LONDON (Reuters) - “It was a warm day but I suddenly felt cold,” was how Philippa Langley described the powerful sensation she experienced when she walked over the unmarked grave of her hero King Richard III beneath a car park in central England.
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, a 50-year-old 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 before handing it to friars to dispose of.
When Langley began reading a biography of Richard 15 years ago, she had no idea it was to be the start of a quest that would eventually solve the 500-year-old mystery about the last resting place of one of England’s most reviled monarchs.
Against all odds, archaeologists announced this week they had found Richard’s skeleton buried beneath a car park in the city of Leicester.
“I knew I was going to find him,” Langley said in an interview with Reuters.
Her compulsion to find Richard — at one point she almost re-mortgaged 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 the age of 32.
Until then, like most Britons, she knew him as the villain of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, a man also demonized by other writers who took the side of Richard’s conqueror, Henry Tudor, and his descendants.
To them, Richard was a power-crazed hunchback with a withered arm who stooped to any level to seize the crown after the death of his brother Edward IV. He was said to have murdered the “Princes in the Tower”, one of them the rightful king Edward V, aged just 12.
Among the more outlandish traits attached to him were claims he was born with teeth and shoulder-length hair, and that he had spent two years in his mother’s womb.
Perhaps not the sort of person whose remains you would spend years trying to find. However, Langley said a biography by American historian Paul Murray Kendall, which presented the king as a man of justice and honor, changed her view.
“That blew me away because I had no inkling of this other possible Richard, I’d always had this sort of Shakespearian child-killing (figure),” said Langley, who hails from northern England, where Richard was popular.
“What did it for me was Shakespeare’s Richard III has been done time and time again. But nobody’s told Richard’s real story on screen, not ever.”
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. Shakespeare declares his last words to have been: “A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!”.
His body was stripped, taken by horse to Leicester and put on display for two days before being buried at the Grey Friars’ friary. Grand sepulchres house the remains of most English monarchs, but Henry Tudor, by now Henry VII, paid just 10 pounds for a memorial to Richard.
Local legend in Leicester held that the body was dug up during the reign of Henry VIII when he dissolved the monasteries following his break with the pope in Rome.
Stories that Richard’s remains were thrown in the nearby River Soar and his stone coffin turned into a drinking-trough for horses outside a pub became the established version of events. One riverside street is even named Richard III Road.
However, some 25 years ago, David Baldwin, a history tutor from the University of Leicester, challenged these accounts.
“They (stone coffins) had really passed out of use a century before Richard III’s day,” Baldwin told Reuters.
“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, 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 skeptical,” he said.
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 car park in Leicester, about 100 miles north of London.
“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 roamed through the uninspiring concrete municipal car park that she said she felt a 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 onto 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.
Her 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 said. “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.
“I wouldn’t say that I was going there just to find Richard III because I never thought we would anyway,” said Richard Buckley, the lead archaeologist. “Finding the Grey Friars would have been pretty good on its own.”
A year later, the project was set to go when backers pulled the 35,000 pounds ($55,000) of funding they needed.
“It was a really dark moment, because I really thought it was over,” said Langley, who considered re-mortgaging her home to raise funds.
“At one point I was so desperate. But I’ve got two (teenage) children and I couldn’t go that far,” she said.
Instead, help came from the University of Leicester and the Richard III Society, an organization formed 90 years ago and now comprising several thousand devotees known as “Ricardians”.
Then, at the last minute, they lost 10,000 pounds of funding again. This time Ricardians from around the world — Australia, Belgium, Germany and Canada — raised 13,000 pounds.
Two individuals, one from the United States and one from Britain, donated 1,000 pounds apiece. Annette Carson, a biographer of Richard III who organized the international appeal, told Reuters Ricardians were people “with a mission”.
“Find another monarch who has been trashed like Richard has been,” she explained of the huge interest, sternly rejecting any historical criticism put to her. “When you look at the contemporary records, he was actually a caring king.”
With funding secured, work began in August last year, providing a last chance to see if Langley was right.
“What funding body would come to you and say ‘well OK you’ve not found him this time, dig another six trenches and have another go’,” Buckley said.
But not far from where the car park was marked with an R, they almost immediately found a grave just 68cm (2 feet) beneath present ground level, housing a skeleton with a hugely curved spine corresponding to accounts of Richard and 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. Carbon dating provided more convincing evidence.
“For the first trench to have actually hit, in the first five meters, the burial ... was amazingly lucky,” Buckley said. “What are the chances of that happening?”
So why are people, particularly some women, still so fascinated by a king who died 528 years ago?
Unveiling a bust based on a computer reconstruction or 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 said that for her Richard had 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 said. “It was the end of an era when Richard died. He was the last warrior king.”
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,” said 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.”
($1 = 0.6389 British pounds)
Editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Stephen Addison, Peter Millership and Giles Elgood