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Who was Richard III?
by Margaret Deefholts
(For Travel Writers’ Tales)

Photo 6. Richard III’s motto on tombstone: Loyalty Binds Me. His coat of arms has inlaid precious stones in pietra dura.
Photo: Margaret Deefholts

Was he or wasn’t he a monster? That is the question!

According to Shakespeare, he was a cruel despot and a cold blooded murderer. But as some historians would have it, Richard III was badly maligned – he was nowhere near the psychopathic character portrayed by Shakespeare, whose play of the same name has its share of historical inaccuracies. But who cares...Richard as an anti-hero makes for splendid theatre, and riveting drama! And so the deformed man who bewailed “the winter of my discontent” as he hobbled hunch-backed onto the stage, remains lodged in our minds.

My cousin Sue and I stand in front of a statue of Richard III who is today, indisputably Leicester’s most intriguing celebrity. He is probably more famous today than he was in medieval times, and the discovery of his remains buried under a city car park is the subject of a larger than life drama that has almost paranormal overtones.

Photo 2. Reproduction of skeleton on display at Visitor Centre:
Photo: King Richard III Visitor Centre

It all started with Philippa Langley, a journalist. screenwriter and historian, who, in her own words claimed that, “...the first time I stood in that car park, the strangest feeling just washed over me. I thought: 'I am standing on Richard's grave'” Prescience? Maybe. The feeling was so strong that Langley raised enough money via the Richard III Society for a two-week excavation, and then with the consent and help of the Leicester City Council and the University of Leicester, the dig began. Ruins of Grey Friars church which once occupied the site, came to light, and then after a bit more digging...voila! There he was!

Leicester’s Richard III Visitor’s Centre has us in thrall. For starters, the Battle of Bosworth where Richard was slain is played out on a screen and sets the stage, as it were, for the detailed exhibits on the first floor of the centre.

Photo 4. Throne Room and theatrical presentation at the Visitor Centre:
Photo: King Richard III Visitor Centre

The question of who Richard III really was, quite apart from the villainous portrayal by actors ranging from Laurence Olivier to Kenneth Branagh and Tudor-age myth, is raised by the Richard III Society. He was a man who was the Protector of the young Edward V, but when the boy’s legitimacy was brought into question, Richard was urged to claim the throne, which he did, but apparently with some reluctance.

The disappearance and subsequent murder of the young Prince and his brother in the Tower of London remains a mystery, and the Richard III Society point out that there is no evidence to support the claim that Richard engineered this crime, nor that his other villainous dark deeds of murder and intrigue, have much basis in hard fact. On the other side of the coin, there is little or no credit given to Richard for his efforts at reforming many of the country’s legal statutes and the jury system during the brief two years of his reign. The controversy continues to rage although this last of England’s Plantagenet kings is now viewed in a somewhat kinder light.

When he was killed on the field of battle at Bosworth, his body was hastily disposed of in a makeshift grave but no one knew its whereabouts. The discovery of his skeleton in 2011 sent out shock waves across the paths of historians and scientists alike, and at the Visitors Centre, we pore over forensic data, reconstructions of the skeleton, and the catalogue of wounds sustained on the field.

The lengths to which the investigators went to establish the identity is astonishing. Imagine tracking down a descendent who was born in London, Ontario and now lives in Britain. Michael Ibsen, a cabinet maker, is the 17th great-grand-nephew of Richard's sister, Anne of York and, as established by Geneticist Turi King, he shares with Richard III’s skeleton, a rare strain of mitochondrial DNA.

Photo 1. Reconstructed head of Richard III by Prof. Caroline Wilkinson

What is equally fascinating is the reconstruction of what Richard III may have looked like. Using CT scans of the skull, programmed into a computer as a digital model, Professor Caroline Wilkinson, added facial features to ‘flesh’ out the image: skin, jaw, lips and hair. The result is a rather good looking young man in his early 30s.

Photo 3. 3-D Image of King Richard’s skeleton in actual grave site in the Visitor Centre.
Photo: Margaret Deefholts.

The Richard III Visitors Centre has been built over the site of the discovery and we pause to peer through a glass wall at the actual excavation pit. Using 3D print technology, the skeleton appears to lie in its grave, it’s skull and scoliosis affected spinal curvature all too evident. It’s realistic enough to cause a small chill to run up my spine.

Photo 5. Tomb of Richard III in the nave of Leicester Cathedral.
Photo: Margaret Deefholts

Photo 8. Author standing by the tomb at Leicester Cathedral.
Photo: Susan Penn-Berkeley-Brooks

Later, in Leicester Cathedral, my cousin and I stand in front of Richard’s simple, dignified tomb crafted from Swaledale fossil stone. The oak coffin crafted by Michael Ibsen, is a fitting tribute to Richard by his mitochondrial descendent. It faces the east window of the Cathedral – symbolic of faith, forgiveness and redemption. A scroll in a side nave of the Cathedral says: “The view of Richard III as a ruthless and ambitious schemer, is a powerful myth. The evidence, however, is very mixed...was he good, or was he bad? The answer is both, as are we all.”

Photo 7. Embroidered pall cloth of Richard III in Leicester Cathedral, featuring the people who played an essential part in the discovery, investigation, and re-interment of the remains of the last Plantagenet King
Photo: Margaret Deefholts



More Information:

Richard III Visitors Centre

Other sites in Leicester:

Interactive site:

Leicester Cathedral

PHOTOS by Margaret Deefholts and where indicated, courtesy King Richard III Visitor Centre.

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