Friday, 27 March 2015

The Return Of The King

'Time has its revolutions; there must be a period and an end to all temporal things, finis rerum, an end of names and dignities and whatsoever is of this earth. Where is Bohun? Where is Mowbray? Where is Mortimer? Nay, which is more and most of all, where is Plantagenet? They are entombed in the urns and sepulchres of mortality.'
  - Sir Randolph Crewe

On 22nd August 1485, over 300 years of Plantagenet rule came to an end on a battlefield near Market Bosworth, Leicestershire, when a soldier in the army of Henry Tudor swung a halberd which fatally connected with the head of King Richard III of England, last of the Yorkist monarchs.

Bosworth, by James de Loutherbourg

Post-mortem,  Richard's body was subjected to certain indignities. He was stripped of his armour and thrown naked across the saddle of a horse, then accompanied by Tudor and his victorious retainers to the city of Leicester. After being exposed to public view for a couple of days - to demonstrate to the populace that he was definitely dead - the body of the last Plantagenet monarch was buried, without a coffin, in a hastily dug grave in the city's Greyfriars monastery. Richard's journey to Leicester lacked the pomp, pageantry and even the basic dignity that would normally be afforded a King of England on his way to his grave.

530 years later, Leicester took the opportunity to make it up to him.

Tricky Dicky.

I've wanted to visit Leicester for a long time, ever since I went through my 'Roman' period in the late 90's. I wanted to visit RATAE, the capital of the Corieltauvi tribe, wanted to see the baths complex known as the Jewry Wall.

Last Sunday I finally got to visit the Jewry Wall, but in a completely different context from that which I had originally envisaged. I came to Leicester on a bright and warm Sunday with my sons, not to specifically visit a Roman ruin, but to say goodbye to a King.

The Jewry Wall is bustling with visitors. The adjacent road and church mark the spot where the King will enter the City centre, and the old ruins are making the most of the carnival atmosphere. Morris men prance in the consolidated rubble. The great Roman remnant stands aloof, gazing down on the proceedings with haughty disdain.

St Nicholas Church and the Jewry Wall. With Morris dancers.

Leicester is buzzing today. 25,000 people have descended upon the City yet, strangely, it doesn't feel crowded. The roads are not at a standstill. Parking was a doddle. We left the car on the second level of a multi-storey behind John Lewis and strolled into the City Centre, instantly soaking up the carnival atmosphere of expectation. Everyone is smiling. Some are clad in medieval costume. Others clutch white roses, the symbol of the House of York.

Inside the ring-road from the Jewry Wall stands St Nicholas Square, one of Leicester's open spaces, and a large screen has been erected here, broadcasting the events as they unfold. The procession started hours ago, out in the Leicestershire countryside, and is winding its gradual way toward the City. In a couple of hours it will cross the Bow Bridge over the River Soar, and Richard Plantagenet will enter the City for the last time.

St Nicholas Square, and an air of expectation...

The story unfolding across the screen reminds us of the discovery, two and a half years ago, of a skeleton in a car park. They went looking for Richard, but few expected to actually find him. Richard Buckley, of the University's Archaeology Department, said he would 'eat my hat' if the King were actually found. He later ate a hat-shaped cake baked by a colleague. I remember seeing the bulletin on the evening news, the uncovering of a skelly on the Greyfriars site, a skelly with a crooked spine, and I remember staring gobsmacked at the TV and saying, 'F**k me! They've actually found him!"

Of course, it took several months of scientific analysis and DNA testing at the University of Leicester before they could call a press conference and confirm the skeleton's identity, but let's be honest - from the moment it was uncovered, it was never going to be anyone else.

We pick up a leaflet from a stall in the Square, and head off to explore the medieval street pattern of Leicester. We pass the Cathedral, TV crews already setting up in the grounds. We pace along New Street, stopping to glance briefly at the country's most famous car park, now off-limits. We explore the Lanes, a maze of winding streets and small, intimate shops. Youngest son splashes £8 on a crystal to wear around his neck. We call in on ASK, and treat ourselves to an Italian lunch.

Time is marching on, and we convey ourselves back across St Nicholas Square, taking up position on the roadside opposite the Jewry Wall. The crowds are dense, and the air is heavy with happy expectation. A stall to our rear sells tea and coffee in styrofoam cups. A dull, distant throbbing fills our ears as media helicopters buzz the sky above.

The horses arrive first, taking up position next to the church where the King will stop for a blessing. He will arrive in a hearse, but after the blessing he will be placed on a carriage and drawn through the streets of Leicester by four horses. The horses have been drafted in from the City Of London police, and are trained at dealing with events such as the Trooping Of The Colour. They are Lionheart, Ariel, Temple and Bowron.

Lionheart, Ariel, Temple and Bowron. (c)Charlie McManus

The air is heavy with anticipation, yet the crowds fall silent as the hearse appears. Only the rhythmic hum of the helicopters punctuates the quiet. The clergy of St Nicholas have lined up on the pavement to greet the monarch, and Richard's simple coffin is unloaded onto the shoulders of pallbearers and respectfully carried into the church.

While the brief ceremony is taking place, we make our move. Alongside many others, we decamp from our pitch and head into the city centre. Barriers line the High Street; we take up our second position near the Clock Tower in the heart of Leicester, my youngest son and I clambering onto a bench for an elevated view while my eldest son snakes his way to the barrier, camera at the ready.

Twenty minutes later, now decked out with the accoutrements of medieval pageantry, the King passes us again

(c)Charlie McManus

It was at this junction that one of the helicopters took the aerial photograph that would grace half of the next morning's newspapers, but I'm damned if I can make out my sons or myself in that crowd. Besides, we were probably on the move again at that point; while the cortege takes the long way round, we and many others hurry our way through the winding streets, past the stalls of Leicester Market, finding our way to the last street along the funeral route - a single lane road leading to the Cathedral. The crowds are thinner here and there are no barriers. Soon enough, the cortege comes swinging round the corner. People step into the road to cast white roses at the passing coffin; I fumble for my phone, switch to camera mode and click off a quick shot as the mortal remains of Richard Plantagenet pass by virtually under my nose.

We watch solemnly as the cortege disappears around the corner, heading for the Cathedral yard where it will be greeted by the Bishop Of Leicester and HRH Richard Duke of Gloucester, cousin of the Queen, who holds the same name and title that the late King held before he was enthroned.

My sons and I are buzzing. This will probably be the only chance in our lifetimes to give a medieval King a send-off, and we have risen to the challenge. As we make our way through the streets of Leicester, we feel a quiet sense of satisfaction that we have paid our respects to our most controversial monarch, and done our bit to give him the regal farewell denied him 530 years ago.

Richard's journey is over. The King In The Car Park can, finally, rest in peace.

'Shine out, fair sun, 'til I have bought a glass
That I may see my shadow as I pass!'
                                                         Shakespeare, Richard III

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