Greyfriars Church Leicester – The building beyond the bones?

Greyfriars 8 smallSee the updated reconstruction here and video here. There is understandably a great deal of interest and debate about the life and death of Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England who was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 by the forces of his rival Henry Tudor who then succeed him as King and founded the Tudor dynasty. The recent discovery of King Richard III’s remains in the city of Leicester in a joint project between the University of Leicester and the Richard III Society has captured the public imagination. What has received much less attention is the lost architecture of the church in which his body was ultimately buried and within whose foundations it lay undiscovered for five hundred twenty seven years. This is the Franciscan Priory Church thought to have been called St. Mary Magdalene’s which belonged to the order and society commonly known as the Greyfriars. The attribution of the dedication is not entirely certain so this building is most commonly referred to simply as Greyfriars Church, Leicester. The building no longer exists above ground (it was demolished during the reformation) but excavations have revealed some of the foundations and buried fragments of masonry, glass, tile and other material. From these and the very much more extensive remains of other Franciscan Priories in England like Walsingham,  Litchfield and Reading it’s possible to speculate on what Greyfriars Church in Leicester actually looked like. De Montfort University PhD student Asem Al Bunni has created a first-stage digital reconstruction of the nave, choir and steeple of Greyfriars church based on a speculative interpretation by John Ashdown-Hill in his book “The last days of Richard III.” This is a first stage massing model intended to communicate one possible interpretation of the size and location of this part of Greyfriars church. Critical discussion and further research and development work are being carried out on the architectural form and detail and further work will also be carried out on interpreting the possible appearance of the parts of the Friary complex which so far have not been modeled such as the great cloister, guest house, chapter house and dormitories. The model has been created to investigate some of the difficult issues involved in meaningfully visualizing lost buildings. One of these difficulties is simply and accurately communicating an appreciation of where a lost building is located in relation to the modern buildings that we can see in and around where that lost building once was. Doing this is important, particularly in dense urban situations because it helps to create a mental map for observers which allows other information and narratives to be quickly and meaningfully placed in spatial relationships to one another so providing a mental framework upon which the tapestry of a larger and more detailed story can be woven. By placing the digital massing model of Greyfriars church within a larger digital representation of today’s Greyfriars area of the city it’s possible to understand the relationship of this lost building to the Leicester we can see today. In this respect one of the initial things that strikes you about the building is its size, this was not a small church, it would have towered over the contemporary medieval buildings in the area in a way which is perhaps underappreciated and would also dominate those adjacent to it today. There is much more to discover about the design of Greyfriars church in Leicester and it’s a fascinating architectural piece in the historical mosaic of an important part of English History. However it’s not the only one in this story. There is some evidence to indicate that Greyfriars Church may not have been the first place in which King Richard III’s remains were placed. John Ashdown-Hill and others suggest that Richard’s body first lay in another church, St. Mary-in-the-Newarke, a part of which can still be seen in the ground floor of De Montfort University’s Hawthorne Building. It is speculated that Richard’s body may have been on display in the Newarke on a kind of hurdle or stretcher, possibly partly covered by a cloth, for two days immediately after the battle and before the morning of the 25th August 1485 when his body was eventually taken to Greyfriars Church and interred there without any pomp or ceremony and probably with few to see it. If this was the case then it is perhaps in the story of Richard III’s body lying at St. Mary-in-the-Newarke, immediately after the Battle of Bosworth and those who came to see it and why, their motivations and reactions where the real human drama of the burial of Richard the III lies. The vanished architecture of St. Mary-in-the-Newarke that provided the backdrop to that potentially dramatic and very public historical event is clearly important in telling the greater story of Richard III and indeed of this period in the City of Leicester’s history.

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About Douglas Cawthorne

Reader in Digital Heritage at De Montfort University.
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