Books interview: the discovery of Richard III’s remains

Michael Jones and Philippa Langley have co-authored a new book on the discovery of Richard III's remains, a project Langley organised and funded. The duo talk to Matt Elton about the dig and its challenges, and offer their take on the controversial monarch's life

The coffin containing the remains of Richard III. The skeleton of the king was discovered in 2012 in the foundations of Greyfriars Church, Leicester, 500 years after he was killed during the battle of Bosworth. (Photo by Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the November 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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How did you feel when you began to suspect that you had found the site where Richard was buried?

Philippa Langley: The research, which was key, was looking really good. There was a lot of information to back us up, but the belief still wasn’t there in terms of the academic community. It really was an uphill struggle, but I think we just had to say, ‘Let’s just cut the tarmac and see.’

Michael Jones: Philippa and I first met in 2002, and I think it was in 2003 that we started having conversations about bringing the real Richard centre stage. When we finally found him, I remember a feeling of awe and excitement as the events unfolded. It was incredible.

What did you think when you found that the skeleton was, in fact, curved?

PL: That was a big moment for me, because I’d spent so long researching Richard III.

He was very physically able, so to be told – and it’s such an inappropriate word, but we don’t have another – that he was hunchbacked didn’t fit with everything I knew about the man. But the specialists were telling me that he was, and when you looked into the grave you could see that he was hunched. The evidence was staring me right in the face. It absolutely threw me, though.

I just felt that, if Richard was proved to be the hunchbacked king that Shakespeare had portrayed, it would set us back completely despite all the work that we had tried to do in looking at the real man. So many historians are tied to the Tudor propaganda, and I thought we’d never get to the real man.

MJ: I found it very moving. Richard’s condition was used as a judgment by the Tudors and in Shakespeare. It was seen as a deformity, one that physically mirrored a deformity of the mind. I felt a profound sense of sympathy: I didn’t see the deformed or evil individual, I saw a person under an oppressive weight, and this got me thinking about moments in his life and career.

Philippa, do you find that your role in the Richard III Society makes it harder to persuade people that you’re coming from a neutral viewpoint?

PL: No, I don’t think so. Would I say that I’m neutral? I wouldn’t say that I am, actually, because I do believe that Richard has been maligned, and I do believe that his reputation has been pretty much dragged through the mire for 500 years. But the Richard III Society has a mission statement that says that the traditional accounts of Richard are neither supported by the facts nor reasonably tenable, and I have to say that I concur with that mission statement 100 per cent.

I would say that my position is that I need to have an open mind; as a screenwriter, I couldn’t go into the research thinking that he was a saint, because I’m looking for the human being. We’re all complex, we’re all conflicted. That’s how we are, that’s the human condition. So what I’m looking for in Richard is what made his ‘human condition’.

What do you think is the truth behind the princes in the Tower story?

MJ: I think it would be useful to say, first of all, where we agree! We both believe that Richard had a viable claim to the throne, despite it later being vigorously suppressed by the Tudors. We agree that Richard believed in this claim, and that quite a substantial number of other people did too. And that’s important because it means that it was not necessary for him to kill the princes, the sons of Edward IV, to take the throne. So that is our common ground, and that puts us in a different camp from a lot of historians and a lot of people, but we feel that is good.

What we disagree on is the fact that I feel that cruel necessity, and an attempt to rescue or remove the princes from the Tower early on in Richard’s reign, may have forced the king’s hand. In other words, the survival of Richard’s dynasty was at stake. Philippa disagrees: she feels that he wouldn’t have done that. Our belief is that a debate is very healthy, very honest, because we don’t know what happened, and we believe that debating it will help push research onwards. That’s what really needs to happen: we need to keep discussing this and hopefully more evidence may come to light one way or another.

Where do you think that Richard’s remains should be buried?

PL: I think we’re both of the opinion that we just have to let the due process of law take place. We definitely agree that Richard needs to be buried with decency, and dignity, and with honour, because in 1485 we now know that he wasn’t given any of that. And I think that it’s important that we make a powerful statement, and by reburying him in this way, we’re saying that we recognise what went on in the past, but we’re not repeating it.

What surprised you most in the course of this whole project?

PL: I think, for me, one of the things about the project that really hit home was some of the mythology that we’ve been able to blow. For instance, we now know that his body wasn’t thrown into the river Soar, and that he didn’t have a withered arm. We know that his head didn’t crack Bow Bridge when he was slung over a horse coming back into Leicester. We know that he didn’t have kyphosis [a disability causing the head to be pushed on to the chest]. Those are just some of the myths that have been shattered already by this project, and I think that what I’d like is that the project reveals this mythology, the stories that grew up around Richard, that subsequently became his history.

MJ: There was something extraordinarily powerful in getting a sense of what his face might have been like – particularly with so much distortion around his story. For me, the book represents two journeys: the search for the remains, and the search for the real Richard. In a sense, the remains were buried and so was the real Richard, under a mound of Tudor propaganda. But there’s another burial, which is of this endless debate over whether he was ‘bad’ or ‘good’. I believe that the book shows that he was a complicated, extraordinary, charismatic man, who could also be politically ruthless. Our hope is that instead of seeing him either as dark or white, people will get a view of a real man living in a very violent and turbulent period of history.

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Philippa Langley and Michael Jones are the authors of The King’s Grave (John Murray). The book chronicles the lead-up to the discovery of Richard III beneath a Leicester car park in 2012