“This is the sixth time I’ve done this journey today already. Before this week I’d never seen town so busy”, the taxi driver tells me as we weave through the streets of Leicester towards the cathedral. As we draw closer, a huge crowd of people becomes visible – it’s 10am and the queue to see Richard III’s coffin is already three hours long.
Scores of camera crews are gathered outside the cathedral; the sound of De Montfort University Choir singing ‘Amazing Grace’ fills the square. As I collect my press pass, the news desk assistant tells me a staggering 800 have been handed out over the course of the week. “We’ve had television crews from all over the world – Europe, Canada,” he tells me. “It’s been pretty hectic – to say the least!”
I stop to take in the crowds. Row upon row of people as far as I can see, of all ages: old, young, even a gathering of mothers pushing prams. The fact Leicester – and much of the UK – awoke to frost doesn’t appear to have deterred people.
When I approach a group of women in the queue to ask what they make of the turnout, they’re quick to share with me their excitement. “We’re members of the Richard III society!” they gush. “It’s an opportunity we never thought we’d have, and something we never thought would happen in our lifetime. It’s phenomenal that they’ve found him.”
Carol, her sister Chris and their friend, also named Chris, tell me they’ve travelled from Liverpool to see Richard III’s coffin. “We’re making a trip of it, spending three days in Leicester,” Carol says. “We think it’s right to pay homage. It’s quite emotional being here.
“Clearly, Richard’s charisma resonates across the centuries. Perhaps this will be the dawn of a new era for him.”
Their enthusiasm is shared by mother and daughter Suzanne and Charlotte. “You feel like you’re part of history. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” says Suzanne. “We nearly didn’t come after we heard about the long queues on the radio, but we just had to! Richard is such a controversial figure though – no one really knows for sure what he was like”.
Charlotte, who is in her early twenties, tells me: “I’ve been interested in history since studying it at school, and I was intrigued when I heard they had found Richard’s remains. I’ve been following the story closely, and researching Richard for myself”. The pair agree the discovery of Richard III’s remains has sparked a love of history among many.
By 10am on Wednesday a three-hour queue had formed outside Leicester Cathedral
Next I speak to David Evans, a BBC History Magazine subscriber from Montgomery, Powys. “I’ve travelled four hours to be here. There’s a real sense of history. It’s not every day you get to see a medieval king’s funeral! Having said that, I’m really surprised by the turnout.”
And what a turnout it has been. “We had 4,000 people on Monday, and 9,000 on Tuesday,” Nick Clarke, press coordinator for Leicester Cathedral says as he leads me inside. There, in the candlelit cathedral among crowds of people taking photographs, lies Richard III’s coffin. By each corner stands a man with his head bowed.
The oak coffin is dressed in a specially designed pall [a cover for a coffin], a crown and a bible printed in Richard’s lifetime. The pall is decorated with images representing Richard III’s story – depictions of a knight in armour and Richard’s queen dressed in heraldic robes, and the faces of lead archaeologist Richard Buckley; Philippa Langley; the Dean of Leicester, and the Very Revd David Monteith.
In spite of myself, as I join the queue filing past Richard’s remains I find myself agreeing with Carol – the experience is, indeed, emotional. Not for any sentimental or religious reason, but because of the historical significance. There, three or four metres in front of me, (if we accept the Leicester team’s findings and cast aside doubts raised by the likes of Michael Hicks and Dominic Selwood) lie the remains of a medieval king.
As I make my way out of the cathedral, I see a young woman pick up her toddler. “We saw King Richard III, Lily – yes, we did!” And in that moment I, like the thousands of people queued outside, feel very much part of history.
We’ll be live tweeting the reinterment of Richard III on Thursday 26 March from 10am. Follow the action @HistoryExtra with the hashtag #RIIIBurial. Look out too for our interviews with Dr Turi King, Dr Jo Appleby and Prof Sarah Hainsworth, who led the research into the remains of Richard III. We also caught up with Michael Ibsen, the descendent of Richard’s sister, Anne, whose DNA was used to confirm the identification of the Leicester skeleton.