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The power of sheer bloody-mindedness

27 March 2015

by Pat Ashworth


Ceremonial: the coffin is carried into Leicester Cathedral where (above) it was saluted by the Duke of Gloucester

Ceremonial: the coffin is carried into Leicester Cathedral where (above) it was saluted by the Duke of Gloucester

ON THE streets of Leicester, the most frequently heard comment from bystanders has been: "There'll never be anything like this again."

In the ranks of the Richard III Society - founded in 1924 to secure a more balanced assessment of Richard's reputation - and in the University of Leicester, the finding, verification, and now reburial of the king's remains evokes words such as "incredible" and "amazing", even from those experts who have been with the project from the start.

Professor Kevin Schürer, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University, and a genealogy expert, described Sunday, when the remains were handed over to the cathedral, as "the biggest day in the University and the city's history".

Speaking at a press conference on Monday, he marvelled at the "sheer interest and fascination of the public and the media" in the story and the science. One of those present at the coffining of the bones - a quiet, reverent and private ceremony of witness attended by representatives of all the key groups involved in the project, he said: "You can't help being astounded that you are standing next to Richard III."

Dr Turi King, the geneticist who carried out the DNA analysis, said: "We were assured we would never find Richard III." Reports that the king's body had been thrown into the Soar in 1538, when the Greyfriars Priory was demolished in the Dissolution, were proved to be unfounded by John Ashdown-Hill, a historian of the late-medieval period, in 2004. One of the figures depicted on the pall, he had begun the previous year to seek the mitochondrial DNA sequence shared by the king and his siblings, and announced the result in 2005.

Forensic pathology, bone analysis, radiocarbon dating, genealogy, and DNA research all contributed to the University's conclusion in 2014 that it was 99.999 per cent certain that the bones were indeed the king's. In 2013, a computer scan of the skull led to craniofacial identification at the University of Dundee, and a three-dimensional plastic model was unveiled by the Richard III Society at the Society of Antiquaries in London.

The "sheer bloody-mindedness" of Philippa Langley, secretary of the Scottish branch, and ardent defender of Richard III, was acknowledged with admiration at the Society's press conference on Monday as the trigger for the excavation. She is also depicted on the pall, as the one who raised the money for the excavation and then organised it. Recalling 2012, she said: "The first time I stood in that car park, the strangest feeling washed over me. I thought, 'I am standing on Richard's grave.'"

"That we actually found the king still seems unbelievable," representatives of the Society (membership of which has doubled since 2012) told the press. The Society's chairman, Dr Phil Stone, who is also depicted on the pall, emphasised the importance of the craniofacial reconstruction and the analysis of the bones in proving that Richard was not a hunchback, a deformity associated with inner evil, the evidence of a twisted soul.

The Society declared itself on Monday to be "lovers of the underdog, of people who have been done down".

Richard's descendants - Michael Ibsen, son of Joy Ibsen, the king's 16th-generation grand-niece - and Wendy Duldig, both spoke of the extraordinary experience of discovering they were related to the monarch. "When we saw the cortège for the first time, and saw and felt how Richard had been embraced by the people, a shiver went down the spine," Mrs Duldig said.

Mr Ibsen, who hand-carved the coffin, observed: "Even though I made it, I was still taken aback when I saw it reflected in the sun's light."

Reverence and respect have surrounded the remains since their retrieval. The last object to be laid in the coffin was a piece of unbleached linen, embroidered with boars, white roses, and consecration crosses by Elizabeth Nokes, secretary of the Richard III Society's London branch. An honour guard of military veterans stands by the coffin until it is put into the tomb on Thursday.

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