Finding Richard: a corpse, a corpse, my kingdom for a corpse
Philippa Langley, originator of the "Looking for Richard" project, beside a facial reconstruction of Richard III this week after the monarch's bones were found beneath a Leicester car park. photograph: andrew winning/reuters
Philippa Langley was willing to remortgage her home to find Richard III, writes Michael Holden
“It was a warm day but I suddenly felt cold,” is how Philippa Langley describes the powerful sensation she experienced when she walked over the unmarked grave of King Richard III beneath a Leicester car park.
One of the greatest archaeological discoveries of recent English history has been driven by one woman’s obsession with overturning Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard as a twisted tyrant who murdered two young princes in the Tower of London.
The extraordinary tale of the discovery of the bones of the last English monarch to die in battle combined passion, sleuthing and scholarship with carbon dating, DNA testing and a search for funding worthy of a best-selling detective yarn.
The skeleton allowed Richard’s face to be reconstructed – fleshy with thick, dark eyebrows and rather bland features – and also revealed the fatal wounds inflicted at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.
Now Langley (50), a screenwriter, wants to rehabilitate Richard III as an enlightened monarch who made important strides in the areas of law and printing.
Historians had pursued several trails to track down where the defeated Richard had been ignominiously buried by the victor at Bosworth, the future King Henry VII, who paraded Richard’s naked corpse publicly before handing it over to friars to be disposed of.
Langley’s compulsion to find Richard – at one point she almost remortgaged her home to fund her mission – began in 1998 when she began researching a screenplay about the king, who ruled England for just two years until his death at 32.
Until then, like most Britons, she knew him as the villain of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, a man also demonised by other writers who took the side of Richard’s victorious opponent, Henry Tudor, and his descendants.
Richard’s reign came to a bloody end at the Battle of Bosworth Field, where even his enemies said he fought bravely until he was cut down. His body was stripped, taken by horse to Leicester and put on display for two days before being buried at the Grey Friars’ friary.
Stories that Richard’s remains were thrown in the nearby river Soar and his stone coffin turned into a horse trough became the established version of events.
However, some 25 years ago, David Baldwin, a history tutor at the University of Leicester, challenged these accounts.
“They [stone coffins] had really passed out of use a century before Richard III’s day,” Baldwin says. “All the visitors who came to Leicester who showed an interest in Richard went to look at this horse trough rather than go to the place of his burial.”