Digging for Richard III – Mike Pitts

The title of this book, Digging for Richard III, highlights the angle taken by the author, Mike Pitts. Pitts is the editor of British Archaeology magazine & this is the story of the archaeological project that led to the discovery of the Greyfriars Church in Leicester & to the burial place of Richard III. The subtitle, How Archaeology Found the King, says it all.

The book is structured like a play, divided into Acts & Scenes. It begins with a brief overview of the Wars of the Roses & moves quickly to the beginning of the project when Philippa Langley, instigator of the Looking for Richard project, met Richard Buckley of the University of Leicester & asked him to undertake the dig. Philippa Langley’s story has been told in her book, The King’s Grave, co-written with historian Michael Jones. Pitts is respectful of Langley’s work but he’s telling the story from the perspective of the archaeologists involved. Several times he mentions the completely opposite aims of the two main players. Langley is only interested in finding the remains of the king &, after all, she is the one who came up with the money & funded the project. At the same time, the archaeologists are treating it as a normal dig, carrying out the preliminary planning & surveys & formulating their own objectives.

The archaeologists were wary of taking on a project that was looking for the remains of a specific person. Buckley was interested in finding out more about the history of Leicester & discovering the site of the Greyfriars Priory was his main aim. His project had several objectives.  The first was to find the remains of the friary. Then to identify the orientation of the buildings. Then, find the church, then the choir of the church which was where the historical evidence suggested that Richard III was buried. Only then would they begin searching for Richard’s remains. As it turned out, they put in their three trenches &, on the very first day, found human remains that turned out to be Richard III.

I found the story of the dig fascinating, especially after having read Philippa Langley’s book which focuses so much on her more emotional quest to rehabilitate Richard’s reputation. I’ve written about my views on Richard III before & I find myself somewhere in the middle between the lovers & the haters. As a member of the Richard III Society, I’m thrilled to think that the Society was so involved in the Looking for Richard project. I’ve read everything I can find on the dig, the scientific results of the tests carried out so far & the implications for future study of Richard’s scoliosis, for example. Langley was so sure that the hunchback of Shakespeare’s play was a libel & a myth that to see the curved spine of the skeleton was a real shock. As more scientific work has been done, it already seems that the scoliosis that looked so extreme in the ground, may not have been so obvious when Richard was alive. He may have just had one shoulder higher than the other which, after all, was mentioned in his lifetime. He was rich enough to be able to afford good tailors & custom made armour to hide the problem. What does this mean for the view that the Tudors invented the deformity as a reflection of the blackness of Richard’s soul? I don’t think it means that because the Tudors were right about the deformity, they were necessarily right about everything else. Lots of food for thought & many more books & articles to read on both sides of the question.

Views on Richard III range from the white view that he could do no wrong & was a noble soul maligned by the Tudors & Shakespeare’s play to the black view that he was a villain & monster who definitely murdered his nephews, his wife & old King Henry VI among others. My view is more grey than either of these. I started out with the white view after reading Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time when I was a teenager. However, the more I’ve read, the more I think that Richard was no better or worse than any other king or member of the nobility in that violent time. The conflicting views fascinate me & keep me reading everything about Richard that I can find & keeping as open a mind as possible.

Mike Pitts has written about the story of the dig for the general reader. If you’ve watched Time Team or read British Archaeology or Current Archaeology magazines, you won’t be bamboozled by the science or the archaeological terminology. All of the sober analysis is here as well as the sheer excitement of the archaeologists when they realised that they’d found not only the Greyfriars church (which they had good reason to think they would find) but also the remains of the last English king to die in battle, one of the most controversial figures in English history, King Richard III.

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