As I write this blog, the city of Leicester has reached the end of a momentous week. Three years ago King Richard III was found buried underneath a city car park. Last week the entire world was invited to share in the reburial of the skeleton beneath the floor of the cathedral. This was a once in a lifetime chance to be a part of history and my love of the past meant that I couldn’t resist being there too. It was an incredible experience.
By the time I arrived on Wednesday morning white roses were everywhere! The city welcomed the thousands of people who were prepared to brave the cold weather to be a part of the event. The atmosphere was both sombre and celebratory as conversations were struck up between complete strangers. I joined the queues waiting to file past the king’s coffin, explored the medieval parts of the city and visited the new museum which hosts the car park site where the original discovery was made. There was a particular poignancy to standing on the glass floor above the projected silhouette of Richard III’s skeleton as it faded in and out of the small pit in which the real one was unearthed.
The significance of what the Richard III Society, Leicester University and all of those involved in the search to discover Richard have achieved was not lost on those who went to the city or those who watched the live television broadcasts of the events. As much as it was understood that we were witnessing a remarkable event, we were also aware that the work involved in bringing it about was equally astounding. This was a search driven by determination, historical research, scientific detective work and more than a little bit of luck. It demonstrated the relevance and drama of history by bringing it out of the classroom and into international news headlines.
The whole story has been incredible. Medieval documents were used to show that Richard had been buried beneath a medieval friary in Leicester. Further research led to the location of the remains of this friary. Money was raised and an archaeological dig led to the discovery of eleven sets of human remains, one of which had a curved spine and showed signs of a violent death. Was it possible that his could be Richard? An enormous family tree was built in order to determine who Richard’s most direct descendants were and this located Richard’s seventeenth great-grand-nephew. In turn DNA testing was used in order to see if the skeleton matched the genetic evidence of this relation. The historical research and scientific data came together – this skeleton really was that of King Richard III.
My own fascination with Richard came about at a very early age and I was recently reminded of my own personal Ricardian artefact – a letter I received from parliament in the mid-90s. As a child who was enthralled by mysteries, who loved (still does!) all that is medieval, and who grew up close to the city of York, I was bound to take sides in the Wars of the Roses. In light of this it seems unsurprising that I took it upon myself to get to the bottom of whether or not Richard III was responsible for the murder of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower. I wrote to my MP to ask if it was possible to investigate whether the bones which are buried in Westminster Abbey were indeed those of the young princes or of some other poor children who had been murdered instead (apparently I was onto this DNA testing thing very early on!). I can still remember my delight when I received an envelope from the House of Commons.
The reply thanked me for my letter but said that unfortunately it would not be possible to exhume the remains for testing at that time. A response which was both interesting and disappointing meant that I had done what I could so I quietly set the issue aside and filed the letter away for 20 years. My efforts to solve that particular mystery were over but the desire to ask historical questions and the addiction to the thrill of finding out more was only just beginning. I am now researching my PhD. It is my job to ask and try to answer historical problems every day and I am so proud to be a medievalist.
One misconception that people have of history is that it is about preserving the past. There is so much more to it than that. New evidence can change what we think we know even if sometimes it poses more problems than it resolves. As the discovery and reburial of Richard III has shown, asking questions and looking for answers is what drives historians. I am enormously lucky to be a member of a huge community of researchers who are rediscovering the worlds of our ancestors and I love it!
To learn more about the research, archaeology and science behind the discovery of King Richard III you can visit Leicester University’s website www.le.ac.uk/richardiii/ or the Richard III Society at www.richardiii.net.
Leicester Cathedral is now open to those who wish to visit Richard’s tomb and details for the exhibition centre which houses the original gravesite can be found at www.kriii.com.