Here are the official pictures from the Honorary Degree ceremony of John Ashdown-Hill.
Honorary Graduation Speeches
THE ORATOR, DR ALISON ROWLANDS
Pro Chancellor, the Senate of the University of Essex has resolved that the degree of Doctor of the University be conferred upon Dr John Ashdown-Hill. The university is honouring Dr John Ashdown-Hill in recognition of his distinguished record of research and publication as an historian, especially of the royal house of York, and also for the pivotal role that John played in the process that led to the discovery and identification of the skeleton of Richard III in Leicester in 2012.
John was born in London in 1949, and took a BA in History and French from the University of East Anglia in 1971. [Laughter] As an extremely talented - sorry – I realised on reading my notes this morning that I should probably have crossed that bit out, but I’ve mentioned it now and I think we’ve got away with it. [Laughter] As an extremely talented linguist – John can actually speak French, Spanish, Italian, Latin, Greek and German – John then went on into a teaching career in languages and Classical Civilisation, and acquired an MA in Applied Linguistics from the University of Essex [cheers] in 1981.
But delving into the past, and particularly the late medieval past, was always John’s passion, however. And, after several years of voluntary work in the archaeology section of the Colchester Museums Service, John returned to Essex, to begin a PhD in history in 2004. He worked under the supervision of Dr Chris Thornton, on Sir John Howard, who was the first Duke of Norfolk, and John particularly researched the client network, connections, and the patronage system of Sir John Howard, in north-east Essex and south Suffolk. John’s painstakingly-researched two-volume thesis – that tells you how painstaking the research was, ‘cause it ended up in two volumes – was completed in 2008. And it detailed Sir John Howard’s rise to a position of political and financial power through his service to the royal house of York. And it was published under the title of Richard III’s ‘Beloved Cousyn’ in 2009.
Although John is now best known nationally, and in the media, for his expertise in Yorkist history, as his work for the Colchester Museums Service, and the title of his PhD at Essex suggest, he is also a very renowned local historian. He has shone a welcome light on the appearance, the everyday life of late medieval Colchester with his book, Mediaeval Colchester’s Lost Landmarks, in which he used documentary, architectural, and archaeological evidence in order to imaginatively reconstruct the town of Colchester at that time.
John has also always been a great supporter of the university’s Centre for Local and Regional History. He has twice given our prestigious, annual Dudley White local history lecture. In 2009, in his lecture, John once again showed his talent for historically rediscovering that which is now lost, with a brilliant account of the lost shrine of the Holy Rood at the Church of All Saints in nearby Dovercourt. He showed, in this lecture, for the first time, what it would have looked like in its heyday. Then in 2013 John gave a wonderful lecture on his search for the remains of King Richard III, and Richard’s cousin, John Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, who both died at the battle of Bosworth in Leicestershire, in the last significant battle of the Wars of the Roses, in 1485. John packed our Lakeside Theatre to absolute capacity, and the lengthy queue for admission looked more like that for a pop concert than a history lecture.
Many of you may already be aware of that amazing moment in 2012, when the long lost remains of the last Yorkist king of England, Richard III, were discovered under the tarmac of a car park in Leicester. You may be aware of the contribution he made in bringing about this unique event in the history of the English monarchy [Hear! hear!]. Thank you. Thereby helping to solve one of the most intriguing and long standing mysteries of medieval history: that of the final resting place of the remains of Richard III.
There were three important and intertwined strands to John’s role in this endeavour. Firstly, after being asked in 2003 by Belgian colleagues to find a mitochondrial DNA sequence for Richard and his siblings, John managed to locate a living female descendant of Richard III’s elder sister, living in Canada at the time. And he published this crucial DNA sequence for the first time in 2006. This was absolutely crucial, as it enabled the remains that were finally disinterred in 2012 to be identified with confidence as those of Richard III, rather than simply some other nobleman who had met with an untimely end at the battle of Bosworth.
In addition to this genealogical research, John revisited the historical accounts of what had actually been done with Richard’s body after the battle of Bosworth, establishing that he’d been in fact buried in the choir of the Franciscan Friary in Leicester, and not thrown into the local river, as some later chroniclers had claimed. As the friary had been demolished in the 1530s, as part of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the religious houses, another aspect of the mystery which had to be resolved was where this was situated in relation to modern day Leicester. It is testament to the scholarship of John, and the team of like-minded, independent scholars, headed by Philippa Langley, with whom he worked on the project, that Richard’s skeleton was found on the very very first day of the excavation in 2012, almost exactly where they had predicted that it would be discovered. That is no mean achievement in archaeological terms. [Hear! Hear!]. Thank you again. [Applause].
The dig that took place in 2012 was the culmination of years of research and hard work by John and his colleagues in the LOOKING FOR RICHARD PROJECT. And in 2012 when John published his research relating to the fate of Richard III and his body in his book, The Last Days of Richard III, it was largely due to their persistence - and support from the Richard III Society - that Leicester City Council, and the University of Leicester Archaeological Services were persuaded, in 2011, to agree to the dig which found the king’s remains. The final strand of John’s role in this process was thus the sheer persistence with which he and others pursued their conviction that Richard’s body could actually be found.
This discovery of the remains of Richard III has added immeasurably to historians’ understanding of the appearance and kingship of Richard. The discovery has reshaped significantly our understanding of late medieval kingship and English political history. It also shows us all, I think, much more generally, just how much can be achieved by painstaking research, original scholarship, clarity of purpose, and sheer determination to achieve a goal – often in the face of discouragement and setbacks. John Ashdown-Hill has been at the forefront of these endeavours, and it is for the qualities and values that his work on the LOOKING FOR RICHARD PROJECT exemplifies, as well as his growing reputation as a leading scholar of the royal house of York that we honour him today. [Applause].
THE HONORARY GRADUATE, DR JOHN ASHDOWN-HILL
Pro Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Dr Rowlands, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for the great privilege of the honorary doctorate which you have chosen to confer on me today.
As you’ve heard, Essex was not the first university in my academic life – because, rightly or wrongly, I chose to do my BA at another university in the Eastern Counties - but Essex was my second university and also my third, because I came here to study, first for my MA and then my doctorate. And while it’s a very great pleasure to return here today for this wonderful ceremony, I have to tell you that I don’t by any means feel like a stranger. You see, I live not very far from Colchester. So I still have quite strong connections with the university in a number of ways. I think the prime example of these is the fact that I have the tremendous privilege of regularly using the Albert Sloman Library in the course of my ongoing research. But in addition to that I have living links with the university’s Catholic chaplaincy, and I also very much enjoy coming here to the theatre from time to time. And then there is always the great advantage of the fact that the student population of the University of Essex is enormously diverse and international. So a few years ago, when I wanted to increase my knowledge of languages by improving my knowledge of Farsi, I found teachers from amongst the university’s post graduate students!
I have to confess, though, that in one way my presence at this graduation ceremony comes to me as quite a big surprise. You see, in my younger days I was, in some ways, a bit of a rebel – and not greatly addicted to formal ceremonies of this kind [laughter]. In fact, I have to confess to you that I didn’t attend the graduation ceremonies for my first and second degrees [laughter] – much to the disappointment of my family, who had looked forward to seeing me in my gown. In fact it was not until I gained my doctorate, here, that I finally decided to toe the line, put on all the colourful robes, and attend the graduation ceremony! And I did that on that occasion because I assumed that was the last chance I would ever have to attend a graduation [laughter]. I never imagined then that one day I would be awarded an honorary degree!
Given my own delinquency in the matter of attending graduations, I have to say that I’m enormously impressed, today, to see those students who have now earned their degrees at the University of Essex, here, together with their friends and families, rejoicing in, and sharing, their graduation ceremony. I very much hope that in their future careers, today’s latest graduates of the University of Essex will now go out into the world and enjoy, and profit from, the benefits of their studies here, as I believe that I have done.
For my study of history at the University of Essex taught me many things about methodology, which have played an important part in my work as a historian. I learnt to seek for new sources of evidence, and to ask questions about traditionally accepted interpretations of events. In time, this questioning and innovative approach allowed me, as you’ve heard, to make significant new contributions to local history – by exploring a period of Colchester’s past regarding which a great deal of evidence survived, but of which very little had been studied, and subsequently by being able to shed a great deal of new light, as Alison has mentioned to you, on a pilgrimage centre of medieval Essex about which, previously, very little had been known. Despite the problems of having to cope with medieval Latin and the handwriting, my research on the court rolls of medieval Colchester was, in the end, somewhat reminiscent of watching a soap opera! The reported cases revealed to me a fascinating society in which neighbours alleged things about the virtues of their neighbours’ wives, and in which people of Colchester stole bits of the town walls when they needed some building stone to improve their houses. I also, in the process, rediscovered the lost site of Colchester’s bear garden, where animals were subject to cruelty in the name of entertainment. And in a talk that I gave very recently to Colchester’s Civic Society, I implored them to do their best to set up a memorial of some kind, to commemorate the poor animals that suffered in that way [applause].
Later, of course, the historical approach which I’d learned here, led me to focus my attention on one of the most controversial figures in English history, and ultimately to the revelation of new evidence which led to the rediscovery and identification of his long lost physical remains. But the story doesn’t end there. I was recently asked by Channel 4 to take part in a forthcoming television documentary about the alleged murder of the ‘Princes in the Tower’, precisely because it was assumed that I would offer a critical approach to the story, together with some new evidence and some new insights. And in fact, one of the pieces of new evidence that I was able to offer to the producers of that documentary was a hitherto neglected medieval manuscript from Colchester which I had first discovered while I was researching for my doctorate, here at the University of Essex.
The outside world is not always an easy place in which to live and work, as I and my colleagues have learned from our involvement in the rediscovery of the remains of King Richard III. But encountering difficulties is never a reason for giving up. Also, it’s easy to think that history has already been written; that because it’s THE PAST everything is fixed and settled. But that isn’t so. You can always seek – and sometimes find - lost pieces of evidence, and re-evaluate previous interpretations. So history is far from dead, and I hope that today’s graduates will find opportunities to use what they’ve learnt here at the University of Essex, to go out into the world and make new contributions. And I’d like to thank all today’s graduates for allowing me the honour of sharing their graduation ceremony. Thank you.