I have heard plenty about the King Richard III Visitor Centre in Leicester. Some positive, including the recent architectural award that the centre won, but plenty that was less complimentary. I finally made it there to judge for myself with my daughter and, for those who may be interested, here are my thoughts on the exhibition, entitled Dyansty, Death and Discovery.
After buying our tickets, the first room to which we are directed is a flag stone floored chamber containing a throne, on which sit two discarded roses facing defiantly away from each other. This room offers an introduction to the Wars of the Roses from key figures in the life of Richard III – Cecily Neville, his mother, Richard Neville, the Kingmaker Earl of Warwick, Richard’s guardian as he grew to manhood, Vincent Tetulier, an armourer creating harness for Richard, Anne Neville, Richard’s wife and Edward IV, his brother and king. The brief tales they tell us mark stepping stones in Richard’s passage through the Wars of the Roses.
The throne was a cause of some controversy, with talk of the floor running with blood as a marker of Richard’s crimes. This was most likely taken out of context. Throughout the video, landmarks of the Wars of the Roses are projected onto the floor before the throne – the Battle of Towton etc – and shadowy blood seeps down from the throne. This very clearly relates to the prolonged bloodshed of the Wars of the Roses and caused me no offense. With a map of the battles of the Wars of the Roses and a family tree tracing the lines from Edward III to those involved in the troubles, this marks the Dynasty element of the display.
To the left of this room is an exhibition of the fabulous work of artist Graham Turner, whose medieval paintings are stunning. There is a fine array of his work here and it is a display not to be missed.
From the other side of the entrance display, the Visitor Centre walks us through the events of 1483 and Richard’s ascent to the throne. We are presented with the facts and offered opposing conclusions that can be drawn from these. Was Richard out for the crown from the beginning? Or was he reacting to events that happened around him? Whilst the displays may point out that most historians believe Richard was driving the events of that Spring and Summer (which, let’s face it, they do), it proffers the opposing view for the visitor to make up their own mind.
As you would expect from an exhibition that has seen input from the Richard III Society amongst others, the facts offered are just that – facts. I couldn’t fault any of them and there was no malevolent undercurrent dragging the viewer’s opinion of Richard down. A fine example of this is the display relating to the disappearance of Edward IV’s sons, the Princes in the Tower, which goes no further than noting that their uncertain fate cast a shadow over Richard’s reign. There can be no doubt that it did, and still does, but the exhibition does not lead the visitor to a pre-determined solution to the mystery.
I gave a talk in a local village recently on the life of Richard III, and told those listening that I couldn’t provide them answers to most of the questions that I would ask. It isn’t an easy approach to take because it sets the message up to be unsatisfying, creating more questions than it answers. The easy thing for the Visitor Centre to do might have been to perpetuate the shadowy myths many believe they know. They have not taken this easy route and I applaud them for taking the risk inherent in not providing definitive answers and presenting the controversy as just that.
As we moved through Buckingham’s Rebellion and displays detailing the influence on events of France, Brittany and Henry Tudor’s rise, and with Bosworth looming, I was struck by the incredible design work done within the displays. Each is crisp, clear and well presented. The information is accessible and the presentation clever. I even raised a smile at the Stanley ‘Swing-o-Meter’, and it’s not very often that that name paints my face happy!
The display unashamedly informs us that the precise events at Bosworth are not clearly known, but that a view of the battle can be assembled from the fragments that have come down to us. Richard’s cavalry charge is dealt with as either a planned gambit, or an opportunistic reaction to the course of the battle, but a miscalculation either way. Is there much there to disagree with? The installation of pole-arms gives pause for thought. It is stark and brutal, just as Richard’s end was.
My one and only criticism of the exhibition comes here. It is a missed opportunity, an unfortunate perpetuation of a long-standing myth and a pet peeve of mine. We are told that ‘Shakespeare puts into Richard’s mouth an APPEAL for means of escape’ (display’s emphasis). No he doesn’t. The ‘A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!’ quote is almost always taken out of context as a display of cowardice. In the context of the whole speech, it’s meaning is perfectly clear:
KING RICHARD III: A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!
CATESBY: Withdraw, my lord; I’ll help you to a horse.
KING RICHARD III: Slave, I have set my life upon a cast, And I will stand the hazard of the die: I think there be six Richmonds in the field; Five have I slain to-day instead of him. A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!
Richard calls for a horse. Catesby thinks that he means to flee, or at least encourages him to do so. Richard responds vehemently that he has cast the die of fate and will face the consequences. He has no intention of fleeing. He tells Catesby that there must be six Henry Tudors on the battlefield, because he has killed five men who he had mistaken for his enemy. He calls once more for a fresh horse, but he wants it to return him to the fray, to allow him to continue hunting Tudor, not to flee. Even Shakespeare, like every other writer on Richard’s end at Bosworth, concedes Richard’s bravery amongst the plethora of faults he imbues his character with. Even Shakespeare cannot deny him this. It would have been nice to have seen this misconception challenged rather than reinforced.
From here, the exhibition moves upstairs and it is a clear demarcation between the Death and the Discovery elements of the exhibition. The downstairs area has a thoroughly medieval feel that fits perfectly with its story. Upstairs is bright and crisp, telling the story first of Shakespeare’s version of Richard III and theatrical depictions through the ages. Revisionists such as Josephine Tey and Paul Murray Kendall get a look in at this point to, presenting both sides of Richard’s reputation through the centuries with equal weight.
The connection between Shakespeare and Richard III is something many wish to disentangle as the main source of a conceived and incorrect image of Richard. I don’t think that this is necessarily required. It is the way in which many will first come into contact with Richard III and a proportion will go no further. Ricardians can harness Shakespeare to increase exposure to the truth. I have never viewed Shakespeare’s Richard III as anything but a masterpiece and I will never alter that opinion. But it is fiction. And the exhibition does a very good job of pointing that out to the visitor. For example, the story, we are told, draws upon an ancient notion of the evil uncle. It is clearly presented as fiction and I have to applaud this.
The story then moves through to the Discovery section, with details of the Looking for Richard Project’s initiation of the work, continuing through the University of Leicester’s involvement in the dig. I didn’t feel that the contributions of the Looking for Richard Project were belittled or sidelined. We listened to interviews with Philippa Langley and, although they didn’t occupy as much space as the details of the dig itself, which focussed on the University, their contribution was well presented.
Then there is the now infamous ‘Stormtrooper’ white suit of armour. It is, indeed, very white. Numbered blue stickers relate to a key beside the suit that names each of the pieces of armour that Richard would have worn. I didn’t feel that it created the impression that this was Richard’s actual armour, nor that his armour was bright white. Perhaps it might allow that misinterpretation I suppose. Museum curators have pointed out that such techniques are accepted and not uncommon teaching methods which, if anything, prevent the impression that this is an original suit of armour worn by Richard. That kind of suggests that the display couldn’t win either way. It’s either a Stormtrooper or creates a false impression of having Richard’s actual armour. Which is the lesser of those two evils? A decision had to be made. I didn’t find it ridiculous, though it didn’t quite seem natural either. Maybe it wasn’t meant to. It would certainly have been out of place downstairs, but fits in upstairs.
We also saw the 3D print out of Richard’s spine and then the 3D recreation of the full skeleton with details of the wounds found on the remains. The marks detailed and clearly visible were powerful reminders of a savage death in a time we barely understand now. It was not only Richard that suffered this fate. Many others did at Bosworth, and many thousands had over the previous decades of civil war, countless further suffering similar fates in France. Neither was Richard the last to suffer in such a way, but it is a very personal and poignant moment to see what was done to a named individual, especially one who I have studied and tried to understand for so long.
Moving back downstairs, the final part of the exhibition leads to a quiet room with a glass section of flooring which overlooks the still-exposed site of the grave in which Richard III was found. Across the back wall is carved a verse from a prayer that can be found in his personal Book of Hours, a common prayer in his day, asking for God’s help in time of trouble, and offering him thanks for the gifts that He grants. I thought that this room was beautifully done. I don’t know quite what I expected, but I was thoroughly impressed.
I was fortunate enough to visit the dig site during one of the open days, though we couldn’t see this site at the time. At intervals, a projection of the skeleton identifies the exact spot that the remains were found and how they were laid out. Although I think I see the need for this, I am glad that it isn’t on all of the time. The vacant space was enough for me. Looking into it, surrounded by buildings of so many eras, it reminds me how close the grave site must have come to complete destruction and eternal loss plenty of times.
The discovery of Richard III’s remains is an opportunity that was realised against all odds by a dedicated team at the Looking for Richard Project. I have nothing but respect and gratitude for their work. The University deserve a good deal of credit to for their technical expertise and experience in carrying out the dig. What has followed has often been unseemly and, in my opinion, unnecessary. I thoroughly understand that many deem it more than necessary and I do not seek to diminish their conviction nor challenge their right to it. If we seek to present Richard III as a more tolerant figure than history has passed to us, shouldn’t we also be more tolerant of differing views amongst ourselves?
I recently wrote to The Leicester Mercury and they were kind enough to publish my letter on their website. My call was to stop trying to portray Richard at either pole of the ‘goodie’ and ‘baddie’ scale but to seek out and try to understand the real man. The discovery of his remains has been far more divisive than I wish it had been. I think, if I’m honest, I was dreading the Visitor Centre pouring fuel onto the fire, kindling the destructive flames and peddling unreasonable, traditional nonsense in a sensationalist bid to cash in on the discovery.
I was very, very pleasantly surprised.
Okay, an ardent Ricardian may not learn anything new about Richard’s story, but for me, this should be aimed squarely at challenging what those who are less interested believe they know about Richard III.
The Visitor Centre achieves this.
By presenting the options without defining the conclusion the visitor should reach.
By using stunning graphics in a well defined and delineated space.
By pitching a message at exactly the right level.
By rounding it all off with a stunning, peaceful place to contemplate all that you have seen whilst reminding you that this is a very human story.
The story of a man.
I would thoroughly recommend going to see the exhibitions at the King Richard III Visitor Centre. An informative experience if you know little of the truth about Richard III.
A poignant space if your interest runs deeper.
Whatever you fear – misinformation, a lack of respect – lay those fears to rest. Richard III is done justice in that space. At least, I believe he is. Why not visit and see what you think?
Perhaps it is time for an end to York v Leicester, and a time for united Ricardians v the lies.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences of the Centre.
I have written more about Shakespeare’s Richard III at mattlewisauthor.wordpress.com/2013/06/02/william-shakespeares-richard-iii-the-convenient-villain and at royalcentral.co.uk/blogs/history/the-defence-of-king-richard-iii-part-4-bosworth-shakespeare-that-horse-14699.
The letter on The Leicester Mercury website can be found at www.leicestermercury.co.uk/Richard-III-Stop-looking-saint-demon-try-man/story-24519152-detail/story.html
Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor.