Saturday, 12th October 2019 – Leicester
I realise Leicester may not be your obvious first choice when considering where to go in the UK, but bear with me. Actually if you try to get any tourist information in advance, you could be forgiven for thinking Leicester’s tourist information office don’t think it is either, between listings for museums that “closed for renovation in 2015” and listings for museums that don’t mention any opening times whatsoever, their website seems designed to put you off visiting rather than encouraging you to do so. We were going because we had plans to meet up with a friend we haven’t seen for a couple of decades who happens to live in one of the outlying villages, but it was also a good excuse to finally get to the Richard III centre that opened in the wake of the discovery of the king’s remains under a council car park close to the cathedral in 2015.
We booked a night’s stay at the Holiday Inn and set off on the very short drive (less than an hour) to get there. We fought our way through the one way system and parked in the hotel car park before heading off to meet Angie for lunch. She was slightly late but only slightly and so we dropped into the World Peace Café for a bite to eat. I would very much recommend them if you find yourself in the old part of Leicester – and order their falafel in some form or another, because they are excellent, moist, tasty with a sweet chilli punch to them. Their cakes are pretty damn good too. It’s also just behind the cathedral and therefore most convenient for getting to the things you may want to see.
After lunch, Angie had to return home, and so we headed to the Cathedral first, armed with a £2 “Ricardian” walking tour booklet from the Tourist Information Office and a plan to see as much as we could manage in the time we had available. There was a “suggested donation” of £2 which we handed over, not feeling we had a lot of choice down to the way they’d placed the donation box and 2 members of the cathedral’s staff who were between us and the door. It turned out that this was because there was a special event going on in the main body of the church. They also handed us a voucher for £5 off entry to the Richard III Visitor Centre, but we’d already bought our tickets… The event we’d just paid for was an installation of Luke Jerram’s work, “Museum of the Moon” to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing.
Once you could get past the crowd around the moon, it was possible to look into the corners of the building and to get to the tom of Richard III, which was of course what had brought us to town. The church was begun around 900 years ago, and rebuilt and expanded between the 13th and 15th Centuries when it became strongly associated with the merchants and guilds (the Guildhall is just feet away). 100 years ago it was restored and in part rebuilt by the architect, Raphael Brandon, who was responsible for the addition of the 220 foot tall spire, which proved very useful to us as a navigation tool! When the Diocese of Leicester was re-established in 1927, having ceased to exist in 870, the church of Saint Martin became Leicester Cathedral.
Of course the key part of the visit for us was seeing Richard III’s tomb. On 24th August 2012 the dig, by the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) working in partnership with Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society, was launched and the following day a leg bone was discovered in the first trench they opened! A handful of days later, on 5th September, the complete skeleton was uncovered and removed. The circumstantial evidence was all pointing towards it being the remains of Richard III. By early February of 2013 the belief was now fact and the University announced that, following extensive scientific tests, it could confirm that the remains were indeed Richard’s. In considering the method of re-interment, the cathedral took into account the views of the scientific community, the heritage groups, the Richard III Society and the Church of England. In March 2015, after some legal wrangling, with some of us really not keen on Leicester being his final resting place, the cathedral got its way and the re-interment took place on 26th March.
Richard’s remains were placed in a lead ossuary, and then inside a coffin made from English oak, which was then placed in a brick lined vault below the floor of the Cathedral, the whole sealed with the incredibly stark tombstone. The tomb itself sits within an ambulatory between the new Chapel of Christ the King and the sanctuary under the tower, which is a deliberate echo of his original burial place in the chancel of the Grey Friars. The tomb is intended to reflect key Christian themes as well as the story of Richard’s life, with a deep cut in the stone that enables light to flood through it, symbolising that death is not the end. Appropriately the stone used is a Swaledale fossil stone, quarried in North Yorkshire.
We also spent some time on the display off to one side, which explored the theme of reconciliation, and included an exhibition by the Bogside Artists from Northern Ireland, showing photos of the murals there that tell the story of sectarian violence and what comes after. It seemed like a timely reminder of the importance of the Good Friday Agreement, especially to anyone who grew up during the period when the IRA started bombing the mainland.
Outside in the gardens we stopped to admire the bronze statue of King Richard III, commissioned by the Richard III Society in 1980. The statue, by James Walter Butler, was unveiled on 31st July 1980 by Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester.
A sculpture entitled “Towards Stillness” by Dallas Pierce Quintero can also be found in the gardens. It is an installation representing a timeline of the King’s life, especially commissioned for the occasion of his re-interment, is oriented towards Bosworth Field and evokes the terrain of the battlefield. The gardens are pleasant and on a warmer day we might have sat for a while in the sun.
Instead we sidestepped into the Guildhall for a relatively swift look round. There had been some sort of event that appeared to be about taxidermy going on, so there were tables and chairs in odd places, somewhat marring the look of the place as they were very modern. However, we coped. The hall is the oldest building still in active use in the city and was built around 1390 as a meeting place for the Guild of Corpus Christi. By 1563, the building had become Leicester’s Town Hall and the ground floor of the West Wing was known as the Mayor’s Parlour.
After narrowly escaping demolition in 1876, the building was completely restored and opened to the public in 1926. There are those who claim Shakespeare performed there during Tudor times, but that may just be a myth – like the claims that the building is haunted. Whatever the uses it has been put to over the years, it has certainly been a police station, a jail, and a library before becoming a museum in 1926. Without a doubt it is one the best-preserved timber framed halls in the country, and it retains some very fine decorative features.
Next stop was the King Richard III Visitor Centre which sits next to the place where Richard III’s remains were found. The Centre tells the story of the King’s life and death, and takes you through the “one of the greatest archaeological detective stories ever told”. It didn’t tell the two of us anything that we didn’t already know, but that’s not the fault of the centre, that’s because it’s a subject we both know a lot about.
What we did appreciate was the opportunity to see the actual spot where the remains were found. And it was really nice when the woman up ahead of us who seemed to have been inoculated with a gramophone needle and was unable to shut up finally left the room and let us have some peace.
We stopped off in the café for tea and ice cream and then headed outside to see if we could locate the other sites in the brochure. The remains of Greyfriars was easy enough, although there’s not exactly much left. The 12th Century establishment was home to the Franciscan order, and following King Richard’s death at the Battle of Bosworth, his body was taken by the Franciscan friars to be given a simple burial in the choir of their church. Sadly all that remains of the Friary is a small piece of grey stone wall in a car park.
We walked towards the area called Newarke and the Magazine Gateway which dates from around 1410, and was the entrance to the religious foundation known as the Newarke. It’s known as the Magazine Gateway because it was used as a gunpowder and weapons store in the English Civil War. It is believed that Richard’s corpse was brought back through this gateway after Bosworth. The gateway is only open to the public on the last Sunday of each month from 11.00am – 3.00pm between February and November, which is limiting to say the least. It’s also blocked off behind loads of scaffolding on one side.
We didn’t find the Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, largely because it’s another one of the historic buildings that doesn’t actually exist any more. It’s underneath the Hawthorn Building of De Montfort University. The church and its college were founded in 1353 by Henry, 4th Earl of Leicester, 1st Duke of Lancaster. There is a tradition that King Richard’s body was put on public display there for three days after the battle to prove that the king was dead. The church was demolished in 1548 and just two arches survive in the basement of the building. Trinity Hospital does still exist though not in its original form, because the Hospital of the Honour of God and the Glorious Virgin and All Saints, founded in 1330 by Henry, 3rd Earl of Lancaster and Leicester, was rebuilt in 1776, The medieval stone chapel does still exist and is part of De Montfort University’s Trinity Building.
The map and the reality on the ground diverged somewhat at this stage, so we needed a couple of goes to locate the Turret Gateway. This gateway is believed to have been built in 1423 as one of two entrances to the enclosed Newarke area. It separated the Newarke religious precinct from Leicester Castle.
Luckily there are some excellent information boards at the various sites.
Through the gateway we found ourselves in the precincts of Leicester Castle. Richard certainly knew the castle, sending a letter from there on 18th August, 1483, that he signed: “from my castle of Leicester”. What you see today is a late 17th century brick entrance concealing a 12th Century structure. Edward I, Edward II and Henry IV all stayed there. It’s another monument that has very limited opening hours, these being the last Sunday of the month from 11:00 to 15:00 between February and November, so four hours each day on 10 Sundays a year! You can see more from the back where a park has been set out next to the River Soar.
It was damp and getting late now so we walked back to the hotel (it wasn’t easy – the Holiday Inn is pretty much parked on a massive traffic island with not enough crossings to it) and got cleaned up ready to go out for dinner. We’d missed the Blue Boar Inn where Richard spent his final night in Leicester before riding out to Bosworth. It’s now the Leicester Central Travelodge. We also missed Bow Bridge which was designed by the city as a memorial to King Richard III. We didn’t mind too much, given the damp!