England: Visiting Leicester's big new attraction, the King Richard III Visitor Centre

"A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!"

Standing on a grassy hill outside Leicester, it's hard to imagine King Richard III shouting Shakespeare's famous line here more than five centuries ago.

But on August 22, 1485, the unhorsed Richard was slogging away with sword and armour on the peaceful ploughed fields I can see from the Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre. It was the final bloody battle of his short reign, and would end with his death and the ascent of the Tudor dynasty.

The centre, within a set of old farm buildings, was once thought to occupy the site of the battle. Then a thorough survey of underground battle debris in 2005 proved the hostilities took place next door.

Still, there's a good view of the battlefield from this rise within the heritage centre's grounds, surmounted as it is with two thrones and a huge sundial with affixed crown. It's an atmospheric place from which to reflect on the fickleness of fate, especially on a blustery day with bursts of rain competing with patches of sunshine.

In a hollow at the bottom of the hill I find a cairn with an inscription sympathetic to the deposed king, erected by a group of admirers in 1813. As with our home-grown rogue Ned Kelly, people have long been fascinated by the question of whether Richard was a hero or a villain.

It's an argument which gained new energy on the discovery of the king's bones in 2012. He was known to have been buried in central Leicester, in a churchyard which has long since disappeared. Using old maps, an archaeological team dug into a car park on its original location and discovered the battle-scarred royal skeleton.

It was a remarkable find after so many centuries, and led to the creation of a major new Leicester attraction. The King Richard III Visitor Centre now inhabits a former school next to the excavation site. Scattered through its rooms are exhibitions which explain the story of the king's life and death, and of the investigation which led to his recovery.

The centre does an excellent job of untangling the complex alliances of medieval England via engaging displays. An introductory gallery employs oversized playing cards to explain the historical figures of Richard's era, and filmed presentations use actors to set the scene.

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Upstairs, an exhibition examines Richard III on stage and screen, including Sir Ian McKellen's acclaimed 1990s portrayal of him as a fascist dictator. Shakespeare, writing under a Tudor monarch, cast the king as a villain; but in recent years he's undergone a partial rehabilitation, and that's addressed here as well.

The most moving exhibit at the Visitor Centre is its simplest. Preserved under a glass floor is the excavation site, with a projection indicating precisely how Richard's bones lay.

His humble original grave is in high contrast with the new tomb across the street. After some deliberation it was decided that King Richard III would be laid to rest in Leicester Cathedral.

Originally an 11th century church, the cathedral has been rebuilt over the centuries. Its grand, airy interior was again remodelled, to accommodate Richard beneath a massive tombstone deeply etched with a cross.

Compared to the older, elaborately decorated tombs of other monarchs, this is an elegant monument, the stone inset with tiny fossils. The longer I look at it, the more variety I can see within its surface, with its traces of calcite, amber and coal.

It's a moving memorial, and fitting. As this stone has its flaws, so had the monarch it remembers. With or without his horse.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

visitbritain.com

kriii.com

FLY

Cathay Pacific flies from several Australian cities to London, from where Leicester is an hour by train. See cathaypacific.com and trainline.com

STAY

The Belmont Hotel has comfortable boutique accommodation in Leicester. For the full Richard III experience, ask for the King Richard-themed room. From £61 per night. See belmonthotel.co.uk 

VISIT

Entry to the Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre costs £8.95 and is good for multiple visits within a year. See bosworthbattlefield.org.uk

Entry  to the King Richard III Visitor Centre costs £8.95 and is also valid for multiple revisits. See kriii.com 

Entry to Leicester Cathedral is free and there are Richard III-themed tours available on Saturdays for £3. See leicestercathedral.org

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Cathay Pacific, Visit Britain and the King Richard III Visitor Centre.

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