King Richard III – The Lost Tomb and the Church of the Greyfriars

The digitally reconstructed lost tomb of King Richard III, shown in-situ within the walking place of Greyfriars Church. © De Montfort University, 2014.

The digitally reconstructed lost tomb of King Richard III, shown in-situ within the walking place of Greyfriars Church. © De Montfort University, 2014.

Over the past few months here at the Digital Building heritage Group we’ve been working on a high quality CGI animation for the new King Richard III visitor center in Leicester, UK. The remains of King Richard III  (2 October 1452 – 22 August 1485) were found in Leicester last year and the City has created a new visitors center on the site. We were asked to digitally reconstruct the 15th Century Greyfriars church and the original tomb of King Richard III that it housed so that visitors could see what this part of medieval Leicester and the friary buildings looked like. We blogged about this building in May last year – see “Greyfriars Church Leicester – The building beyond the bones?” and described in that article the history of the building (which is now entirely lost above ground) and the value of digitally reconstructing it not only from a historical perspective but as part of raising awareness in a wider process of planned, sensitive, physical redevelopment of this conservation area.

View of the Greyfriars precinct in Leicester from the north in around 1485. © De Montfort University, 2014.

View of the Greyfriars precinct in Leicester from the north in around 1485. © De Montfort University, 2014.

For the new digital reconstruction we’ve worked very closely with the archaeologists from the University of Leicester who conducted the Richard III excavation and also with medieval historians who specialize in ecclesiastical buildings and monuments. With them we carefully pieced together the physical form of the friary based on achaeological and literary evidence and examples of Franciscan friaries elsewhere, agreeing the details at each stage of this complex model’s development and recording the process so that in future others will be able to inspect the decisions made and the sources of the data used to arrive at this interpretation. Attention to detail was a key aspect of delivery on this project, authentic textures for the digital models were created from photographs taken of parts of medieval buildings in the city of a similar age and status. For the tomb, examples further afield which were made by the same group of craftsman who made the lost tomb of King Richard III were photographed and measured in order get authentic detailing and texturing of the stone of the tomb.

Aerial view of the cloister and friary buildings of Greyfriars in Leicester around 1485. © De Montfort University, 2014.

Aerial view of the cloister and friary buildings of Greyfriars in Leicester around 1485. © De Montfort University, 2014.

The CGI is designed to be viewed in a low light museum setting as a continuous animation of just over 2 minutes on a three meter wide screen at a distance of 2 to 4 meters. It fills your whole field of view and has a smooth and gentle flight path which is necessary to avoid “air-sickness.” It forms part of a wider reconstructive narrative within the King Richard III visitor center which allows visitors to locate where the the friary was within modern Leicester and in relation to other buildings of historic significance in the King Richard III story. Feedback from both public and heritage professionals has been very positive – and DBHG team members Steffan Davies and Jonathan Gration who worked tirelessly on the CGI were on hand at the press and media preview at the King Richard III Visitor Center to answer questions and explain what the reconstruction was for and how it was made. Like many reconstructions it has not been without some degree of controversy, this particular reconstruction is only one of a number which could be inferred from the available evidence but it has to be said that of all of the plausible alternatives the variations in them would be in the detail only, the overall form and appearance of the buildings would change very little. However one feature which could have significant differences in appearance is the centerpiece of the digital reconstruction, the representation of the lost tomb of King Richard III.

The Latin inscription on the lost tomb of King Richard III. This text is possibly the most certain aspect of the tomb design as there are extant contemporary transcripts of it. © De Montfort University, 2014.

The Latin inscription on the lost tomb of King Richard III. This text is possibly the most certain aspect of the tomb design as there are extant contemporary transcripts of it. © De Montfort University, 2014.

An interpretation based on archaeological and literary evidence of the lost tomb of King Richard III, shown in-situ in the walking place of Greyfriars church next to the choir stalls where King Richard III's body was buried. © De Montfort University, 2014.

An interpretation based on archaeological and literary evidence of the lost tomb of King Richard III, shown in-situ in the walking place of Greyfriars church next to the choir stalls where King Richard III’s body was buried. © De Montfort University, 2014.

The historical descriptions of this tomb, interpreted within the context of known and extant high status English tomb design of the very late fifteenth century, make it open to question whether the “image” of King Richard III which was recorded as being on the tomb was a three dimensional sculpted effigy of which there are number of excellent local examples or a two dimensional picture cast or cut in brass plate of which again there are many good contemporary examples. Eventually it was decided by our archaeological and historical colleagues that on balance, in this instance, the tomb should be shown with a flat two dimensional incised brass image of the King as was common for many high to medium status burials. We are sure the debate on this decision will continue as there are strongly held views by other historians that the tomb may have had a three dimensional sculpted effigy, but this is one of the purposes of digital reconstruction, to make manifest specific interpretations so that very specific and precise discussion and informed debate can be entered into. We welcome this debate and if it’s thought valuable, the opportunity to create alternatives – including versions of the tomb with a full three dimensional effigy of the King to assist in furthering discussion and articulating alternative views. Of course such alternative interpretations could well be rendered less necessary if new and reliable evidence for the original design of King Richard III’s tomb were to come to light, or even, dare one suggest it, parts of the tomb itself were to be discovered. The King Richard III Visitor Center “RIII Dynasty Death and Discovery” officially opens to the public on Saturday 26 July 2014.

About Douglas Cawthorne

Reader in Digital Heritage at De Montfort University.
This entry was posted in 3D Digital Modelling, Churches and Ecclesiatical, Medieval, Richard III & Medieval Leicester, Textures and Rendering and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.