My ancestor owned the land where Richard III was buried

Mandy Webb was amazed to learn that her Tudor ancestor Robert Herrick had played a crucial role in a discovery that made headlines around the world in 2012

Amanda Webb

Four centuries ago the MP and alderman Robert Herrick invited Christopher Wren senior, the father of the famous architect, to take a tour of his stately home and garden in Leicester.

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This meeting became a key moment in history that would guide archaeologists towards a world-famous discovery.

Robert is the 12x great grandfather of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine reader Mandy Webb, who is delighted to have such a connection. “Delving into my paternal grandmother’s tree, I found the will of my 8x great grandmother Katherine Ayres who was born in 1665,” Mandy explains. “Katherine was the daughter of Frances Noble, a member of a wealthy family of Leicestershire landowners who also left wills. These documents helped enormously in my search.”

A heraldic pedigree of the Noble family online helped Mandy trace her 9x great grandmother Frances Noble, who was born in 1628. Frances was the great granddaughter of Robert Herrick (also spelt Heyrick), who was listed on the pedigree as being three-times mayor of Leicester as well as the MP for the borough.

“I was fascinated, and Googled Robert to find out more. That’s when I made a discovery. His name appeared in newspaper reports from 2012 about the discovery of the remains of Richard III. It was a surreal moment.

“There is a Herrick Family Association, which provided intriguing detail about Robert’s life. He was born in Leicester in 1540 to John Herrick and his wife Mary Bond. They were rich and influential people who established their fortune through ironmongery.

“As well as serving as an alderman, mayor and MP, Robert built a large fortune through banking and trade. His interests spanned the Mediterranean and Indonesia, in the purchase of gems and other valuable materials.”

Robert bought the site of Leicester’s Grey Friars Priory, which was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. He built a large manor house there surrounded by gardens. In 1612 Christopher Wren senior visited Robert, who proudly showed him the estate.

Wren wrote an account of his visit, including a stone monument in Robert’s garden inscribed, “Here lies the body of Richard III, sometime king of England.”

“The monument was lost over the centuries, but Wren’s writings remained. For nearly 400 years, they were the last written record of where Richard was buried.”

Robert died in 1618, and his descendants sold the estate in the 18th century. Municipal buildings were built on the site, and in the 20th century it became a car park.

In 2012, a team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester used old maps to locate the site of the priory’s church and Robert Herrick’s lost garden. During their excavations a skeleton was discovered, and DNA testing and carbon-dating proved it to be that of Richard III. His remains were laid to rest in a tomb in Leicester Cathedral, which is also the burial place of Robert Herrick.

“I’m still in a state of shock over this discovery, which I made in September 2019 and shared with WDYTYA? Magazine on Facebook. I never imagined that I would have a connection to a key moment in history or to such a great man.

“Robert was renowned for being generous and compassionate. He established the Herrick Bread Charity, which distributed loaves to poor households throughout Leicester. With money bequeathed in his will, the charity was able to continue for 250 years after his death. Robert also left some money to Trinity Hospital, Leicester, local churches and poor widows of the city.

“Robert Herrick feels like a hero to me in so many ways. I can’t wait to discover more about his life.”

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This article first appeared in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine January 2020.