On 22 March 2015 — almost 530 years after Richard III left Leicester to meet his fate on Bosworth battlefield, and just over two years after his remains were rediscovered in ruins of Greyfriars church, hidden beneath a modern carpark (see CA 272) – England’s last medieval monarch processed through the city one last time.
In a procession watched by thousands of people, the remains of the last Plantagenet king were taken to the cathedral that will be his final resting place. Carly Hilts travelled to Leicester to witness the spectacle.
Beneath clear blue skies and blazing sunshine, thousands of excited onlookers — over 35,000 came out to see the cortege at some point along its route through the county, Leicestershire County Council reports — gathered beside the metal barriers marking the procession’s winding path through the city centre.
I arrived early in order to stake out a good spot to take photographs, but there was plenty to keep visitors entertained while we waited— at two sites beside the clock tower and in Jubilee Square, large screens were playing clips of events from earlier in the day, including the departure of the king’s coffin from the University of Leicester; the 2013 press conference where archaeologists announced that the skeleton they had found beneath the carpark had been identified as the remains of the king ‘beyond reasonable doubt (CA 277); and interviews with people involved in the project.
At Jewry Wall Museum, near the start of the procession route, visitors could make flags emblazoned with the white rose of the House of York.
At this point, Richard was still touring around Leicestershire, his coffin travelling by hearse to Bosworth heritage centre, and a number of villages connected to his final battle, so I took my chances to explore what else was going on in the city.
At the nearby Jewry Wall Museum, home to the only Roman remains still upstanding in Leicester, celebrations were in full flow, with displays of large birds of prey, morris dancing, and medieval artillery held amongst the ruins of the Roman baths that lie outside the museum buildings, while inside there were musicians in period costume, a free buffet of medieval-style food, and craft activities where visitors could make a flag to wave during the procession, or a crown to wear during the day.
Back in Jubilee Square the crowds were beginning to grow, and the excitement in the air was palpable — but at 4.15 I slipped away once more to watch the hearse re-enter the city over nearby Bow Bridge – the same bridge that Richard had crossed on his way out to Bosworth, and over which his body had been carried in a rather less dignified manner after his defeat.
It was a long wait, squinting into the sun as we watched the road for signs of the procession, and there were a couple of false starts as the crowds surged forward in anticipation, only to be ushered back by police officers assuring them that nothing was happening yet.
The gun carriage that bore the king’s coffin, ready for action. Photo by R Hilts
And then, finally, light glinting off a police motorbike heralded the arrival of the cortege. Behind the police escort a solemn, top-hatted man carrying a mace walked ahead of a sleek, black jaguar hearse bearing the king’s remains.
As the car swept slowly past, we could clearly see the simple, pale oak coffin through its side window, our first glimpse of Richard himself.
As the car paused outside St Nicholas’ church, where a short service was held, and the coffin transferred to a horse-drawn gun carriage, I waited long enough to see the coffin brought out of the hearse and carried on the pallbearer’s shoulders into the church, before hurrying back to Jubilee Square.
The hearse arrives at St Nicholas’ church
By now it was almost 5pm, and the square was fairly seething with people, but I managed to find a spot right at the start of the route where I could still get to the barriers. Another wait, the air electric with anticipation – and then a ripple of excitement fluttered along the line of spectators, and there was the police bike again – and behind it, flanked by two mounted police officers, and followed by two knights in 15th-century style armour, was the gun carriage, dark and gleaming, and drawn by four black horses.
The procession passes. Photo: R Hilts
It was a very simple coffin, the lid carved with just Richard’s name and the year of his birth and death – but it was also a casket with a rather touching history, having been made by Michael Ibsen, the 17th-generation nephew of the king whose DNA had provided the key to identifying the monarch’s remains, and who, by happy chance, is a carpenter by trade.
On top were a number of white roses, the symbol of Richard’s House of York – and onlookers threw more flowers and applauded as the procession passed by. In the bright sunshine there was a real sense of occasion — but for all the waiting and anticipation, it was a fleeting experience, since as soon as the coffin had passed out of sight, that was my cue to turn and wiggle back through the crowd, before sprinting to the cathedral to take my seat for the compline service marking Richard’s arrival at his final resting place.
In a side chapel immediately to the left of the cathedral’s main doors, which had been reserved for the media, I sat with dozens of other journalists, watching on a small TV screen as the carriage and its escort made their way through the streets towards the cathedral. Suddenly we could hear the horses’ hooves outside, and the Bishop of Leicester went out to meet the cortege as Richard Buckley (lead archaeologist of the project that unearthed Richard III) formally transferred the king’s remains from Leicester University’s care into that of the church.
Richard’s coffin lies in the cathedral, with pall, crown, and 15thc. bible.
Slowly the party approached the cathedral – and then we slipped back into real-time once more, as the pallbearers crossed the threshold, and we saw the casket being borne into the cathedral, just a couple of metres away from where we were sitting – and I realised I’d been holding my breath. I wasn’t alone in being affected by the spectacle, sitting as I was between an enthralled member of the cathedral’s press team, and a visibly moved reporter from BBC Leicestershire.
The service itself was extraordinarily beautiful – a mix of old and new, drawing on a recently rediscovered manuscript describing the reburial of a 15th century nobleman, but updated and adapted to make it accessible to a modern congregation.
There was some medieval music that Richard might have known, as well as a collect that he had requested the priests of Middleham College – which he founded – to say each day after his death, a nice touch, I thought. But the service also included a hauntingly discordant motet by the decidedly more modern Herbert Howells.
The sermon was delivered in English, another modern touch, and reflected on Richard’s life and character, as well as the poignant observation that stone from the ruins of Greyfriars church, where the king had originally been buried, had been used to repair the church that became Leicester cathedral.
Other elements of the rites were equally full of meaning: a beautifully-embroidered pall was draped over the coffin by the current Duke of Gloucester (a title Richard held before becoming king), together with four peers representing the houses of York and Lancaster. A little girl placed a specially-commissioned crown on the head end of the coffin, while the University of Leicester’s Anglican chaplain laid a 15th century copy of the bible at his feet. It was a peaceful, very thoughtful service.
At the end, once the VIPs had left the cathedral, we were allowed out of our chapel to stand before the coffin: a quiet, reflective moment. And after venturing outside into the now dark cathedral gardens, a final touch: I turned to see ‘RIII’ emblazoned in light on the side of the steeple.
You can certainly say that today the last Plantagenet left his mark on Leicester.
See it for yourself: Channel 4 has made its coverage of the procession and cathedral service available on 4OD at http://www.channel4.com/programmes/richard-iii-the-reburial