What comes to your mind when I say “Leicester”? Maybe the football club? I know nothing about it. If I had heard it, I would have had “Lester” in my mind and couldn’t have pinned it on a UK map. If I had read it, I would have used the wrong pronunciation. These confusions all ended when a good friend moved from Newcastle to this obscure city (sorry if anyone is from Leicester!). I paid her a visit last week and I really liked this place!
The absolute highlight had to be the King Richard III Visitor Centre. I heard the news about “the king under the council car park” from a few years ago and completely forgot it all happened in Leicester. When I searched, it came up on top in the list of TripAdvisor ‘what-to-do’ recommendations. Of course, we had to go! I have always been a history enthusiast and I’m ashamed to say all my knowledge on the subject of “the War of the Roses” is from the White Queen TV series (not even the original books!). I really enjoyed the TV series (apart from some obvious costume design flaws) and was surprised to find myself remembering a lot of it when standing in front of the complicated family tree of Richard III in the Visitor Centre.
The Visitor Centre is more like a museum for me. It’s not huge, but it presents a lot of information. It’s very well designed, the building layout helps me (an ignorant but over-excited history enthusiast) understand the life of Richard III, the recent discovery of his body and the follow-on scientific research in a logical and effective way. We spent two hours on the ground floor, during most of which we were baffled by and struggled to tell Richard, Edward and Henry apart. (The TV series helped a lot at this point.) This part of the exhibition was dimly lit, mostly in black, which gave an ancient and moody atmosphere. The Centre closed at 4pm but we hadn’t even had time to go upstairs yet! That was the advantage of an annual pass – we were able to go back the next day!
We spent another two hours on the first floor the next day. This floor was painted in lab-like white with bright colourful elements, which gave a modern feel to it. The exhibition started with the popular image and opinion held by the public: probably the biggest influence was that of Shakespeare, who portrayed Richard III as a baddie, but on the other hand Jane Austen seemed to be pretty fond of him. Then it went on to the fascinating “Looking For Richard” project where in 2012, a team of archaeologists almost miraculously located Richard III’s skeleton within days under a council car park where the Visitor Centre is built on now. The last part of the exhibition detailed the range of scientific research done to verify the skeleton’s identity: his unusual grave, his bones and “bent” back, matching the DNA to two of Richard III’s descendants, Carbon 14 dating.
The most marvellous display was a copy skeleton in an MRI scanner. It explained all the wounds found on the skeleton. It really hit me how brutal medieval wars were. There was a whole piece of his skull sliced off as big as a two-pound coin, a big section of his skull disappeared completely leaving his brain visible, a hole ten centimetres deep made by a sharp weapon. This is not a ceramic cup, which chips sometimes. There were skin and flesh wrapped around the skull, which bled and felt unbearable pain.
The show ended with the burial place of King Richard III, the final resting place for over 500 years. A small hole in the ground, no coffin, no shroud. Not even lying flat, hands tied together.
We walked across the street into the Leicester Cathedral where the King is now buried with dignity. A few lovely old ladies told us many stories and details about the service (many more added by my friend’s landlady): about how the Archbishop of Canterbury came to bury the monarch, how the people of the city watched silently as the king’s cortege passed through the streets, how it took 26 people 3 hours to move the two and a half ton gravestone from the church door to the grave, how Benedict Cumberbatch who played Richard III once also joined the service.
The new grave is one piece of cream-coloured Yorkshire marble on top of a black base from Ireland. A cross cut deeply into the rectangular stone.
I thoroughly recommend this place. Make sure you leave plenty of time to fully enjoy the exhibition, a perfect combination of history and science.