The History Anorak

The History Anorak

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Richard III

     I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
     Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
     Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
     Into this breathing world, scarce half made up
            Richard III Act1 Scene 1

Statue by the Cathedral
I'm going to let you into a secret dear Reader: I share something with Richard III. No, I didn't spend the last 500 years under a car park in Leicester, I am, like him, "deformed, unfinished ......scarce half made up". Yep, I have scoliosis. My spine is curved. Or in other words I'm a hunchback.

It means I've always had a soft spot for the much-maligned king.  I never believed that he had the Princes in the Tower murdered (though I'd be prepared to believe that someone did it thinking they were doing him a favour); I always hoped that one day I'd learn something positive about him.

And that's where the latest day out comes in. I decided to visit Richard in his adopted home of Leicester. Of course it was never his idea to adopt Leicester. He didn't set out on 22 August 1485 to lose the Battle of Bosworth and so, by a convoluted route, end up under a city centre car park.  He always said he wanted to be buried in York, but when the fight to provide his final resting place ended York Minster came in second.

The car park
This, as Sellar and Yeatman would say, is A Good Thing. York didn't really need an additional tourist attraction. Leicester has done him proud. I regret to say that my photos of his tomb came out very badly blurred so I can't show you the views I'd like. I plan to return to get better shots.

Richard turned up in a car park on the site of the old Franciscan priory (Greyfriars) which, these days, is opposite the Cathedral. (That's quite likely, when you think about it.) After the scientists finished doing all their DNA tests and the rest of the investigations they subjected him to, he was re-interred in the Cathedral. The site opposite, where he was found, is now the Richard III visitor centre.

It covers his family history, the background to the Wars of the Roses (in which the House of Lancaster and Richard's House of York argued over who was the rightful King), the lead up to the Battle of Bosworth, and the treachery of the Stanley family who brought their forces to the battlefield then held back to see which side was winning before they joined in!

Model of Richard's spine
However, it was the upper floor that had most effect on me, where the topic of Richard's shape is discussed. We're all familiar with Shakespeare's version of Richard's story. He's portrayed as an ugly, misshapen and evil man who will stop at nothing to get his own way,  Now the Tudors (who gained the throne after victory at Bosworth) believed that deformity and disability were linked to moral weakness. In other words, the more twisted Richard's body, the worse his character. Shakespeare, who relied on Tudor patronage, exaggerated the deformity to make Richard seem more unworthy of the throne.

Will also lied about a few other things: that famous quote about offering his kingdom for a horse, for example. The implication is that he wanted means to escape, but contemporary reports say he went down fighting and determined not to yield a yard of ground.  The archaeological evidence supports that. Richard died from multiple head injuries caused by a number of different weapons.

In fact much of what we learned about Richard at school conflicts with the truth. Contemporary reports of the man suggest he was, in fact, a fine and respected King. Like this one on the wall of the visitor centre:

King Richard III Visitor Centre
Putting a face to Richard

Monday, 4 September 2017


If you fancy a stroll through history (literally) you could do worse than pay a visit to the Avoncroft Museum of Buildings near Bromsgrove in the West Midlands. Basically it's a huge estate where buildings that would otherwise have been demolished, or allowed to crumble away, have been lovingly gathered together and restored.

It's an interesting collection. You can find most things there. Some are obvious: there's a windmill, and a dovecote, and barns, and a stable. There's a former pub that's now the Edwardian tea room. Cottages of all ages give you a taste of life across the centuries, from Tudor times to post World War Two.

But it's the less obvious bits that I most enjoyed. For example there's the top off a redundant church from Smethwick. The spire of the 19th century St Paul's Church was made of wood, and by 1959 was severely rotten. It was replaced in the early 1960s with a fibreglass replica, which was lighter, and cheaper, than creating a new brick one.  But in 1963 the church burned down and only the spire and tower survived. A new church was built alongside it, but that was made redundant in 1996.

Chainmakers' workshop
There are various workshops including a fine example of a nail shop. And I don't mean a place where you can get acrylic extensions to your fingers! Back in the day nail making was a cottage industry and people had a workshop in their back yards. Chain making, however, was more organised and chain workshops had rows of anvils where individual makers would work alongside each other.

But I think my favourite part was the National Telephone Kiosk Collection. Yes, phone boxes through the ages are lined up around a yard and each one is  connected to one of three exchanges the museum owns. That means that excited children can phone each other (at a cost of 2p a call) and not realise that they don't have to shout. The REALLY fun part is that they need instructions to use a phone dial. They don't realise they have to take their fingers out of the slot once they've rotated the mechanism. Consequently they mis-dial a lot and end up talking to total strangers!

I found a Mk II kiosk with a phone that reminded me of my childhood, and of course the first thing I did was press Button B. For the youngsters and foreigners among you Button B was what you pressed to get your money back if your call wasn't connected. People often forgot, of course, and so enterprising children would rush in behind them and press the button to pocket the cash!  It was fourpence - but three successes brought you a shilling, and that was a big bar of chocolate!

There are also a few other things that aren't technically buildings, like a showman's wagon for example, and the wonderful roadmenders' wagon, both the type of thing it's trendy to take a holiday in these days.  How would the old roadmenders who used to travel round in the carts react to the idea that their old 'make do' accommodation is now considered a treat?

Avoncroft's was owned by Worcestershire County Council. There's a hard-looking bench at the back and a small cast iron stove that would have doubled up as cooker and heating in the original cart. They were towed behind the steamroller when gangs went out to fix potholes around the county. It was hardly the height of luxury, but somehow it has an air of romance about it; I can see how it might have the same kind of effect as the canary yellow gipsy caravan had on Toad in Wind in the Willows, and that the novelty would wear off just as quickly!