Photo by Jan Wood
Every small town or city boasts about that one famous person. "Richard III slept here" is the proud claim of Leicester, a mid-size working class city of the United Kingdom. That Richard III happens to be the most notorious king in English history doesn't bother anybody who lives there.
The king spent his night in Leicester just before marching into battle where he met his death in 1485. With Henry VII's victory, the Tudor era and Renaissance officially began.
Whether the locals believe the stories of his villainy and murder of his nephews, the "Princes in the Tower"—or take the opposite side, that it's all Tudor propaganda, a view held by many Richard III Society members—everybody seems to have an opinion.
Conversations in the pubs of Leicester can be like the Wars of the Roses all over again. Yes, that's right. Pubs. Not dusty libraries or university classrooms. Pubs.
The popular interest in Richard III and controversy over his reputation became big news after his royal bones were excavated from beneath a city building's parking lot by the University of Leceister's archaeology team. An announcement soon followed that DNA proving his identity had been traced through 17 generations to a living descendent of the king's sister.
More arguments ensued. Once the scientists were through with him, where should he be buried? Leicester wanted to keep him. The cathedral had already started on construction of a tomb. But York claimed him as a native son. The battle became fierce, petitions were fervently signed, and the matter ended up in High Court.
"We found him, we should keep him," proclaimed a Leicester citizen when interviewed on Channel 4 TV. And it was the city's sheer determination and civic support that may have swayed the court's decision. Leicester got the nod.
Upon entering Leicester the last week of March, I observed how the city seemed to be preparing for the visit of a living king, not a dead one. Hundreds of shop windows welcomed him with signs, placards and billboards. Restaurants honored him with royally named specials, and pubs promoted custom-brewed beer and ale named after him.
The media called it the "Richard Effect" as it quickly became evident that the re-interment would become an international event.
"The atmosphere in Leicester that week was down to the citizens of Leicester welcoming people from all over the world into their city," said Sally Henshaw, secretary of the Leicester branch of the Richard III Society. "The friendship and goodwill was amazing."
About 120 film crews were at hand to report on the phenomenon. For what could be more unlikely? It was the reburial of a medieval king in a modern religious ceremony hosted by a city known more for its textiles than its royal connections. As Richard Buckley, the lead archaeologist for the University of Leicester's Greyfriars project said, "The chances of finding Richard was, I don't know, a million to one."
When I stepped off the train in Leicester that week, it felt as if a grab bag of years had been superimposed upon one another. The city is one of the few in Britain that retains much of its medieval architecture—1485, please meet 2015.
On top of that was my own history. It had been 25 years since I had made my first and previously only visit to England to research Richard for my novel Rings of Passage: A Time Travel Novel with Richard III.
Like Philippa Langley, the Richard III Society member who had been the squeaky wheel behind the "Looking for Richard" project after she "felt" his presence at the car park, I had been gripped with a powerful obsession to learn all I could about the much maligned king. On my long-ago trip, 15 years before an excavation had been conceived, I went to that parking lot, based on a historian's conjecture that the king might be buried there.
Because of a locked gate, I could not get as far as the parking space marked with the letter 'R' under which Richard had lain for five centuries. Yet, as I stood there, like Philippa, I swear I could feel him there.
I had finished the book in the 1990s, but publishers wouldn't buy a story that featured Richard III, "that foule hunch-backt toade" of Shakespeare's, being portrayed as the romantic hero.
And so, like Richard, my novel had been ignominiously buried and forgotten on an old hard drive. It wasn't until the excavation of Richard's bones that I resurrected it. Thanks to advances in technology and shifts in the publishing world, the novel emerged into the light of day once more.
A quarter of a century is a long time. Yet when I returned to this city smack dab in the middle of England—in an area appropriately called the Midlands—it felt as if I had come full circle.
On March 22, after dumping my luggage at the B&B, I barely had enough time to make it down to High Street by taxi before they closed the streets to traffic. Here thousands of people had stacked four deep at the curb. It was my first taste of the "Richard Effect."
The royal bones were to be transported in a dignified cortège via motorized hearse and then by horse-drawn carriage to Leicester Cathedral. It was the same route along which the broken corpse of the king had been carried after being slain in battle by Henry Tudor's knights.
In 1485, the medieval city had a population of only 3,000. Now nearly 400,000 live there.
Approximately 35,000 of them lined the route that day. While the majority of attendees were from Leicester and surrounding areas, there were also historians, scientists, writers, literary experts, media and members of the Richard III Society from all over the world who came for the week of events.
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