Who was this Richard III character anyway, and why is everybody going to Leicester?

By Hannah Silverman

Ever since archaeologists dug up his bones in the unglamorous depth of a Leicester car park, Richard III reasserted his right to the crown of controversy.

Richard III’s death back on the battlefield of Bosworth in 1485 meant the short-reigning King’s death was swiftly overshadowed by the cessation of the War of the Roses and the birth of the Tudor dynasty. There was a new King in town and Richard III was history, his grave site subsequently forgotten. But excitingly next month, after two years of research and scrutiny, Richard III will be reinterred in a burial plot much fitter for a King.

While I can’t make the events surrounding what will be a momentous occasion, I’m taking a train to Leicester this weekend to find out who Richard III really was, and what his legacy has done for the northern English town of Leicester.

Richard III Portrait 2 Copyright Leicester Cathedral Chapter
Richard III portrait, copyright to Leicester Cathedral Chapter.

So what do we already know? As the crowd goes wild with intrigue, thousands of people across the globe are preparing to journey to Leicester to experience history in a context previously inaccessible to us all for more than 500 years. Naturally, tourism in Leicester has boomed with excitement, anticipation and figures. Leicester Shire Promotions Head of Communications, Simon Gribbon, says while Leicester had previously offered many opportunities to learn more about the King, since the discovery of the bones a temporary exhibition was launched at the Guildhall (now closed) with an expectation to attract 50,000 visitors. Within the first 16 months, more than 190,000 people had walked through its door.

If that doesn’t speak volumes about the interest, during the week of Richard III’s reinterment in March this year, most hotels are already booked out or at least are at high occupancy. Even greater evidence is in the 13,500 people who entered the ballot for a seat at the reinterment. The capacity is 600. (Yes, that’s another reason why I’m not going to Leicester in March).

Richard III Visitor Centre looks like a must see attraction. I’m sold.

But who was this Richard III character anyway, and why all the drama?

To most, Richard III was a Shakespearian villain with a hunchback to rival Quasimodo. He’s portrayed as a murderous mastermind who was responsible for the death of his two child-Prince nephews in the Tower in exchange for the throne. However, despite the finger pointing, to this day the disappearance of the boys remains one of England’s greatest unsolved mysteries. Let’s face it, overall Richard III hasn’t exactly got a great rap. So when his bones were discovered in 2012 we had an opportunity to explore and, dare we think it, potentially resolve some of history’s curliest questions – or at least provide a better backdrop to it based, for the first time, on biological fact.

Michael Hicks, Professor Emeritus of the University of Winchester, is one of the strongest authoritative voices on Richard III and is the author of Richard III. I asked him, what do we know about the King and why has he fascinated us for generations.

“He was a very forceful personality who applied his talents to a larger canvas when his brother died,” he says.

“I suggest he took a series of pragmatic actions that carried him a very long way.”

Does this mean he was actually capable of the unthinkable crime attributed to him?

“For 500 years this was the most notorious crime of this most notorious king,” Professor Hicks says.

“It was the principal target of the Ricardians who have done a marvellous job in transforming pubic opinion. It is a topic everyone can grasp. Personally I don’t have any doubt that we do know the answer.

“I am happy to argue that eliminating the boys was justified…the case against Richard is so strong.”

Another sneak preview into the Richard III Visitor Centre.

A resolution as to who really did kill the Princes in the Tower remains unlikely, but it hasn’t stopped curious historians debating suspicions and discussing the likelihood of Richard III’s guilt.

When I attended the BBC History Weekend in Malmesbury in October, I was an audience to historian and journalist Dan Jones who had recently published The Hollow Crown. During his presentation, The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors, he naturally touched on theories surrounding the Princes in the Tower.

Jones conceded while we would all like to find the pillow that allegedly suffocated the Princes (as one theory suggests) or discover a series of guilty finger prints, the case may very well remain cold.

“What did people believe at the time? They believed the princes disappeared under Richard’s watch,” he says.

“My instinct is that Richard III was possibly responsible for it, but we possibly aren’t going to know.”

The discovery of Richard III’s remains doesn’t simply fascinate the masses because of controversy, it raises critical questions about who he was, how he lived and, of course, how he died. The fact that there might be clues to bring us closer to determining Richard III’s guilt, or mitigating him from it, is a powerful driver for both tourism, media and historians. At the very least the debates have resurfaced and people are once again talking in the public arena about what we do and don’t know about the infamous King.

I’m no historian or dramatist, but my passion for this pocket of history and the ability to get closer than ever before is too tempting to avoid, hence my planned excursion.

Richard’s right to the throne in the 15th century might be in question and his ability to puppeteer or perpetrate the death of two innocent boys remains unknown, but one thing is resoundingly clear. Despite his iconic status as one of England’s most controversial rulers, the discovery is far reaching and means Richard III will always be far more than just a body of bones buried in a car park.

Richard III’s grave is a little more modern these days.

Meet Richard III in 5 Leicestershire locations:

  1. King Richard III Visitor Centre – find out the story of ‘Dynasty, Death and Discovery’ in a museum recently named one of the world’s hottest new attractions for 2015 by Lonely Planet. Here you can also visit the grave site of Richard III.
  2. Leicester Cathedral – this is where the reinterment will take place in March. It features the Richard III memorial statue in its garden and the location as to where the King’s tomb will be located.
  3. Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre – walk the grounds where the infamous battle took place or take a guided tour. Please note, this is not accessible by public transport.
  4. Richard III Footprints Blue Badge Guides – held on selected dates, a guide will lead you to many of the places in Leicester associated with the King. Alternatively there is a free self-guided walking trail.
  5. Richard III talks – Three presentations are planned for March 21, 22 and 25 to explore the life, death and discovery of Richard III.
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