Richard III – Heritage magnet or Tourism treasure?

 
If one has, as I do, a passionate interest in Medieval History, History in general or just simply reads the papers or the internet then no one I think, whether they care or not about the topic, can fail to have missed the incredible news of the finding of Richard III underneath a car park in Leicester. For years rumours about the fate of the King had circulated. Some medieval and modern writers insisted that his body had been thrown into the River Soar. Others speculated that his body had indeed been buried in an unknown location, with his coffin later used as a horse trough. But here he was; death wounds, DNA, dental records; all facts seemed to confirm the exciting news, the curvature of the spine an additional oddly eerie reference to one of the best known rumours about this much maligned King.
 
But between the excitement surrounding the dating of the body, the true representation of Richard’s face and even a piece on the BBC website arguing what accent the five hundred years dead king had (yes I didn’t make that up), one argument and its significance struck me most. Where should the King be buried? This was a situation without precedence.
 
Such an argument not only involved engaging with the long conceived ideas of Christian re-interment, but also brought a whole host of contributors to the fore, each with competing ideas of where he should be buried and why. It also, in my mind challenged notions of the often neglected argument and battle between the twin topics of heritage and tourism. To many these topics should go hand in hand. Surely heritage is what drives tourism and vice versa?
 
But the case of Richard provides a curious example. There seemed two candidates; York and Leicester. For York, the emphasis was placed on a geographical heritage. Richard may not have been born a Yorkshireman, but he belonged to the house of York, he lived his whole life in the north and this was where, it was said, he wished to be buried. For Leicester, the heritage of Richard’s death of course had a part to play but the emphasis seemed to be on tourism. The online petition dedicated to getting Richard reinterred in Leicester simply stated; ‘For the mortal remains of England’s last Plantagenet King, Richard III, the last King to die in battle, recently discovered under a Council car-park in Leicester, to be re-interred with due dignity and respect in Leicester, where he was originally buried’. No pomp, no ceremony – no reference to his Leicester’s heritage link to Richard; simply a logic based upon the fact that he died there. And the city has got itself in good shape to seize every single Richard III PR opportunity. The city’s Guildhall hosts a special exhibition about Richard, which opened on 8 February. There is also a 45-minute walking tour, and even a Richard III mini-break.
 
But to explore what? Leicestershire was the place of Richard’s death true, and Leicester the place where he spent his last night, but what else did the city mean to him? The National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States defines heritage tourism as ‘travelling to experience the places and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past’. Based upon this logic, Leicester qualifies as a place where Richard spent his last day true; but does Leicester qualify as the place where the story of Richard’s life can be most authentically told? This surely rests more on where the individual spent their life, based on a certain geographical affinity.
 
I of course welcome any exhibition that can tell the story of Richard III, but this has to be authentic, based upon his life and personal wishes, not just on his death and the wants of local councillors to encourage people into their city. Of course I cannot blame them for this. However it is important for people to recognise that the authenticity of our heritage trade is more important than councillors squabbling for the transformation of their city into the equivalent of a medieval pilgrim site. Tourism may sell but does it tell the true story or that version which it wishes to make heard. Time will tell. However, I cannot shake the opinion that perhaps Richard should rest where he wished and where his story can be most authentically told.
 
Leicester or York? Leicester does seem to have won the day. Only one thing is for sure though – the debate surrounding this most infamous monarch is sure to continue for the foreseeable future.
 
 

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