Book review: The King’s Grave: The Search for Richard III by Philippa Langley and Michael Jones

The unearthing of King Richard III’s skeleton in a Leicester car park last year was one of the most significant and exciting discoveries in British history.

The Kings Grave: The Search for Richard III by Philippa Langley and Michael Jones
The Kings Grave: The Search for Richard III by Philippa Langley and Michael Jones

This wasn’t just any old king… Richard was the last of the powerful Plantagenets and England’s most controversial and much vilified monarch, famously portrayed as a villainous hunchback in Shakespeare’s play.

Defeated by Henry Tudor, the future Henry VII and founder of one of the most iconic ruling dynasties, Richard is still chief suspect in the notorious murder of his own nephews, the two young ‘Princes in the Tower.’

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A group of die-hard Ricardians – people interested in restoring the posthumous reputation of Richard III – have long been eager to find the remains of the English king who was killed at Bosworth Field near Leicester on August 22 1485 and hurriedly buried at the Greyfriars church in Leicester three days later.

A screenwriter and secretary of the Scottish branch of the Richard III Society, Philippa Langley is a truly dedicated Ricardian. It was her drive, determination, money-raising and ‘goose-bump’ moment whilst standing in that council-owned Leicester car park which would lead archaeologists to the discovery of Richard’s bones.

In the acclaimed Channel 4 documentary, The King in the Car Park, over six million people saw the unreal and thrilling moment when Langley and an archaeological team from Leicester University struck history-making ‘gold.’

In almost the exact spot where Langley had first become convinced she was standing on top of Richard’s grave, a careful flick of a trowel revealed the leg bone of what would turn out to be the remains of the king, complete with the twisted, scoliosis spine so compellingly placed centre stage by Shakespeare.

Now the remarkable story of King Richard’s life and death – and the amazing journey of the intuitive woman who never gave up believing that she would one day find his body – has been brought together in this fascinating and informative book.

In alternate chapters, Langley reveals the inside story of the search for the king’s grave and historian Michael Jones recounts the tumultuous tale of Richard’s 15th century royal journey from a childhood at Middleham Castle in north Yorkshire to death on Bosworth Field.

The result is a compelling account of one of Britain’s greatest archaeological discoveries alongside a colourful, contextual history of Richard’s life which helps to give us a view of the man as a product of a ruthless and self-interested age rather than the now legendary monster.

This overview of Richard’s story – both past and present – is totally captivating with the final pieces of the jigsaw slotting together with some sweetly spooky discoveries and coincidences. The dig began on August 25th, the anniversary of Richard’s burial in Greyfriars; his body was found under a parking bay with the letter ‘R’ painted on it; and Richard’s rare DNA made it easier to make a decisive match with his closest living descendant.

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As Langley points out in her introduction to this enthralling book, ‘Richard’s life had everything: politics, power, romance, intrigue, mystery, murder, self-sacrifice, loyalty and incredible acts of bravery.’

How fitting then for such a controversial king that that over 500 years after his death, the final chapter of his incredible story has still not been written as the battle rages on over his new and hopefully permanent resting place.

(John Murray, hardback, £20)