Richard III in Leicester: A People’s Burial-place for a ‘People’s Prince’?

What follows may cut no ice with folk who believe that King Richard III should be buried elsewhere; but since exploring the locale, I’m convinced that St Martin’s Cathedral in Leicester is an appropriate, indeed special, place for him to lie.

It may lack the grandeur of York Minster, Westminster Abbey or St George’s Chapel at Windsor (and it also lacks their hefty admission fees); but unlike these places, St Martin’s actively wanted the honour of housing the king’s remains – and the area dedicated to him does not end with the new ambulatory being constructed to accommodate his tomb. The cathedral gardens have been newly landscaped and a sculpture ‘Towards Stillness’ installed; and whether or not the latter is to your taste, it is nonetheless a work commemorating Richard’s final charge, his death fighting bravely at Bosworth, and his chequered posthumous fate.

Immediately beyond, the bronze statue of Richard III by James Butler, relocated from nearby Castle Gardens, provides a link between St Martin’s and the new Visitor Centre which incorporates the king’s burial site in the lost church of Greyfriars, giving visitors a unique opportunity to pay their respects at both his new tomb and his original grave.

The environs in the heart of the medieval city are also more significant to Richard’s life and reign than I had hitherto realised, despite having lived in Leicester for three years. The area, known (then as now) as The Newarke, comprised a religious precinct adjoining Leicester Castle, where the king stayed shortly after his coronation in 1483. The religious and secular areas were separated by a wall pierced by two gateways: The Magazine, (so-called from its use as a Civil War weapons store), dating to c. 1410; and the Turret Gateway dating to 1423, which gave access to the north entrance of the castle’s inner bailey. Both still stand, and it is likely that Richard III passed through these portals on a number of occasions (the last being when his body was returned to Leicester from Bosworth). Also standing is the beautiful Norman church of St Mary de Castro which, as its name indicates, once lay within the castle walls; here, Richard’s father, Richard, Duke of York was knighted in 1426, and the king himself may have heard Mass before leaving for Bosworth. A short distance away, sadly lost apart from two arches in the basement of De Montfort University’s Hawthorne Building, was the Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where his body is believed to have lain for three days prior to burial; the site of the Blue Boar Inn, where he lodged on his last night in Leicester; Bow Bridge, built in 1863 to replace the medieval bridge over which he rode out to battle and his body subsequently returned; and adjacent to the Cathedral, the fine half-timbered Guildhall which would have been a familiar sight to him in life. Cumulatively, this makes for a highly poignant ‘pilgrim trail’ for Ricardians, and arguably offers Richard III a far greater degree of prominence than he could receive among the myriad other cultural riches of York and London.

Leicester is also a great deal more accessible than these cities for many people, thanks to its position as England’s geographical centre, its position beside the M1 and its good rail links. This is particularly true for the millions living in the vast Birmingham conurbation and Midland towns and cities including Coventry and Northampton; but visiting is also substantially cheaper than a trip to London for those of us based in Yorkshire, and cheaper than a trip to York for residents of the south. Moreover, King Richard’s presence means that a provincial city will henceforth share some of the heritage tourism largesse already enjoyed by York and London, both of which have been firmly on the ‘tourist trail’ for many years.

This seems fair enough to me, as well as being apt for a king who, inasmuch as any noble of the period could be, was a ‘man of the people’. I believe that Richard III always sought to emulate the father he had lost at the age of eight and whose memory he must have been raised to revere. Richard of York was an able administrator who, as Lieutenant of France, showed himself as willing to heed and address the concerns of people in Normandy as he was to enforce Henry VI’s authority upon them; and who, during the Cade rebellion of 1450, allied himself firmly with the commons’ cause. Like his father, Richard married a Neville – Anne, the Earl of Warwick’s younger daughter – and, like his parents, seems to have enjoyed a close and probably faithful union. (His two acknowledged bastards, John and Katherine, both arrived in the years before his marriage; and as John Ashdown-Hill observes, prior to Anne’s death it was a matter of note when Richard ceased sharing her bed, implying that previously this had been his normal habit). He showed considerable skill in managing the offices and vast estates entrusted to him by Edward IV, practising ‘good lordship’ and administering justice fairly, even when this conflicted with his own tenants’ interests; and as king, he swore his coronation oath in English, outlawed forced benevolences and established a court of claims for indigents (among other reforms designed to benefit the common weal).

Would this ‘people’s prince’ therefore scorn to lie in the heart of his country, a day’s ride from his birthplace, in a cathedral the less well-off of his affinity can freely visit to pay their respects? I can’t claim to be Richard reincarnate, nor to have received spiritual messages from him regarding his desires, but on the whole I think not… I think as a progressive ruler who cared about a fair deal for ordinary folk, he might even be quietly pleased.

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4 thoughts on “Richard III in Leicester: A People’s Burial-place for a ‘People’s Prince’?

  1. An excellent article, Helen. I just wish that the in-fighting between the various groups cease and everyone would work together to change the generall negative perception of Richard’s life and actions.

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