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Circling the gift shop, I searched for the familiar cover. It had to be here. I had to check. I then wondered ruefully how many other fans had done this too. Finally, I spotted it, with the new blue and gold background with spear tips shooting towards the reader. This nearly 4-inch read was the book that had brought me here, and the book that almost never was, just as this place I was standing almost never was either.
Author Sharon Kay Penman, some of you may remember, is my favorite author (Does anyone else freeze when meeting their heros?) and she was the reason I had come to Leicester. Penman’s career as a historical fiction writer started with a fascination with England’s last Plantagenet king, Richard III. While Shakespeare, in his history/tragedy Richard III portrays the king as an evil hunchback, Penman argues that Richard was much maligned by Shakespeare because he wrote under the Tudor monarchy. Penman instead makes Richard a sympathetic and romantic figure with scoliosis who did no more evil than any of the English monarchs before him.
If you’re not familiar with English history, let me backup and explain. Richard III was the last of the Plantagenet family, defeated at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the last battle of the War of the Roses. The Houses of Lancaster (the Tudor family) and York (the Plantagenet family) met on the field and Henry Tudor (Henry VII) came out victorious. After Henry stuck down his rival for the crown, Richard’s body was unceremoniously slung over the back of a horse, stabbed a few more times, and left with local friars in nearby Leicester. Henry VII ascended to the throne and playwrights such as Shakespeare wrote histories that would leave a tarnished memory of the defeated.
It was this version of history that Pemman was trying to correct with her very first handwritten manuscript. Unfortunately (I believe this word to be a huge understatement), the manuscript disappeared from the back of her car one day and was never recovered. It was six years before the devastated author restarted. Interestingly, the history of Richard III himself somewhat parallels this story. The friary where Richard’s remains had received a common burial was demolished in the 1500’s and his grave site was lost to history… until 2012.
Because I’d read Penman’s book, and had fallen hard for her version of Richard III, I was captivated by the entire rediscovery and exhumation ordeal as it unfolded. After years of speculation, the Richard III Society, which has long tried to revive Richard’s reputation, had amassed limited funding and approval for a small archeological dig where excavation was allowed. After analyzing historic written accounts and drawings of the long-gone monastery and comparing it to present day area maps, they had a theory of where the church might have once stood. It was believed Richard might have been buried under the choir of the church, which may have been located at the site of a present day car park or possibly the site of a nearby disused playground of a now defunct school. With a lot of ‘maybe’s’ and little more than a hope, the excavation started, and… Unbelievably- you can’t make this kind of thing up- the skeleton of a male, complete with a curved spine, was unearthed on the very first day of the dig.
Meanwhile, genealogists had been working to find living descendants of Richard III who might agree to submit DNA samples should the excavation be successful. Just one male through Richard’s matrilineal line was found. After mitochondrial DNA tests, and scans of the skeleton, it was undeniably determined to be the remains of Richard III, former King of England.
The story of the improbable chances of the dig and the luck of finding the last relative who could provide DNA in the window before both he passed away and the bones were too old to retrieve DNA for matching is just so amazing. I read all the news stories, watched the documentary, and maintained a strong opinion that the bones should be re-interred in York, Richard’s home. When it was eventually decided, however, that he would be re-interred in the cathedral in the city where he was found and had been for so long, I live-streamed the parade that carried his new coffin and remains to the Bosworth field and back to Leicester so he could be buried with the proper rites and ceremonies deserved by an English monarch.
Richard III Visitor Center
While Penman’s book and Richard III’s after-death epilogue would have been enough to draw me to Leicester, there was one more reason I wanted to visit and that was because the archeological dig site has been turned into a Richard III Visitor Center. The small gift shop at the entrance was where I was standing now, having just found The Sunne in Splendour on the shelf.
Entering the exhibit space, I found that the first floor of the museum takes you through the medieval history of Richard’s life. The center has done a great job combining medieval paintings, videos, projections, diagrams and explanations to make the history engaging and accessible to all ages. I was glad, however, that I had read Penman’s book because I recognized the names of the various players and felt I was better able to follow the story of the War of the Roses as it played out on the museum walls. Unfortunately I knew the story had an unhappy ending, and braced myself for Richard’s end. Only, this time it wasn’t the end of the story. A stairway led to the second floor.
Upstairs the exhibits focused on the archeological dig and the science used to test the bones. The tractor bucket used in the excavation sits in a case. Video clips of news stories of the dig and interviews with those involved play on screens. In the middle of the room in a CT scan machine lies the 3D printed replica of the excavated skeleton. The curvature of the spine proved what the Richard III society and Penman had claimed, that the King did have scoliosis and one shoulder might have been higher than the other, but he was not the miss-formed hunchback of Shakespeare’s creation. In another case, the wax replica bust of Richard III that was created from scientific studies of the excavated scull sits near the only known portrait of the young man. Interestingly, the bust turned out looking very much like the painting, further proving that the skeleton was in fact, Richard.
The medieval history combined with genealogical research and scientific studies is so fascinating! But I had to tear myself away from these exhibits because I had one more place to visit after the Visitor Center. Before I left, however, I visited the last part of the Center, the dig site. Standing over Richard’s original burial site, which is now covered by glass panes, I did a double-take. A projection of the bones as they were found fades in and out in the emptied out space.
Leicester Cathedral & Tomb of Richard III
Finally it was time to pay my last respects at the tomb of the King for whom I had come all this way. Crossing the sunny square between the Visitor Center and the Cathedral, I passed a couple men and women in medieval garb. It seemed some of the locals were enjoying the new influx of tourists due to Richard III and were happy to tell you their version of events or about their childhood at the now-defunct school near the excavation site.
Inside the cathedral, the locals were no less welcoming. Entrance is free and outside of church service times, docents will happily direct you to the side chapel where Richard’s Tomb now lies and if asked, will recount for you their memory of the reinterrment funeral.
I knelt at the grave of the king who had died 500+ years before, recognizing that I was here simply because of an author’s sympathetic portrayal of his character and really having no idea what the man was really like. Despite this fact, I was glad the former monarch had been found and given the proper burial he deserved. While Penman’s original manuscript is still lost to history, who knows, maybe someday it too will reappear.
Richard III Gelato
Emerging from the cathedral at last, I rounded a corner and found a gelato shop. After having indulged in history and science I decided to indulge in a pre-dinner dessert. (I’m an adult, I can eat dessert first!) Scanning the flavors, I found the locals really had figured out how to cash in on Richard III’s new popularity. I couldn’t say no to trying the Richard III flavor (rose blossoms & fruits of the forest), and it actually was delicious!
Licking my gelato as I continued my exploration of Leicester by foot, I wandered from the old part of town, through a market, and down streets lined by shops and restaurants. At one point I skirted a construction site, but stopped for a moment when I noticed the sign, “Warning Deep Excavation”. I wondered who they were expecting to dig up next.
Do you have an opinion about Richard III? Would you visit the grave of a real person because you read a historical fiction account of them? Have you been to Leicester? Let’s discuss in the comments below!
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