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Why England’s long dead kings have got the 21st century X-Factor

There is something almost magical about the excitement that reports of the discovery of the bones of an English king, dead for centuries, produces.  Despite the almost tumultuous reception given, in early 2013, to the confirmation that the remains of Richard III had been found in, the frenzy that greeted the news in January 2014 that bones probably belonging to Alfred the Great had been discovered in a box tucked away in a local museum for decades was still a surprise.  There might be more of a debate over where Richard’s bones should be laid to rest but Alfred’s possible remains are as big a find – and will be arguably as big a tourism draw – as those of Shakespeare’s great villain.  Suddenly, England’s long dead kings have got the X factor.

The discovery of Richard III's remains caused a media frenzy

The discovery of Richard III’s remains caused a media frenzy

The fact that Alfred and Richard were very different monarchs with very different reputations only underlines the fact that it’s royal history, not necessarily personalities or past representations of them, that is drawing in fans from around the world.  Richard became the greatest villain in royal folklore while Alfred remains the only English king to be called ‘the Great’ but both have 21st century followers aplenty, waiting eagerly for the next instalment in their still unfinished stories.  The massive interest in the discoveries of their remains (both trended on Twitter while Richard III has several Facebook pages dedicated to him now) only underlines how big a box office draw kings and queens of centuries past really are in 2014.

To have a king or queen buried in a location will bring global interest.  Many of Britain’s past monarchs and consorts, not to mention heirs and spares, are all neatly accounted for.  A quick trip to Westminster Abbey or Windsor Castle will provide a good overview of British royalty in the last millennium and offer enough chances to read memorial stones to fill any historical day out. But a surprisingly large number of royal resting places remain unknown, or at least disputed, and the quest to find them and then claim them is well worth pursuing.

Richard and Alfred’s stories are two great examples of how easy it is to lose track of where the once greatest lord in the land is lying.  Many were buried in abbeys and monasteries and when Henry VIII began his programme of tearing them down in the 1530s, the bones of several of his predecessors disappeared in the confusion that followed.  Richard III had been buried in Leicester after his death at nearby Bosworth Field in 1485 – his body had been taken to the city to help prove that he was really dead.  After a public display and a private burial, Richard passed into history while the court and country focused on the reign of a new king.  Richard’s reign was told by courtiers to the new monarch, Henry VII, and the Tudor tale tellers were keen to spin a story of a man driving England to ruin through a chaotic and despotic rule.  Richard and his grave were of little consequence and just a few years after his death, several different accounts of where he had been laid to rest already existed.  It would take the historical detective work of the 21st century to finally locate his grave as having been at Greyfriars in Leicester, which by then lay in ruins beneath a car park.  The dig to find the king, and the subsequent confirmation that his remains had really been found, no doubt attracted far more attention that Richard’s original burial.

Remains believed to be those of either Alfred the Great or his son, Edward, have been found

Remains believed to be those of either Alfred the Great or his son, Edward, have been found

Alfred died as king of all he surveyed, much mourned and widely respected – according to the main source for his reign, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle of which Alfred was a patron and supporter.  His reign had seen the fullest development yet of widespread defences against Viking raids, the beginnings of a navy, stability for his kingdom of Wessex, a stronger administration and a big push to encourage literacy and education.  On his death he was buried in Winchester, his capital and his home, the centre of much of his life’s work.  But within a few years, Alfred’s bones had been moved to a new tomb in the city before being moved again by monks in the 12th century to Hyde Abbey just outside the city walls.  Alfred’s grave was lost in the Dissolution of the Monasteries but it was believed that he may have been reburied at St Bartholomew’s Church near what had been Hyde Abbey.  However, carbon dating on remains found there showed them to be too young to be the king and a chance testing of a pelvic bone found in an excavation of the Hyde Abbey site turned out to be of the right era.  At the moment, experts are trying to work out if the bone is that of Alfred or his son, Edward the Elder.  But the very chance it could be Alfred is enough to get thousands excited and eager to hear the next instalment.

The good news for royal detectives is that there are plenty more missing kings and queens just waiting to be found.  William the Conqueror’s remains were lost although one bone is reported to have been salvaged and the final resting place of his great enemy, Harold Godwinsson, has never been definitively identified.  Edward II was given a grand public funeral after his deposition and death but questions remained over whether he had really died at Berkeley Castle after losing his crown in 1327.  But it’s the fate of Edward V and his brother Richard, the Princes in the Tower that remains the greatest unsolved royal mystery of all.  The discovery of their graves might answer questions that have occupied historians since their disappearance in the summer of 1483.

But it seems this new interest in royal resting places even stretches to those touched by the throne but not actually part of the monarchy themselves.  Just this week it’s been widely reported that the bones of Blanch Mortimer have been found in Herefordshire. Blanch was the daughter of Roger Mortimer, who helped Queen Isabella depose Edward II before meeting a traitor’s end in 1330.  If anything proves that royal graves are what everyone’s talking about then it’s this.  Blanch wasn’t royal and yet she’s still big news.

But it also underlines just how big a tourist draw even a touch of royalty can be.  In the same week that Blanch became more famous than she ever was in her lifetime, plans for a £4 million visitors’ centre in Leicester, dedicated to Richard III, have been unveiled.  The judicial review into where Richard’s remains will be re-interred is due to take place early in 2014 but whether the last Plantagenet is laid to rest in Leicester or York, his tomb and museums linked to it will bring in eager visitors from miles around.   A day before the visitors’ centre design was shown off, an exhibition all about the quest to find Alfred’s remains opened in Winchester.  Holidaymakers, it seems, can’t get enough of kings who popped their clogs in centuries past.  England’s dead kings have really got the X factor now.


photo credit: Lisby and Tim Ellis via photopin cc

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