Speaking with the Dead in Leicester, I: The King Richard III Visitor Centre

This Monday I made a long-looked-forward-to visit to Leicester to view the new King Richard III Visitor Centre and the cathedral where the royal remains will soon be interred. Having followed the Greyfriars saga closely over the last two years, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, but there were still some eye-openers and surprises.

One thing that struck me was the extent to which the KRIII experience was all about Shakespeare, even where (especially where) it was defiantly Not-About-Shakespeare. The first thing on the tour is in fact a Shakespearean history play in miniature: “Richard Plantagenet, Young Warrior: An Historical Play in Five Acts.”

2014-10-20 14.37.35

This video drama consists of a series of soliloquies by Richard’s mother, his guardian Warwick the Kingmaker, his armorer, his bride-to-be Anne Neville, and his brother Edward IV, all pondering Richard’s rise to greatness. The language flirts feverishly with iambic pentameter and Shakespearean diction: “And though I once was princess of Wales, I shall content myself with Duchess of Gloucester, and proudly bear him sons and heirs. Pray God that in these shifting times this may yet prove to be a match.” Continue reading

Revisiting World Heritage in Canterbury – and taking notice of half-hidden signposts

As part of the Past-Place project, I visited Canterbury during the summer, paying a visit to St Augustine’s Abbey, which (along with Canterbury Cathedral and St Martin’s Church) is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/496

Although tacitly espousing ‘universal’ heritage values, as with many UNESCO sites, the heritage narrative of Canterbury’s heritage is mostly conveyed through reference to specific events – time-tagged to the arrival of St Augustine in AD597, and the murder of Thomas Becket in AD1170 – and with a story that is contained within distinctly ‘national’ boundaries, with the ‘oldest church in England’. As critics such as Rodney Harrison and Marco D’Eramo have noted in recent years, UNESCO ‘World Heritage’ status has become a valuable ‘brand’, suggestive of a process of commodification that stretches between economic, cultural and political value. St Augustine’s Abbey is now managed by English Heritage. The entrance fee (£5.20 for an adult) seemed quite steep, but I guess that (in common with the National Trust), the fairly high one-off fee provides a strong encouragement to join the organisation at a fairly reasonable price, and thereby get ‘free’ entrance to many hundreds of properties across the country. This is a prompt to join a specifically ‘national’ club, whose sense of comradeship can perhaps be enhanced by the thought that the people who have to pay full fees for each property are mostly international tourists and those who are, for one reason or another, not prepared to be full members of the nation/club.

As I entered the site, however, I noticed an old green sign, mounted on the wall, which seemed to convey a different heritage narrative: “This garden was presented to the city of Canterbury in 1977 by the Trustees St Augustine’s Precincts Recovery Fund…. The fund was raised by public subscription with the purpose of making more beautiful the surroundings to the abbey and providing a garden for the enjoyment of citizens and visitors to the city”. Almost covered with overgrown ivy – this promised a free and open public space for the enjoyment of all. Surely something that any notion of ‘universal heritage value’ ought to be signed up to support, one would think!?


I paid my £5.20 and entered the sunny green parkland to find a controlled and curated space; a directed walk, with specified stopping points, punctuated by interpretation boards. People generally kept to the official path. This is a heritage for the people; public education in a national story – but not really what was promised on the partially-hidden green signpost outside.


Drawing on the work of Patrick Wright, this seems to be a UNESCO-branded heritage-landscape that is ‘already achieved’ – it has a supposedly timeless historical identity, which demands only appropriate reverence and protection in the present. Frozen – cleared – cleaned – packaged. Rather than a celebration of ‘Canterbury’, or of the multiplicity of entangled heritage within the city, this seems to be a site that is bounded off from the city. While I feel that some commentators of the UNESCO process have been fairly over-wrought and shrill in their criticism of the ‘brand’, perhaps we can take more heed of the green noticeboard, half-covered with ivy. Rather than something that is ‘already achieved’, we need more open spaces for heritage to be produced by a heterogeneous society that makes its own history as it moves forward: a for the enjoyment of citizens and visitors alike.

Poem of the Week: Wordsworth at Plas Newydd

Several of us will be heading back to Llangollen next week for further research, and so “Poem of the Week” is heading that way as well.Dedicated readers of this blog (surely they are legion!) will recall Anna Seward’s Llangollen Vale. Here’s a rather briefer tribute from William Wordsworth, who visited the Ladies of Llangollen in 1824. The sonnet is basically an exercise in onomastics, pondering the origins of the name of the nearby Glyn Myfyr and offering up a flattering new toponym for the vale in which Plas Newydd is situated. It didn’t catch on.

To Lady Eleanor Butler and the Honourable Miss Ponsonby,
Composed in the grounds of Plas-Newydd, Llangollen

A stream to mingle with your favorite Dee
Along the Vale of Meditation flows;
So styled by those fierce Britons, pleased to see
In Nature’s face the expression of repose,
Or, haply there some pious Hermit chose
To live and die — the peace of Heaven his aim,
To whome the wild sequestered region owes
At this late day, its sanctifying name.
Glyn Cafaillgaroch, in the Cambrian tongue,
In ours the Vale of Friendship, let this spot
Be nam’d, where faithful to a low roof’d Cot
On Deva’s banks, ye have abode so long,
Sisters in love, a love allowed to climb
Ev’n on this earth, above the reach of time.


Flodden Field Heritage: Nations, Pacifism, and Pacifist Aggressive Behaviour on the Borderlands

As part of the Past-Place project, I visited Northumbria a few weeks ago, staying on the English side of the River Tweed, near Coldstream. This is “1513 Country”, through which buildings, villages, and entire landscapes are ‘time-tagged’ according to the date of the Battle of Flodden Field, for which 2013 marked a 500th anniversary.

2014 has seen a good deal of attention directed at the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn – Scotland’s most famous victory – with a £10million refurbished visitor centre being opened by Alex Salmond in April. The 500th anniversary of Scotland’s most famous defeat, in which King James IV and many of his leading nobles lost their lives, has not received such a high profile.

The Battlefield site lies on the English side of the border, and forms the centre piece in the recently established multi-site Flodden 1513 Ecomuseum. Initially developed in France to protect vulnerable rural communities, the ecomuseum concept has become increasingly popular in recent years, providing a means through which to channel a variety of community-led initiatives and encourage multi-agency co-operation in rural areas. The resulting ‘museum’ is a slightly ambiguous mix – of several stories and interpretations being loosely encapsulated under a single ‘time-tagged’ umbrella of “1513” – a strangely static way of dealing with temporality. Under this umbrella, however, there are several narratives:

At nearby Etal Castle, there is a permanent display by English Heritage. Essentially, this is a story of two armies confronting one and other on the battlefield, with individual stories mostly taking a back seat amidst the over-arching ‘battle of nations’. The imaginatively drawn battle scenes ‘helpfully’ depict soldiers bearing either the red cross of England, or the blue saltires of Scotland, so it is easy to tell who is who!



At the nearby Flodden Peace Centre, however, there is a vigorous attempt to use the Flodden Battlefield story as a prompt for contemporary practices of peace and reconciliation. A colour coded garden leads the visitor through moments of ‘clash’, ‘loss and desolation’, and towards ‘dialogue’, renewal and reflection.


The red garden: “There is a time for confrontation. Things must be said. This is a rant space”


The place of reflection: “A quiet seat for prayer and reflection”

The centrepiece of the Flodden Peace Centre Garden is the Peace Plough, by artist, Nick Watton Drew: “barbed wire sprouting vice leaves symbolises the end of wars and the end of all barbaric fences of imprisonment and separation”


Meanwhile, at the actual Flodden Battlefield site, the Remembering Flodden Project has established ‘The World’s Smallest Visitor Centre’ in an old BT Phone Box:


In many ways following the example of the Flodden Peace Centre, rather than seeking to glorify victory in a triumphalist manner, the actual battlefield site, trail and Telephone Box-cum-Visitor Centre tries to convey the battle as one of both ‘victory and despair’, encouraging visitors to reflect on the lives of ordinary people who were caught up in the battle, and prompting notions of reconciliation.

In many ways, this is a laudable attempt to ‘do battlefields differently’ – conveying them not as victorious scenes set in aspic to be celebrated through ritual commemoration, but as active and present-centred touchstones through which to think about the nature of conflict. However, I do feel that the pacifist tone can become a little over-wrought, particularly in some of the petty sniping at the Bannockburn juggernaut. To quote the Remembering Flodden Project leaflet: “To mark the 700th anniversary of the famous battle in 2014, Bannockburn now boasts a multi-million pound visitor centre. We were not so fortunate, but the disused phone box was purchased from BT for £1 and now helps to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden”

In some ways, the hard sell to visitors that they should reflect on ‘peace’ rather than ‘war’ comes across as a form of ‘pacifist aggressive behaviour’ – that debate might be closed down through a command towards only peaceful reflection. Perhaps this might be seen as another ‘casualty’ of the time-tagging paradigm: that if everything is channelled through the prism of “1513”, then practices of perceived injustice and dynamic power relations are over-looked.

I really liked the Remembering Flodden material, but there is sometimes a fine line between seeing a message of peace as being a prompt for present-centred reflection, and using a ‘message of peace’ in a slightly triumphalist ‘holier-than-thou’ manner. And anyway: sometimes it is good to scratch at scabs!

Speaking with the Dead at St Albans

The Speaking with the Dead exhibition has arrived at St Albans, where it will be open to visitors in the Hudson Memorial Library through Thursday 4 September.

Items on display include a fragment of the shrine of St Amphibalus, long encased within a partition wall, and the remarkable lid to the heart case of Roger de Norton (d. 1291), with its distant origins and intriguing Arabic inscription.

William Page, ‘Notes on the Heart-Case of Roger Norton’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, 2nd S, Vol XXII, April 1st, 1909: pp.253-4.

One of our favourite memorials in the Abbey is that to the Welsh schoolmaster John Jones (d. 1686). Jones was the author of Fanum Sti. Albani, a Latin poem on the history and monuments of St Albans. His unobtrusive wall memorial promises that this literary opus will prove more lasting than “this stone, this building, and this age.”

John Jones

Jones’s poem is still extant, but unfortunately it did not prove possible to source a copy for display in the exhibition. Then again, maybe this was for the best. If, as the inscription implies, the building and the book are in a kind of mortal competition, bringing them together could prove disastrous!

An Effigial Dinosaur


Bishop Yeatman-Biggs’ effigy tomb, set in the open-air ruins of St Michael’s cathedral church, Coventry

This entry from Howard’s Archaeodeath blog relates to his earlier blog about effigy tombs in cathedrals and another about Coventry Cathedral. It concerns the amazing survival of the effigy tomb of the excitingly named Bishop Huyshe Wolcott Yeatman-Biggs (1845-1922).

IMG_6865IMG_6823Situated within the ruins of St Michael’s cathedral church Coventry, this is a striking example of an early 20th-century bronze effigy tomb with an inherent textual and material biography to it for all to see, charting its passage from its construction to the present day. This was the only tomb to survive nearly intact following the cathedral’s bombing in 1940 and so its significance speaks of its original subject, the bombing and the aftermath of the ruin as a symbol of Coventry’s identity and a powerful memorial environment.

IMG_6836IMG_6891 Continue reading

Corpse Pride: Parading Cuthbert’s Cadaver


St Cuthbert’s body in St Mary’s Lindisfarne


Processing through the south aisle

From Howard’s Archaeodeath blog.

The post-mortem biography of St Cuthbert’s corpse and its successive contexts is long and complex and ongoing. It began before his death, with his life (death needs a life usually, but not always). It then continued with the first translation of his corpse and ran on  through the journeys of his corpse until it reached Durham. Subsequently, the biography trundled forward through the embellishment and adaptation of his shrine and the repeated exhumation of his remains. Now his corpse cannot be exhumed any more (although you never know….) art fills a gap, allowing us to imagine not just his life, but his death and the journeys and translations of his relics.


Coffin and its bearers

The journeying of Cuthbert’s corpse is commemorated in a fascinating corporeal sculpture in elm wood by Fenwick Lawson. It was installed in, and subsequently dominates, the space of the south aisle of St Mary’s church, Lindisfarne.

Entitled ‘The Journey’, the sculpture depicts a narrow coffin with the body of St Cuthbert oddly raised above the edges of the coffin being borne by six monks frozen as if in movement. The focus is upon the monks and the coffin, but the corpse is clearly present, if difficult to see by anyone under 6 foot in height. Continue reading

Maelmin Afterlives


Visiting the Maelmin Heritage Trail


Philip at the Maelmin Heritage Trail

From Howard Williams’s Archaeodeath blog.

I recently reported on the Maelmin Heritage Trail at Millfield, Northumberland. The trail consists of a dedicated segment of woodland and grassland as a refuge for a wide range of flora and fauna. The heritage boards along the trail outline the prehistoric and early historic development of the Millfield Basin with vivid artwork. The car park area fronting the trail has a memorial to the airmen who died during the Second World War at RAF Millfield.


In the woods


In the post-hole

My second visit recently gave me an opportunity to acquire a free copy of Clive Waddington’s guidebook which accompanies the trail. I lacked this for my previous posting. I also got to look around the heritage trail again with the Past in its Place group and discussions with them about its effectiveness were insightful.

Continue reading

Bells and Goats


The group visiting Ad Gefrin

From Howard’s Archaeodeath blog.

The latest Past in its Place group meeting was to Yeavering Bell, one of our ‘Ancient Habitations’, our Strand 2 theme for the project. I visited Yeavering two months ago on my own and blogged about it here and here, but this group visited promised the opportunity for me to exchange preliminary ideas with colleagues.

Incidentally, we stayed near Coldstream in an historic farmhouse close to the confluence of the rivers Till and Tweed.


The field


The ‘Old Palace’ on the right, above the cottages at Old Yeavering

Ad Gefrin

First up, we visited the site of Brian Hope-Taylor’s excavations of the royal Anglo-Saxon palace of Ad Gefrin, the subject of a previous post. We discussed the nature of the site, the innovative and national standing of Hope-Taylor’s excavation and their legacy on how we think about early medieval settlement and society in Northumbria. In heritage terms, we noted how the site has condensed the story onto the Anglo-Saxon phase despite the complex and long biography of the locale revealed by Hope-Taylor’s excavations. We also noted the challenge of apprehending a site where no standing monuments have been preserved as earthworks. The quarry and largely featureless managed field requires considerable imagination. The few signboards present and some cool wooden sculpted gate-posts act as the principal foci of visitor engagement.


The memorial beside the roadside commemorating the baptism of the Bernician folk by Paulinus

One of our project team, Paul, offered preliminary ideas into the place-name and its possible significance. Meanwhile, I summed up my musings regarding the sequence and significance of the Anglo-Saxon phases and the wider topographical and settlement context. At this stage, all I can add to my earlier blog is that, revisiting the site for a second time was extremely useful.

On our walk, we also took in the ‘Old Palace’: now a barn but formerly a house of the 17th century. The name was presumably inspired by antiquarian readings of the landscape in relation to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History through the lens of sources like Camden.


View from the ramparts

Yeavering Bell

After visiting Ad Gefrin we ascended Yeavering Bell hillfort to take in views and to appreciate the size and features of this large prehistoric hillfort. The views are indeed astounding and it was amazing to see the ships moving to and fro along the Northumbrian coast from this vantage point.


Tobias at the summit

We also marvelled at the large stone rampart, the many hut platforms and the summit enclosure and cairn.

The hillfort’s relationship with the Anglo-Saxon palace site on the glacial whaleback ridge to its north were the key focus of discussion. As an observation point, we cannot imagine a situation where people gathered beside the River Glen and would have failed to place observers on the Bell. However, we have concerns with a scenario in which the Bell persisted as a practical and readily accessible refuge for Ad Gefrin’s populace to flee to in times of conflict.


While our group meeting involved other site visits and other meetings, this was the key element of our assembly. Most project members were there for the first time and to appraise the landscape and the archaeology afresh. Despite this, we have already identified some potentially original lines of enquiry based on the historical, place-name and archaeological evidence. I was also proud of my 3-year-old son who enthusiastically scaled Yeavering Bell with limited assistance: a true goat of the Bell. We didn’t actually meet any real goats, or any real bells.

Undead Graveyards?


The Birmingham bombings memorial, prominently located beside one of the main paths through the churchyard


Recent memorial plaque in eighteenth-century style of initials only

From Howard’s Archaeodeath blog. In archaeological discussions, the date-range for cemeteries and churchyards is often taken from the memorials or dated graves. When these run out, the site is presumed to be abandoned.

We often don’t muse about what happens next. It is often implicitly assumed that the site rapidly becomes invisible unless marked by prominent monuments. Even the function and significance of these structures might be soon forgotten. Of course we encounter many instances where burial sites are reused after long periods of disuse. However, the absence of evidence between use and reuse is so often taken as evidence of absence. Often this is justified, but is it always so?


Second view of the Birmingham bombins memorial – traces of where formerly wooden crosses had been appended can be clearly seen

So how quickly did cemeteries ‘disappear’ once ‘fresh’ burials cease to be inserted? Were they abandoned utterly? Or did they persist as vibrant memoryscapes? Or do post-burial cemeteries remain significant but at a lower-level of use-intensity: a kind of half-light undead existence?


The back-side of the angel fountain

The modern world provides many examples of cemeteries that, once abandoned, can be rapidly reused for other purposes and their funerary functions forgotten. Equally though, our British townscapes and landscapes are punctuated by thousands of abandoned cemeteries, burial grounds and churchyards with memorials in situ or at least still on display. These are still important and often protected (listed) components of our historic environment; they linger on with no or infrequent use as ‘heritage’ but also as used spaces in a variety of sometimes eclectic and complex uses and intermittent memorial practices.

Continue reading