Finding Richard: a corpse, a corpse, my kingdom for a corpse
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.”
Baldwin thought it possible, but unlikely, that the body might one day be found in an area of the city where Grey Friars once stood, part of which formed a car park for Leicester council’s social services department.
“I suppose as far as most people were concerned it simply wasn’t very likely that anything would be found. I think most of the archaeologists were slightly sceptical,” he says.
But Langley, who began writing her screenplay about Richard in 2005, was not deterred. Her research into places in England where he had been culminated in a trip to the Leicester car park.
“I decided just before I got that first draft out it was time to go to Bosworth and Leicester . . . This was going to be my final journey for Richard, to walk through Leicester where he died.”
It was as she walked through the car park that she says she felt the sudden chill. “It was the strangest experience, it was some kind of intuitive feeling, and I absolutely felt I was walking on his grave,” she recounts.
“I went back a year later because I had to find out if it really was something, and I had the same feeling again in the same spot. Just a couple of feet to my left someone had painted the letter R on to the tarmac, a white handpainted letter R.
“I had exactly the same feeling – R marks the spot – and I was on a mission.”
Her initial attempts to get support for the dig proved fruitless. The local archaeological society insisted the body had been thrown into the river Soar.
Langley’s theory would probably have come to nothing had it not chimed with research by historian John Ashdown-Hill. He had found evidence of the location of the Grey Friars site, and had also traced the descendants of Richard’s sister, Anne of York, giving them a DNA link.
“With that, everybody knew if we found him, no matter what, we had the chance to identify him,” Langley says. “In every pitch I did, people would be rolling their eyes, but the minute you mentioned that, they were on board.”
By spring 2011, she had persuaded the local council and the University of Leicester’s archaeological department that the dig was worthwhile.
But a year later, when the project was set to go, backers pulled the £35,000 (€41,000) of funding they needed. “It was a really dark moment, because I really thought it was over,” says Langley, who considered remortgaging her home to raise funds.
Instead, help came from the University of Leicester and the Richard III Society, an organisation formed 90 years ago and now comprising several thousand devotees known as “Ricardians”.
Then, at the last minute, they lost £10,000 of funding again. This time Ricardians from around the world – Australia, Belgium, Germany and Canada – raised £13,000.
With funding finally secured, work began in August last year, providing a last chance to see if Langley was right.
Not far from where the car park was marked with an R, they almost immediately found a grave just 68cm (2ft) beneath present ground level, housing a skeleton with a hugely curved spine corresponding to accounts of Richard and with 10 battle wounds.
DNA matched that of Canadian-born Michael Ibsen, a London-based furniture maker and direct descendant of Richard’s sister, proving to a team of academics and scientists that the bones were indeed those of England’s last Plantagenet king.
Unveiling a bust based on a computer reconstruction of Richard this week, Phil Stone, the chairman of the Richard III Society, said many of his female members would be envious of the woman who painted the face as “for over a week she spent her time with the head of Richard III in her lap”.
Langley says that for her Richard has the appeal of a brooding hero from a romantic novel.
“There is something about the noble, tragic end, the final act of bravery, the all or nothing. I think we connect with something like that,” she says.
However, the discovery of Richard’s skeleton is unlikely to transform the assessment of historians overnight.
“It can’t really tell us anything about his personality or anything about his actions as king or whether he was guilty of any of the charges laid against him,” says Baldwin.
“The only hope really, I think, is that there’s now so much interest in him that it will encourage people to delve more deeply into the archives and perhaps in the future more evidence will come to light. His bones can only tell us so much.” – (Reuters)