A fearless warrior in his youth he soon succumbed to the trappings of fame. An unhealthy lifestyle is the general judgement on the cause of his death. His eldest son Edward should have succeeded him. However we now meet one of the great puzzles of English history and probably the most debated. Edward V and his brother Richard were placed in the Tower of London, allegedly for their own safety. The marriage of their father was declared null and void and the Duke of Gloucester acceded to the throne as Richard III. After the summer of 1483 the Princes in the Tower were never seen again. There was no evidence ever given or found to prove who was responsible for the deaths of the princes. While the man with the motive is undoubtedly Richard III accusations against him are based on hearsay. Thus the mystery endures. In August 1485 one distant claimant to the throne, Henry Tudor met the army of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Despite being outnumbered Henry Tudor won the battle and Richard III was killed. He was buried in Greyfriars Priory. The last of the Plantagenets and the last English King to die in battle.
The memory of his burial disappeared with the years and in modern times no one could really say where his body was buried. The Richard III Society was formed in 1924 with the aim of putting the history of Richard III into context and trying to persuade people that the work of William Shakespeare was mainly a work of fiction and lies. In the latter part of the twentieth century members of the Society started to claim that Richard’s body was still to be found in Leicester. Other historians dismissed this choosing to believe the hand-me-down tale that the King’s bones had been thrown in the River Soar during the turbulent times of the Reformation. Enter then the heroine of this story. Phillippa Langley. Ms Langley was Chairman of the Scottish branch of the Richard III Society. The footprint of the Greyfriars Priory had long been known and it was accepted that the Social Services car-park must be built over the area where the Abbey used to be. Ms Langley cajoled, persuaded and finally convinced the Richard III Society to obtain permission to dig up certain areas of the car-park. And to use a well-worn cliché the rest most certainly was history in every sense of the word. The nation owes a huge debt of gratitude to this lady.
So back to Leicester in the year of our Lord 2017!
A sunny morning saw us gather beneath the statue of Richard as we waited for the Visitor Centre to open. Our day started with a talk from Claire, one of the guides at the Centre. She took us through the events that led up to the discovery. For Claire the starting point of the modern journey of discovery was Audrey Strange. Audrey was born in 1926 and at some point in her life moved to Leicester. Always interested in history she did some private research on Richard after joining the society. In 1962 she declared that Richard was buried beneath a car-park in the choir stalls of Greyfriars Abbey. She wrote to the authorities asking for permission to excavate the car-park. This was denied. If only the man who wrote the letter refusing was still alive! Claire made the point that Audrey had two things against her. She was a woman and she was an amateur. How fitting then that it is a woman who followed in her footsteps and had the car-park excavated! (A gifted amateur beats a mediocre professional any day of the week?) Sadly Audrey died in 2010 and never knew how correct she was. Then a tour of the Centre including the area overlooking the open grave which contains an outline of how the body lay there. An excellent presentation through the Centre retelling the story. And of course there was the gift shop! I think profits that day must have been above the norm? Lunch in the Centre and then over to the Cathedral. We had another excellent guide but everyone was waiting for the moment when we arrived at the tomb. There before us now buried with dignity were the mortal remains of the last Plantagenet King of England. It was a moving moment for all of us. Some members of the society had not been happy about the design of the tomb and I believe a funding argument ensued. I thought the design was excellent and in simple fashion it provided a fitting memorial to Richard III.
Still more to see as we headed for the church of St Mary de Castro. A church Richard is believed to have used on his visits to Leicester. Henry VI was knighted here and Geoffrey Chaucer was married here. An amazing building. It was so atmospheric you could just feel the history of the place.
From there a quick trip to the remains of the castle and Newarke Gate. Back to the hotel for a quick rest before the evening beckoned. We had dinner at the Globe. Claims to be the oldest pub in Leicester. Somehow it did not feel like it? But what do I know as my knowledge of pubs could be written on the back of a postage stamp! The main attraction of the evening however was our speaker, Mathew Morris. Not a name you will be familiar with but he was the site supervisor on the dig and is credited with locating the leg bones of Richard. Mathew’s career in archaeology is assured! A really informative speech about how the dig was approached and how the site had been developed over the years since Richard was buried there. The search began in August 2012. Much quicker than ever expected the skeleton was discovered. DNA checks meant the 14th cousins descended from Richard’s sister were tested and the match was perfect. On 4 February 2013 the announcement was made to a waiting world and the sceptics among the history mafia were stunned into spluttering silence!
Mathew received a much deserved long round of applause.
It had been a long day and a good nights sleep was not hard to find!
The next morning it was time to head on out to Bosworth where our story will end. First to the Bosworth Heritage Centre which also contained another gift shop! (I do like gift shops!) A small but superb exhibition was viewed and then a walk with our guide. We did really well with guides on this trip and here the man in question was no exception. We climbed to the top of Ambion Hill which is seen as the gathering point for Richard’s forces. We were then arranged in battle order as we played the parts of those main participants in the battle. It was a very mobile game of chess but illustrated the strategy of the battle very well. Time for lunch in the Tithe Barn Café, a last look around the exhibition, and so to Bosworth Field. It is located at Fenn Lane farm. Unfortunately the farmer has no sense of history and does not allow anyone onto his land. The man could make far more money out of a Visitor Centre than he does growing cereal crops! Still there it was in front of us…Bosworth Field. A billowing crop was all there was to see. But we were at the place where the battle took place! Photos taken and onto our final destination. There are some places in England that have wonderful names, Indian Queens, Weston-Super-Mare and one I had always wanted to visit, Ashby de la Zouch! It was to the ruins of Ashby Castle we went. And most imposing they were with the background of a glowering sky. The castle was originally the home of Sir William Hastings. He was once a close ally of Richard but for reasons none to clear he did something to upset him. After what he thought would be a routine meeting he was all but executed on the spot! In reality he was taken outside and the deadly deed done. Thus the castle and all the Hastings property would pass to the crown.
Time was moving on and at 4pm we finally headed south. We arrived back at Plymouth station around 9:30pm. It had been a great trip. My thanks to the members of the Richard III Society for inviting me along, and for their good company along the way. A special word of thanks to Ian Lauder who did all the driving. A memorable few days indeed!
“Those of you who for their history care
Will know what it means just being there?”