Fit for a king

Richard III’s belated arrival in modern Leicester has given the mayor’s improvement programme a backbone he could only have dreamed of

‘When i got here the plan was to sort out St Martins House, fix the Cathedral precinct, work out the Cathedral itself and find and install a dead king,’ says Reverend Peter Hobson, acting canon missioner at Leicester Cathedral, ticking them off on his fingers. He laughs at the last. Not only did those in the cathedral not expect King Richard III to be dug up, nor did the archaeologists on the dig. As an East Midlands city Leicester has to compete with Nottingham which has the Robin Hood legend and its castle, and further north Lincoln with its magnificent gothic cathedral and the Magna Carta. Richard III has given it a fairer chance.

Richard III’s discovery has galvanised Cathedral and mayoral efforts to link heritage and city so that people think of Leicester as more than just a multicultural manufacturing city and visit not only the new Highcross shopping centre but also stay to explore the city’s history, which will soon include Richard III in his final resting place in the Cathedral. Louise Seymour, the city’s development team leader, is excited about the way the projects are coming together. ‘It is a vast number of projects delivered over a very short timescale. They are all in quite a small area so it will be transformational,’ she enthuses.

How Greyfriars Church might have looked, on the site where Richard III’s skeleton (above) was found last summer.
How Greyfriars Church might have looked, on the site where Richard III’s skeleton (above) was found last summer.

‘Over the last century a lot of the old town of Leicester has been lost, because we made way for the motor car’

Peter Soulsby, city mayor since May 2011, has made linking the city back to its heritage part of his Economic Action Plan. He told RIBA Journal: ‘When people have less to spend in shops, and the retail sector is struggling, we have to look for other ways to ensure [the city] continues to thrive.’ In a film made for the consultation on ‘Connecting Leicester’ he says: ‘Over the last century a lot of the old town of Leicester has been lost. It has been lost because we made way for the motorcar.’ A ring road and its flyovers split Leicester, as they have many cities. The £4m LDA redesign of Jubilee Square will see the removal of one lane of the inner ring road, which the square is just inside, and the introduction of a ‘super crossing’. They will turn the car park and bus stands into a new civic space with to make a more natural, pleasant link between the end of the High Street with Highcross shopping centre, and the older part of the town. 

Soulsby is prepared to invest, even now, in series of urban interventions that when viewed together will dramatically improve this area. The previous administration also had an eye on regeneration but went about it in quite a different way. The focus on creative industries manifested itself most obviously in the bombastic Curve Theatre by Rafael Viñoly and more interestingly in Ash Sakula’s LCB Depot for start ups. Connecting Leicester interventions might seem a lot at £19m but compared to the £36.2m the Curve alone cost the council, it is small fry. Money from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the ERDF helps too.

Part of the issue is realising the character that already exists. The work of Reverend Hobson and landscape architect Gillespies on Cathedral Gardens will give clearer view of this modest little cathedral, that started life as a parish church, by pulling back the planting and making use of the cobbled routes that criss cross the site. ‘It will bring back animation to this part of the city,’ says Hobson. The design will create a space, either for people just to be in some of the quieter gardens or for events – from baptisms to famous visitors. The launch of the Queen’s national Jubilee tour in multi-faith Leicester gave Hobson and the team a flavour of things to come. The next famous visitor is likely to be King Richard III. He has to be interred in the Cathedral by August 2014. 

A breathing space in the city, linking shopping and heritage –Jubilee Square designed by LDA.
A breathing space in the city, linking shopping and heritage –Jubilee Square designed by LDA.

‘The tension between a space for worship and mission and a visitor attraction is already being played out. But the church is pragmatic that both pilgrims and tourists can be touched by sacred space’

Architect van Heyningen and Haward has been working on reordering the Cathedral for some time along with Cathedral architect Ian Salisbury. There are ideas of raising the floor to allow level access and installing heating and opening a new door. This is not work to be hurried. But thinking about where Richard III fits in is important and will certainly affect the flow around the limited space. Even now visitors cluster around the memorial stone in centre place in the chancel that the Richard III Society donated in 1980. The brief for the reinterment memorial suggests that the existing stone might be reused in some way, although the society itself has proposed a grander table tomb. The tension between a space for worship and mission and a visitor attraction is already being played out. But the church is pragmatic that both pilgrims and tourists can be touched by sacred space and this will influence the way the remains are located. 

King Richard III’s skeleton was found just beyond the precincts in the site of the long demolished Greyfriars Church, more recently a council car park, two minutes walk from the Cathedral. Even before his identity was established, with DNA samples from living relatives confirming the evidence of his violent death and curvature of the spine, mayor Soulsby got cracking – buying the empty school alongside the dig site and commissioning a visitor’s centre for completion in just two months. Luckily for East Midland architect Maber an alternative temporary solution was found in the nearby Guildhall where, on an apparently quiet weekday, a crowd of visitors pores over the details of the dig and the story of Richard’s last hours. 

But Maber is still designing the new visitors’ centre, and on a fast track schedule. In for planning at the end of May, the conversion also has to be ready for Richard III’s reinterment in May 2014. But for all the urgency, before the project starts work on site there will be another dig to search for the artefacts of the rest of the Greyfriars friary. And it is not simply a conversion: there is the existing school, the new build and what to do with the grave. ‘We have got to get the message right, it was the resting place of a king for 500 years and that is obviously specially important around the grave enclosure,’ explains Paul East, director of Maber’s Leicester office. ‘Much as we want to provide a world renowned visitor centre we want to respect the area and its continuing history.’

Gillespies’ Cathedral Gardens will offer a softer setting for the Cathedral and give it a little more presence.
Gillespies’ Cathedral Gardens will offer a softer setting for the Cathedral and give it a little more presence.