Sandra Heath Wilson visits Richard III’s funeral crown at Tewkesbury Abbey

Before I even begin to describe the delights of Tewkesbury Abbey’s “Armour at the Abbey” event, let me say it was a truly enjoyable occasion. Simply wonderful. Praise to all concerned. But I have one reservation, which will be described in due course.

So, it’s Saturday, 3rd May 2014, the English spring weather is perfect, and I arrived early, 10.30, to look around the abbey before the official opening at 11. Surprisingly, there were not many people around, but the atmosphere was humming with excitement. There were a lot of beautiful flower arrangements, some of which were particularly impressive.

Then folk started to arrive, people of so many different nationalities, as well as British stalwarts. Footsteps and voices rang through the great church, and the sense of anticipation began to grow. There was some disgruntlement because a number of people had wanted to buy John Ashdown-Hill’s book, The Third Plantagenet, and expected him to be there to sign copies, but they discovered he wasn’t signing anything until 3 p.m. So perhaps some sales were lost.

richard III crownThere was quite a long queue at the ticket desk as 11 approached, and everyone was chattering. At last the moment came, and we were allowed in. It wasn’t quite the opening of Harrods’ sale, but the thought did pass through my mind. The first person I saw then was John Ashdown-Hill, which surprised me, considering I’d been hearing the grumbling. I spoke to him (not about disgruntlements, or indeed about signing my copy of his Clarence book, which I’d brought with me!) He told me to look out for his coming book on Lambert Simnel, and I promised I would. Well, I have all the others, so must go for the full set.

He showed me the funeral crown. It was in a side chapel, practically the first you came to after the desk. If he hadn’t said that was where the crown was displayed, I would have walked right past it, which, indeed, a lot of people did. It is the siting and set-up of this part of the event with which I find fault. Anyway, for the moment I will continue. There was a rope barrier to prevent us getting close, so the crown had to be viewed at a little distance, which prevented the detail being examined. Thank goodness for the invention of zoom on cameras! The crown was atop a red velvet cloth, as if on the summit of a blunt pyramid. I couldn’t help wishing someone could unite it for a moment with the reconstruction of Richard’s head. OK, it’s a funeral crown, but as it has been made to fit his head measurements, it seems such an opportunity lost. Unless, of course, someone already has this in hand? Hint.

Then I moved on, to the other enticements, which included minstrels (superb!), people dressed in costume—Edward IV, Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl Rivers, Elizabeth Woodville, Proud Cis, George of Clarence and . . . no Richard? If he was there, I did not see him. But Edward IV was splendid in black velvet and crown, if sporting a beard. The gentleman playing Earl Rivers was being prepared to wear full armour. He said that it weighed a great deal and took about forty minutes to don fully. He was right, but it was fascinating to see every lace tied, every buckle done up, every small piece of armour put in place that finally transformed him into a knight as we like to think of them. He looked magnificent. Hats off to him. Helms off?

The minstrels were very skilled, and had everyone’s feet tapping. They earned their rapturous applause. It was truly atmospheric to hear their music in such surroundings. Maybe it wouldn’t be the sort of music they would have played in church in Richard’s time, but it wasn’t difficult to imagine the building was a great palace, and all the onlookers were members of his court. It was also easy to think of dancing to such jaunty notes. Oh, the power of imagination . . .

20140503_145Viewing the little vault where George, Duke of Clarence is believed to lie with his duchess, is not usually possible. But it was open today. There are not many steps down, but they are steep. The bones are in a glass case, set against the wall opposite the steps, and there were a lot of tea lights shining. I did not have a sense of George and Isabel. The bones are jumbled up (they have to be, they were jumbled when found) but there was something oddly remote about them. I don’t know if anyone else has ever felt that way. Detached is probably the word I am looking for.

Next came the great highlight for me, the knighting of George, Duke of Clarence—or re-knighting, I am not sure—after he had left the fold to join Warwick the Kingmaker, and then come back in again. The sweet scent of incense drifted in clouds as George knelt before his elder brother, Edward IV, being ritually cleansed and prepared, praying all the while. He was dressed in armour, royal surcoat and plumed helmet, before Edward dubbed him knight again. Only then was George allowed to stand, and I thought his knees must have been sore. Kneeling for so long in armour cannot be easy! Finally was an opportunity for photographs to be taken of the royal family, who all looked regal. Still could not tell if Richard was supposed to be there.

I decided it was time to leave, and as I walked back towards the desk, and the side chapel where the crown was on display, I realized that the whole of that small area of the abbey was sort-of made over to Richard. I hadn’t noticed when I arrived. It seemed as if they’d started to prepare it, but run out of time. Or, because the crown was only on display today, it was not worth bothering with anything too lavish. Anyway, there was a likeness of him as the king’s “brothere”, and an old reproduction of the NPG portrait. His boar banner was there, and white roses, but it was all somehow abandoned. Like the crown, it was something people passed on their way to where it was really at. This saddened me, because, as is said in Dirty Dancing, “Nobody puts Richard in a corner!”

But even so, I have nothing but praise for the event, which was superb entertainment and well worth seeing. I hope that by describing my experience, others can enjoy it a little too.

– Sandra Heath Wilson

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