Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Our ‘Richard III geezer’ and the question of the princes’ bodies

Dr John Ashdown-Hill helped unearth the remains of Richard III

Dr John Ashdown-Hill helped unearth the remains of Richard III - Credit: Archant

Over the course of an hour sitting in a café at the University of Essex with the eminent historian John Ashdown-Hill, I discover a number of startling things about him: He doesn’t recognise Stay With Me, the 1971 Faces hit, which is playing in the background. Nor has he heard of Dr Lucy Worsley, a fellow historian and much-aired TV presenter. Dr Ashdown-Hill, in fact, doesn’t even have a TV.

Previously a distinguished linguist, he taught in Tunisia and Turkey before deciding to concentrate upon historical research. As a teenager; it was Ancient Egypt which interested him. Now in late middle age, he’s settled comfortably into the Middle Ages. At present, he’s busy at the library, indexing: something which he says he dislikes but which, as many writers know, is necessary housework.

Dr Ashdown-Hill at present is possibly best known to the nation for his salient role in the discovery of the 500-year-old remains of Richard III in a Leicester car park in 2013. It was he and Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society, who were the main players in finding the much-maligned monarch’s scoliotic skeleton.

Ms Langley, who “just had a feeling” that Richard’s grave was beneath her feet, might have been dismissed as a mere eccentric, had she not have been proven correct. The University of Leicester history department, during the resultant media scrimmage, were quickly on the scene, keen to claim chief credits.

Dr Ashdown-Hill, Ms Langley’s fellow ‘Ricardian’ whose genealogical skills and research helped inform her quest, later claimed that he had been ‘airbrushed’ out of proceedings.

However I, and I suspect a sizeable chunk of similarly-agog history fans, will always think of him as “the Richard III geezer” and this cannot be taken away from him.

Prior to the discovery of his battle-chipped bones, Richard III was seen by the world as villain of pantomimic proportions. For five centuries, unable to answer his charges, the hapless king was portrayed as the ugly, power-crazed hunchback who murdered the two young princes in the tower. The members of the Richard III Society who, since 1924, had been trying to tell us that history – along with William Shakespeare – had got it all wrong, must have partied all night when the body finally turned up.

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When I ask Dr Ashdown-Hill about the two young princes in the tower, he asks me: “Where were the bodies?” He doesn’t even believe that they were murdered and seems quietly incredulous that anyone else should do. Athough he cannot say with empirical certainty what happened to them, he seems fairly sure that one died of an illness – the lad was being regularly attended by a physician – the other simply disappeared, absorbed into history, as most of us eventually will be.

Dr Louis John Ashdown-Hill, who lives near Lawford, is what I would call an old-money historian.

He’s done a bit of TV but he’s not the type of fellow to go cantering over muddy fields, yelling and brandishing a broadsword in order to emphasise a point to the voracious cameras. I get the impression that his subject matter, is imprinted through him like the word ‘Blackpool’ is imprinted in the seaside rock. There is, however, barely a trace of academic aridity about the way in which he pulls me up whenever I get my facts wrong. Rather, it is with a sense almost of mischief that he challenges me with “Ah but what do you mean by the Tudor period?” pointing out that by rights, it ought to have had an entirely different name.

I haven’t, however, come to talk to him today about Richard III, murdered princes, or the Tudors. I wanted to talk to him about his 2009 book Lost Landmarks of Mediaeval Colchester which, as I wrote in this column when I first read it, completely changed my view of the town.

It also awoke in me a curiosity about the medieval period. Dr Ashdown-Hill, in a time before the records were moved to Chelmsford, went into the Town Hall and read all about what medieval life was like for Colcestrians. “It was a bit like a soap opera.” he assures me. “With people calling each other’s wives ‘sluts’ and so forth.”

I remind him of his account of one Robert Cok, a butcher of West Stockwell Street, who’d been in the habit of discharging chamber-pots out of his windows and onto the street beneath.

We talk about Vineyard Street which in medieval times was called Bere Street, and was where Colchester’s citizens went to watch bear-baiting. The historian thinks that it ought to be commemorated in some way: “Perhaps with a statue of a bear.”

Despite possessing the strict rigor expected of a top historian, he retains an eye for the type of snippet which might interest a prurient layman. “Did you know,” he asks me, returning to the earlier subject, “...that Leicester now has an escort agency which uses Richard III in its advertising?” I find this mightily amusing, envisaging a picture of a skeleton, with the caption, “Middle Aged? Don’t wait 500 years for someone to discover you. Call us today.”

This historian, born in 1949, has lived through the most exciting period of British pop music history and yet still failed to recognise The Faces’ Stay With Me. His painstaking research, however, did help turn up a lost king. He’ll probably be forgiven.