The moment we've been waiting for since last August is almost upon us! On Monday, 4th February, the University of Leicester will at last announce whether the skeleton found in the Greyfriars car-park is in fact Richard III - and at 9pm that night, Channel 4 will show its documentary on the excavation, skeletal analysis and facial reconstruction, entitled 'Richard III: The King in the Car Park'. Could the title be a give-away?! In the meantime, More 4 are screening a full evening of related programmes on Sunday 3rd, starting with the episode of David Starkey's 'Monarchy' series on the Wars of the Roses at 6.55, followed by Tony Robinson's 'Fact or Fiction?' looking at the mystery of the Princes in the Tower, and at 9pm a drama on the same theme, a reconstruction of the trial of one of the Princes' 'pretenders'. Whatever results are announced on Monday, it's wonderful to see this often neglected historical period and England's most unfairly maligned king hitting national and international news headlines - I can't wait to see these programmes! It's also great to hear that there's been an upsurge of interest, and a mass influx of of new members, in the Richard III Society... a real boost for the Wars the Roses and medieval history buffs everywhere.
6th February - IT'S HIM! RICHARD III IS FOUND! (See more on my new Wordpress blog, Helen Rae Rants!)
This Monday was a truly astonishing day for British archaeology, Wars of the Roses historians and Ricardians everywhere: Leicester University finally announced that, 'beyond reasonable doubt', they had in fact unearthed the remains of King Richard III in the choir doorway of the vanished church of Greyfriars. The discovery is a great tribute to Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society, whose research pinpointed the site of the building razed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and whose tenacity persuaded University archaeologists to rip up the Social Services building car-park beneath which his grave was hidden.
Channel 4's documentary on Monday 4th told the whole story of this well-nigh unbelievable fluke - the remains being the first find in the very first trench the archaeologists opened, and even marked by a white 'R' (for 'Reserved Parking')! Quite uncanny - remarkable too that the skeleton had survived intact, apart from his feet, despite all the later building on the site. And the amount of media interest, both nationally and globally, is unprecedented; in one fell swoop, Richard III has risen from 528 years of obscure burial to international 'stardom' as the most intensively-studied and intimately-known of all English monarchs. At last, much of the rubbish written about him in the past five centuries has been swept away by the broom of
The skull of Richard III: image copyright of, and reproduced by kind permission of, the University of Leicester
objective scientific fact. We can now be certain that following his defeat at Bosworth in August 1485, the late king's body was hastily interred by the Greyfriars monks (without a coffin, in a grave somewhat too short albeit in a position of honour within their church) - and there it remained, notwithstanding the popular legend that he had been dug up and thrown into the River Soar at the time of Dissolution. We know that there's a grain of truth in the 'hunchback' slur - he didn't have a 'hump' but he did suffer from severe adolescent-onset scoliosis, resulting in a dramatic 'U-bend' spinal curvature which would have reduced his stature and made one shoulder higher than other. We know that Sir Thomas More's account of his 'withered arm' is nonsense - his arms and hands were normal, if slender and gracile. We know that he wasn't a big bloke - without the scoliosis he would probably have stood c. 5' 8" - and was lightly built, although strong and fit enough to be an active soldier. We can confirm the historical accounts of his death in the midst of the fighting - his body bears a number of wounds including stabs and slashes to the head, and a massive fatal slice which sheared off part of the back of his skull, consistent with attacks made after his helmet had been knocked or wrenched off; and sadly, it appears that the stories of post-mortem mutilation are true, with cuts on the pelvis indicating a blade slash or stab to the right buttock (possibly inflicted when his corpse was slung over a horse for transport back to Leicester). And thanks to a highly-skilled facial reconstruction based on his skull, (above) we have a pretty good idea of what he looked like - the portrait below left turns out to be an accurate representation of a square-jawed, firm-chinned and good-looking man who, despite the loss during life of some molars, I would guess (judging from the good teeth in that skull) had a fetching and pearly-white smile. I'll be writing a fuller account of this momentous find for the next issue of the TBS newsletter, which I'll duly post on the Articles page... and meanwhile listening with interest to the arguments now raging about where our late lamented King Richard will be re-interred. I've stuck my own oar into that issue on the first post of my brand new Wordpress blog, Helen Rae Rants! which I'll be using for all sorts of writings that don't easily sit on this site.
Just had a brilliant, highly topical treat: yesterday Hubcap had an unexpected day off, so we went on a day-trip to one of my favourite Ricardian sites, Middleham Castle (right). Middleham itself is a gracious market-town on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, with ridge-and-furrow fields all around and the picturesque ruins of the 12th century Jervaulx Abbey nearby, giving a tantalising glimpse of the landscape Richard III would have known. Its original castle was a Norman motte-and-bailey, abandoned in the 12th century in favour of the present site, a massive fortress built by the Neville family and developed into a comfortable residence by Ralph, the first earl of Westmorland, father of Cecily Neville, Duchess of York and mother of Richard III. (You get a spectacular view of it across the fields when approaching on the A6108 from Ripon).
Richard III spent much of his youth at Middleham as ward of Richard 'the Kingmaker' Neville, and the castle was awarded to him by a grateful Edward IV after the battle of Barnet - it's said to have been Richard's favourite residence. Alas, when we arrived we found it closed (winter opening hours are weekends only, 10am - 4pm, until 28th March). But having driven 70 miles to see the place, we naughtily hopped over the front wall and were still able to walk round all the ground-level features including this strange, grotesque statue of Richard III by Linda Thompson (left) - I don't especially like it, but it turns out she's got the face pretty accurate! And there was plenty more to admire, like the superb quality masonry and very impressive, extensive garderobe facilities... and although I find it difficult to envisage in its intact condition, the numerous information boards dotted about interpret the remains effectively. (Luckily we also have a copy of the excellent DVD, Middleham: A Royal Residence, which gives full-colour computer-graphic reconstructions of the castle in Richard III's day, to watch when we got home).
Afterwards we took the short walk to the Church of St Mary and St Akelda, where Richard III founded a college with six chaplains to offer perpetual masses for his family's souls. The church dates to the 13th century and is very plain within apart from its very fine stained glass windows including the one below right, installed in 1934 by the Richard III Society and made in the style of the late 15th century York artists; the lower left panel shows King Richard and Queen Anne, and the lower right their son, Edward, who was born at Middleham Castle and also died there in 1484 aged only ten.
Having had our fill of Ricardian heritage (and got thoroughly chilly!), we repaired to The Black Bull in the
town centre for lunch. This is a wonderful, traditional pub with comfy chairs and blazing fires (a particularly welcome sight on such a freezing cold day), festooned with hunting trophies and all kinds of interesting stuff; Mick was delighted to see, suspended from the bar ceiling, a 1970's-vintage Tomahawk bicycle just like the one he used to have as a lad. We warmed up on thick, filling pea and ham soup served with hot crusty rolls, topped off with hot chocolate fudge cake and custard, a cafetiere of coffee for me, a pot of tea for Mick, a glass of wine and a half of Black Sheep, all for £21.90 - and rolled out stuffed stupid and feeling very cheerful! So we walked some of it off with a hike round the fields south of town, where I snapped some views of the castle to illustrate an article I'm working on for Yorkshire Ridings Magazine... and then it was back home to Wakefield to round off a lovely, if very cold day with stiff tot of whisky and a nice hot bath.
And now it's all systems go again for Herstory... I've just received the corrected proof of Breath of Gaia to check (again!); I have my Battle of Wakefield lecture to check and refresh for delivery at the Doncaster Festival of Heritage on Tuesday 19th; I'm in the midst of preparations for Towton Battlefield Society's annual Palm Sunday commemoration and assembling the next edition of the newsletter, The Towton Herald; and on top of all that, trying to get to grips with customising my new blog site, Helen Rae Rants (it's taking me out of my comfort zone, but proving to be lots of fun) - not to mention trying to finish the current chapter of Lay of Angor Book 3. Phew... I could do with more hours in the day...
Here's a hot entry to warm a freezing month: an homage to some of my favourite foods. Yesterday, courtesy of a stall at Wakefield's Rhubarb Festival, Mick introduced me to the fine products made by The Chili Jam Man. Yes, you heard me - chili jam! There are two jars on the right: Bhut Jolokia (sweet and searingly hot) and Hot Chocolate Orange (rich, dark chocolately/citrus and not quite so hot), in front of a bottle of cold-pressed Yorkshire rapeseed oil with tiny whole bird's eye chilies (also searingly hot!). They're all hand-made in small batches with no artificial colours, preservatives or gelling agents - and although the jams might seem expensive-ish at £2.50 - £4.00 for a 200g jar, a little goes a very long way. And I gather they keep for ages in the fridge, which I can believe - any micro-organism daring to try and breed on it would surely explode in a micro-puff of smoke! You can stir the jams into pasta and soup, or use like chutney with meat, fish and cheese - and if you like spicy food you'll love them. I immediately cooked up a pressure-cooker full of hot lentil soup: an onion and a couple of cloves of garlic fried in 50:50 chili and olive oil, a 250g bag of red lentils, vegetable stock cube, squirt of tomato puree and tin of chopped tomatoes topped up with water, plus a dessert-spoon of Hot Choc Orange and a little salt and black pepper. Mmm... 10 minutes preparation to make five goodly bowlfuls, for a cost of c. £2 - nourishing, utterly delicious (and brought us both out in a right sweat!).
Having gained an asbestos mouth thanks to my student years in Leicester with its magnificent curry-houses and Asian market stalls, I can trough this spicy food with gusto - and luckily, Hubcap likes it too. So as well as eating hot at home, we often treat ourselves to a meal out in our favourite Indian restaurant, the Aagrah on Barnsley Road in Wakefield. (Curry-house tip: check there's a good proportion of Asian diners among the clientele - they don't bother going out to eat pallid Anglicised imitations). There's a whole chain of Aagrahs around Yorkshire, and their food is superb - in fact the only problem is choosing what to have from the whopping great menu! But there is a way round that - go for the £12.95 buffet (below left).
It's unbelievable value: 3 courses starting with a range of salads, relishes and (typically) kebabs, samosas, bhajis and mouthwatering battered fish nuggets; then a half dozen or so different curries including at least one vegetarian option, plus the vegetable of the day (something yummy like aloo ghobi, bhindi bhaji, or a vegetable medley) with a choice of rice and breads; then the sweet table - oh, my! Fresh fruit, fruit jellies, mousses, rice pudding with cardamom and pistachio, traditional Indian sweets like kulfi and guleb jaman, all exquisitely presented like tiny jewels (right) - I've sworn to go one day and just eat dessert for starter, main and- well, dessert. To me, this is the best of all worlds at the Aagrah - chance to sample little tastes of a huge range of dishes. And we've got it down to a fine art now, having learned the hard way not to pog out on the savoury courses (no matter how delicious) so that we've room left for pudding!