The King’s Grave : the search for Richard III – Philippa Langley & Michael Jones

The discovery of the grave of Richard III in the church of the Greyfriars in Leicester has been the story of the decade for those of us interested in history & archaeology. For those of us who are members of The Richard III Society, it’s been an exciting time as we followed the Looking for Richard project every step of the way through regular updates from the Society as well as following the newspapers, blogs & websites speculating about the identity of the remains. Since February, when the remains found in the grave in the Social Services car park in Leicester (formerly the Church of the Greyfriars), were formally identified as being those of Richard III, the last English king to die in battle, the interest & attention has been intense. The current legal fight by a group called the Plantagenet Alliance (collateral descendants of Richard’s family) to overturn the plans to bury Richard in Leicester Cathedral means that Richard III has barely been out of the headlines for over a year.

The Looking for Richard project was the passion of Philippa Langley, a screenwriter who became interested in Richard III, joined the Society & then became obsessed with finding his grave. Traditional stories described the hasty burial of the king after his death at the battle of Bosworth, the erection of an alabaster tomb over the grave ten years later (paid for by the victor of Bosworth, Henry VII), the destruction of the Church of the Greyfriars at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s & Richard’s remains being thrown into the river Soar while his coffin was used as a horse trough at a local pub. Langley’s research led her to doubt most of the traditional narrative & she became determined to find Richard’s grave & ensure that he was given a dignified reburial in consecrated ground.

Other members of the Richard III Society supported her quest, including Annette Carson, author of Richard III : the maligned king & John Ashdown-Hill, whose research into the location of the Greyfriars Church as well as the DNA profile of Richard would prove crucial in proving that the remains discovered during the dig were, beyond doubt, those of Richard III. The King’s Grave is Langley’s account of her quest, from the spooky moment when she stood in the Leicester car park & felt that she was literally standing on Richard’s grave to the long period of gathering funding for an archaeological dig (including an eleventh hour international appeal to the members of the Richard III Society to contribute when crucial funding was lost) to persuading Richard Buckley & the University of Leicester of the validity of her research & through the two week dig itself & the media storm that followed. Searches for named individuals are rarely undertaken by archaeologists & they are rarely successful. To find the right person in the right place with only a few trenches dug & on the first day of a two week dig was amazing – a million to one chance indeed.

I was surprised how suspenseful this was, especially as I knew the outcome & I’d followed the whole process as closely as was possible from the other side of the world. I’ve also seen the documentary The King in the Car Park that was filmed during the dig & read everything I could find from newspaper reports, the very informative Ricardian Bulletins & the scholarly articles that have been published so far. Langley’s emotional highs & lows are vividly relived. Skeletal remains were discovered in the first trench dug on the very first day & she was immediately convinced that Richard had been found. Although she respected the archaeologist’s desire for context & evidence, her belief never wavered. She was proved right as the skeleton was excavated & the damage to the skull & the curvature of the spine were revealed.  The Carbon 14 dating later placed the remains at the right historical period & the DNA research confirmed Richard’s identity by matching his DNA with that of two descendants. The scene where she sees the skeleton displayed in a lab & listens to the professionals describing the extent of the scoliosis of the spine & the brutality of the battle wounds is very moving. This was one of the most powerful scenes in the documentary, as well.

Alternate chapters of The King’s Grave have been written by historian Michael Jones. Jones fills in the background on Richard’s life & times & discusses the main controversies of the reign – how & why Richard took the throne & the fate of the Princes in the Tower. Jones believes that Richard feared that his rule as Protector would not last long once Edward V was crowned & he feared for his future when the young King’s Woodville relations resumed their influence over events. He believes that it was the discovery of a plot to rescue the Princes from the Tower that forced Richard’s hand & led to him ordering their deaths. Philippa Langley doesn’t agree with this interpretation & there’s an Appendix that sets out the arguments for & against Richard’s involvement in their disappearance. The alternate chapters work well in heightening the suspense of the dig & the scientific tests afterwards as well as filling in the background for readers who are not familiar with Richard’s life.

The King’s Grave is an excellent account of the search for Richard III & a useful introduction to his life. It’s the perfect taster for the many scholarly articles that will follow & the research that will result into the man & this most controversial period of English history.

7 thoughts on “The King’s Grave : the search for Richard III – Philippa Langley & Michael Jones

  1. I have this book reserved at the library – I am now number 3 in the queue – it sounds as if you enjoyed reading it so I'm looking forward to getting my hands on it. We attened a talk at the local museum last week given by Richard Buckley who was project manager of the Greyfriars dig – I did write a little bit about it on the next before last post on my blog. The university are publishing a book about this within the next couple of weeks:)

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  2. I read about the U of L book just yesterday & I read about the talk on your blog. I did enjoy the book even though there was little that was new as I've read everything I can get my hands on since the big announcement in February. I especially enjoyed the appendix where PL & MJ (who disagree about this) give the for & against arguments on Richard's responsibility for the death of the Princes. I'm obsessed & will read just about anything about Richard, the Wars etc. I hope you enjoy the book when you get your hands on it.

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  3. Wow what an interesting book and review. I have followed a bit of this but with a big election year in Tasmania that overrode everything else (boring) I missed a lot of it. This sounds a fascinating read. Thank you for writing such a lovely review about it.

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  4. Thanks Pam. Richard III is one of my obsessions so I was looking forward to this book even though there was nothing very new in it for me. If you missed the excitement due to the election hooha, it would be the perfect way to catch up.

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  5. Thanks to your post, Lyn, I've just realized that a book has been published about this fascinating subject. I just found it on Amazon. The funny thing is that the Kindle is almost the same price as the hardcover. What is the point of that I wonder? At any rate, I'm adding it to my Christmas wish list. Ever since I read Josephine Tey's brilliant DAUGHTER OF TIME, I've been keen on Richard III history, merely as a fan here in the states. Tey's theory really does make sense to me. When I saw the news of the recovery of the king's skeleton, I was amazed along with everyone else. Can't wait to read this book, Lyn, especially since lately I have been on a non-fiction kick. P.S. Have you read CATHERINE THE GREAT by Robert Massey? I didn't remember if you had talked about it or not – forgot to check. Anyway if you didn't, I recommend it very highly.

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  6. Daughter of Time is one of my favourite books & Richard is one of my obsessions as you've probably realised! I don't know why the Kindle edition would be the same as the hardback as you wouldn't be able to see the plates properly. Kindle pricing is an odd thing.
    I also love Robert Massie & I've read his previous books about Nicholas & Alexandra & Peter the Great but not Catherine yet. I do plan to but when??

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  7. I know exactly what you mean, Lyn. When, indeed. CATHERINE THE GREAT is one of those books that reads quite quickly for non-fiction, at least I found it so. It's also hard to put down – wow, did she have an interesting life. I learned so much. But then I admit I know little about Russian history so this was a real eye-opener. Massie is really a wonderful writer.

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