Guest Blog

Tomb Designers: David and Wendy Johnson

David and Wendy Johnson

David holds a PhD in History; his thesis focused on the English Civil War, examining the collapse of the parliamentarian war effort during 1643. He is currently researching the political controversy surrounding Richard III’s accession in 1483. 

Wendy has an abiding fascination for all aspects of Medieval life. Although her particular field of interest is the fifteenth century, she is also interested in the Angevin kings of England, as well as the Civil Wars of the seventeenth century. 

David and Wendy met through a mutual interest in Richard III. 

Interview questions are answered by Wendy Johnson.


Q1. How did you first become interested in the history of Richard III?

A. On my first ever visit to Middleham Castle as a child my parents bought a book. It was a Pitkin Guide to the life of Richard III and had the famous NPG portrait of the king on the cover. The face I saw there fascinated me. Over forty years later, it still does.  


Q2. You were commissioned by Philippa Langley (originator of the Looking for Richard project)to design a tomb for King Richard III, in the event that his remains were discovered in Leicester. What was your first idea?

A. We wanted to produce a design that would express something of Richard the Man – as well as Richard the king.  

The Johnsons' design

The Johnsons' design


Q3. How did that idea change?

A. I wouldn’t say the idea changed, as much as developed. Initially, the main elements were a rose, a boar and a cross, which we wanted to show as a continual frieze around the tomb.

I have to explain that the rose is not meant to represent a 'Yorkshire' rose (which has been mistakenly assumed). The rose as a symbol of Yorkshire (the county) is a concept that did not exist in the fifteenth century. The rose which we have incorporated into the design is a heraldic Yorkist rose (symbol of the family of York), and is taken directly from illustrated examples of King Richard’s battle standard. 

The white boar was, of course, Richard’s primary badge. The boar used in our design displays a rampant posture; meant to symbolise Richard fighting back against Tudor propaganda.

The cross denotes the king’s piety. The design we have chosen is based on the pectoral cross of St Cuthbert – a northern saint particularly venerated by Richard.

We felt it was very important to put together a series of elements that were personal to Richard. For example, we have referred to Richard as Richard Plantagenet – a surname revived by Richard’s father, the duke of York, prior to his claim to the throne in 1460. We have also made reference to Richard’s title as duke of Gloucester, as well as his regnal number. This is deliberate. Richard’s two year kingship brought him a great deal of misery and suffering, whereas his years as duke covered a much happier and productive time in his life. I think it can be safely assumed that he derived a greater sense of achievement and personal contentment whilst duke, and so we have chosen to pay tribute to that in our design.

For me, one of the most important elements on the tomb is the reference to Richard’s motto Loyaulte Me Lie (Loyalty Binds Me). This is not intended to be inscribed on a metal plaque, but cut directly into the stone, symbolising the fact that loyalty was deeply ingrained into Richard’s character. 


Q4. While there has been widespread admiration for your design, some people have expressed disappointment that the tomb does not include an effigy of Richard III. Did you at any time consider an effigy?  

A. It has always been the fervent hope of the Looking for Richard project that discovery of the king’s remains may figuratively, as well as literally, mark a transition from the darkness of the past to the light of a modern re-assessment. With this in mind, we decided against the inclusion of a medieval-style recumbent effigy. Our feeling was that this would anchor Richard and his reputation too firmly in the past, the dark days in which he met his end, and during which the malicious Tudor legends began to take hold. We wanted to show that, after 527 years of calumny, there may yet be hope for a brighter future for Richard and his reputation.  


Q5. There has been controversy surrounding the choice of Leicester Cathedral to rebury King Richard III, chiefly amongst those who believe York Minster is more appropriate. Did the architecture of Leicester Cathedral influence your tomb design? 

A. No. The tomb has been designed purely with King Richard in mind. We did not engineer the design around any particular church or cathedral, but around what is known about Richard’s life and character.


Q6. Obviously a petition is still underway to change the location of the reburial to York. Can you see a way for the opposing viewpoints to be reconciled?

A. The reburial of a medieval king in the 21st century is an unprecedented event, and we greatly respect the views of all concerned in this controversy. Wherever King Richard is eventually reburied, the principal and overriding concern is that he receives all due dignity, respect, and honour. Our proposed design pays homage to Richard’s deep northern connections with the suggested use of magnesian limestone. This is the stone from which York Minster was built, and is still used to this day for repair work and maintenance. It is from these same quarries, close to Tadcaster in North Yorkshire, that we hope to acquire stone for the construction of the tomb. 


Q7. Many people have become interested in King Richard III through recent events. What one book would you recommend to them?

A. As an introduction to the controversy surrounding Richard, I can think of no better example than Good King Richard? by the late Jeremy Potter. Potter explains exactly how, and when, the myths about Richard began to emerge, and how they have been perpetuated by certain writers and historians over the centuries.


Q8. Which site of Ricardian interest would you suggest that they visit?

A. It has to be Middleham. Richard received his knightly training there, under the tutelage of his cousin, the earl of Warwick, and used it as his main base in the north from the early 1470s to becoming king in 1483. Middleham and its castle are set in a beautiful part of Yorkshire, and something of Richard’s soul can be glimpsed in the surrounding countryside of Wensleydale and Coverdale, inspiring landscapes very dear to his heart. 

 

Q9. The term “Ricardian” has long been used to refer to people, who are interested in the history surrounding King Richard III. The recent programme on the search in Leicester has made the term more widely known. The BBC interpreted Ricardians as “enthusiasts”, which carries a whiff of fantaticism. How would you describe Ricardians? 

A. Ricardians are a mixed bunch; we all come to the subject of Richard III by different means, and for differing reasons. However, what I think unites all true Ricardians is a great awareness of the injustices heaped upon a man’s reputation – and a strong desire to put this right.

Middleham Castle


Q10. What do you see as the future role for Ricardians in the light of the project in Leicester?

A. The need to educate people about the 'real' Richard III is still as strong as ever. Now that his physical remains have been uncovered, this is even more important. One doesn’t have to dig very deep into the existing records to see that Richard wasn't the monster perpetuated by Shakespeare’s play, but a decent, honourable human being.


Q11. King Richard III’s motto was "loyalty binds me". We know that he inspired tremendous loyalty such that men risked and lost their lives to fight for him. Today we use the word "loyalty" in a very trivial sense, that we are "loyal" to a supermarket or "loyal" to a brand. Do you think real loyalty is consigned to history?

A. No, I don’t think so. True loyalty – to a cause, to family, to friends – is still very real. An intensely human and honourable value worth fighting for. 


Q12. Why do you think that so many people today still express loyalty to King Richard III?

A. Injustice is a terrible thing. It distorts the world, inflicting pain and suffering, as much on the memory of the dead, as on the living. It is clear to anyone who takes the time to research Richard III that there was in him much to be admired; his concern for the rights of the poor, for example, and for blind justice. In the 21st century these issues are still at the forefront of all our lives. For me, the fact that King Richard showed such a concern for justice means that he is entitled, at the very least, to receive the same for himself.


Q13. We hope that your tomb design will be built over the next year. If this happens, the tomb you designed could house the mortal remains of King Richard III until the end of time. Have you at any stage been overwhelmed by the consideration of what you were doing?

A. We have been working hard behind the scenes on the Looking For Richard project for four years, and on the tomb design for two of those years. When you are so closely involved in something, your field of vision narrows to encompass the work in hand. It is only when you step back that the enormity of the prospect hits you full on. David and I both feel extremely honoured – and humble – to have been involved in the concept, and design, of a tomb for King Richard III. It is the most momentous thing either of us has ever done.


Q14. Are you satisfied with what you have done?

A. We are satisfied that we have done our absolute best. We hope we have managed to convey, within the design, many of the things that were important to Richard – his place within the heart of his family, his personal emblems, his overriding sense of loyalty. We hope the public will like the design – and, of course, we trust King Richard would have approved!


Q15. The discovery of remains in Leicester has not solved the mysteries surrounding the life of Richard III. What question would you like answered about his life?

A. The obvious question, I suppose, would be "What happened to the Princes?" I have my own theory about that - and it certainly doesn't involve Richard.


Q16. If all the questions were answered, would anyone still be interested in King Richard III?

A. That's an interesting question. As a figure, Richard III has charisma – whether this is due purely to the air of mystery that surrounds him, is difficult to say. However, if you look closely at his life it is clear that he had the gift of inspiring great loyalty and respect. In 1484 a Silesian knight, Nicolas Von Poppelau, visited Richard’s court and wrote of his admiration for the king. Richard appears to have shown a great desire to talk to Von Poppelau about the knight's own life, rather than to spend time promoting himself. Perhaps it was Richard's interest and curiosity in other people – his 'common touch' – that drew people to him. Overall, I think he'll still continue to do that – even when the rest of us are all dead and gone. 


Q17. If you could enjoy one lovely summer’s evening in the 15th century where would you go?

A. I’d like to breathe in the sea air along the beautiful Yorkshire Coastline, and watch the sun set, as Richard must have done, over Scarborough Castle.  


Q18. And which historical figure would you like to meet there?

A. Who else? My hero – Richard III.

 

Thank you for your time, Wendy, and for sharing such an insight into your work. We wish you every success as you continue on this project.

Thank you for this interview, Abi. I hope I have managed to convey just how much the tomb design means to David and I. We would also like to thank Joe, without whose specialist skills we would not have the beautiful CGI images we have today. Thank you both.