Unearthing Richard III

Like much of the world, I followed the discovery of the remains of Richard III with great interest. I read a fair bit of Tudor biography so, as the King whose fall led to the Tudor triumph, Richard is a compelling character—particularly when one adds in the long-fought battle over his depravity and/or virtue.

I’ve just finished the first book-length work on this archaeological project, The King’s Grave, authored by Philippa Langley and Michael Jones. Langley, chair of the Richard III Society, coordinated the dig after a “revelation” of sorts convinced her that she had identified the location of Richard’s burial. She is not an archaeologist herself, but pulled together a fine team of experts for the project. Michael Jones is the author of a key pro-Richardian history, which provided much of Langley’s initial inspiration. (While the two are co-authors, I will often refer to Langley as author in the course of this review because much of the book is written in her voice.)

For centuries, Richard’s story has been carried along on two very different tracks. After Richard’s defeat and Henry VII’s rise to power, any number of scholars were eager to ingratiate themselves with the new king by writing biographies denigrating Richard. As a result of this historical bandwagon, Langley and Jones tell us, “By the time of Shakespeare this propaganda had reached its zenith. Richard had now become a crouching hunchback, whose bent and distorted body mirrored the hideous depravity of his crimes. By then, the king’s actual body, buried hastily in Leicester after the Battle of Bosworth, had disappeared from view.”

Langley is among those who are convinced the portrait of Richard as murderer and usurper is false and who dedicate their research to furthering a more generous view of the man as honorable, a good king known particularly for his sense of justice. From the beginning, her Looking for Richard project is as much tribute as scientific/historical research. Her original proposals for the dig also included plans for a new tomb and monument in Richard’s honor.

Well before Richard’s body disappeared from view, the bodies of his two nephews, the heirs of Edward IV, Richard’s elder brother, had disappeared. Originally Richard was part of a regency council to rule in the name of the young Edward V until he reached his majority, but quickly Richard became sole regent, then went on to rule as king after the princes were—murdered on his orders? victims of unfortunate, but natural, deaths? By the end of the book, Langley proposes a rereading of Richard as patriot, rather than murderer: “Richard transferred his loyalty, duty, and service to the kingdom since he could not commit his allegiance to Edward’s illegitimate sons.” This seems somewhat disingenuous given that Richard was a player in the process by which the princes were illigitimatized.

Langley isn’t entirely uncritical of Richard, but she sums up her still-partisan goal early on: “To bring [Richard] back to life we do not need to try to replace a villain with a saint; rather, we need to understand better the bravery and self-belief of the line of horsemen who charged across the battlefield to meet their foe, and the astonishing courage of the king who led that charge.”

The book proceeds in chapters that alternate the story of Richard’s life with the story of the dig that uncovered his remains, a move which breaks the continuity of both narratives. The chapters on Richard’s life are quite interesting at times, particularly when Langley and Jones provide close readings of the historical record, discussing the different ways that key documents and actions can be understood. At other times, the historical narrative feels a bit speculative, which has the effect of undermining the attempt at objectivity in the chapters focused on the dig.

Chapter nine is the best of the chapters focused on the dig and analysis of the remains. It offers summaries of the many kinds of methods that were used to identify Richard’s remains: carbon 14 dating, osteology, forensic analysis of perimortem wounds, and facial reconstruction. Chapter eleven, on the other hand, makes one wonder at Langley’s judgement as coordinator of the dig as she recounts further attempts at “scientific” analysis that include handwriting analysis and work by a psychological profiler.

I acknowledge that I lack the scholarly expertise to determine which portrayal of Richard—the wise ruler or the scheming murderer—is more accurate and certainly Langley has more expertise than me, but at times I found myself distrusting her because of her determination to find what she’s already decided should exist.

For now, this book is a good initial read on the finding of Richard’s grave and his reign, but I don’t think it’s the definitive work on the topic. It may be that a definitive read on what are essentially two topics just isn’t possible. Nonetheless I find myself hoping that more and better books will follow this one.


Note: The discovery of Richard’s remains has launched a complicated legal struggle over the issue of where they will be reburied. Langley and Jones’ book ends on the assumption that the story has ended—but the final ending is still being contested.

One Reply to “Unearthing Richard III”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *