I was born in Leicester (for overseas readers it is pronounced simply as Lester) in June 1954. My family left the city for the nearby town of Rugby six years later. When asked I always say that I am from Leicester and I am always proud to say so.
Not so proud however to confess that sixty years later despite going to football matches and Baileys Night Club in the 1970s I have never found the time to properly visit the city and give it some of my time and attention.
Although Leicester is a large city in the UK there are only four places in the U.S.A. named after it which have the same spelling , in New York, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Vermont. There are however eleven cities and towns called Lester, in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Washington and West Virginia. . As far as I can see there is no Leicester in Canada, New Zealand or in Australia. Perhaps it is just too difficult to pronounce correctly?
Just recently I was able to put right my dereliction and I especially wanted to explore the link with King Richard III, the Medieval monarch whose life and reputation is intrinsically woven into the life and the fabric of the city. I still remember the stories that my Dad told me about King Richard and who like most people from Leicester was a staunch Ricardian.
Richard was the last Plantagenet and House of York King of England, the last Medieval King, the third and last King of England killed in combat after King Harold at Hastings and Richard The Lion Heart at Aquitaine in France, at the battle of Bosworth in 1485, and succeeded by the victorious Henry Tudor of the House of Lancaster.
I started the visit at Leicester Cathedral to see the tomb of the late King.
Thanks to William Shakespeare poor old Richard is mostly remembered as a bad man and an evil treacherous King who got what he deserved at the battle of Bosworth but history is now beginning to revise this judgement following the discovery of his bones in an unlikely burial place under a public car park in the centre of the city.
Thanks to Shakespeare the name Richard is so disgraced and besmirched that no one has dared to revive the noble name of Richard for an English King.
Incidentally, after the reign of the tyrant number VIII there has never been another King Henry either.
No other English King has generated so much vigorous reinterpretation as Richard III. It is hard to imagine English history without the Tudors but sometimes I wonder, what if…?
After the discovery Yorkshire demanded that he should be immediately returned to the City of York for a final burial but the discoverers held firm and after a messy little legal spat and court case he now lies in the Cathedral of his adopted County of Leicester.
This is Richard at Middleham Castle in Yorkshire…
Leicester has laid claim to Richard III. Some people affirm that this is significant. Leicester City are a football team in England who have never really done anything spectacular. In 2014 they were playing badly and looked likely to be relegated from the Premier League but after the bones of Richard were found they suddenly began to play like champions and in the following year won the English Premier League. The reversal of fortune has been attributed by some to Richard III and though it is unlikely it is such a good story that I really want to believe it.
The Richard III visitor centre puts on a fine exhibition that chronicles his life and times culminating in the bloody showdown at Bosworth.
Our version of the reign of Richard and of the battle of Bosworth is almost entirely informed by Shakespeare but as with most of his histories this was a highly dubious account of what really happened and modern historians have reached the view that far from being gallant and chivalrous and still celebrated as a golden moment in history the battle was filthy, horrible and merciless.
Weapons were crude and brutal. Arrows from the longbows of the Welsh archers rained down and where the sword of a knight would not penetrate the armour of a noble foe and did not have the weight to knock a man off his feet, a poleaxe (a long-handled axe or hammer, topped with a fearsome spike) would fell him fast and then it was easy to raise the victim’s visor and slide a knife through an eye. That was how hundreds of men died – their last sight on earth a dagger’s point.
It turns out that Bosworth is not a tale of chivalry at all, but rather of desperate men hacking at each other to break limbs and crush skulls. Of hundreds of opposing soldiers weighed down by heavy armour submerged and drowning in marshland. Hand to hand combat by men using lead-weighted hammers, poleaxes, mauls and falcon-beaks, the ghastly paraphernalia of medieval fighting.
At some point in the battle and with things not going so well for the King, Richard led a rather reckless charge against Henry Tudor. He most likely looked quite magnificent in his gleaming suit of made-to-measure armour and wearing a crown on his helmet which may have been somewhat unwise (rather like Nelson in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar wandering around HMS Victory in full Admiral uniform and getting shot and killed) and before he could engage in hand to hand combat he was cut down and slain, not by a Prince or a Nobleman but by a common foot soldier with a spiteful pike.
I enjoyed my day in Leicester and I am certain now to return.
Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…