Amidst all the excitement, and the whirlwind that was Richard III’s reburial in Leicester, I managed to catch up with one of the world’s most famous Ricardians, ‘the Kingfinder’, Philippa Langley. Langley was kind enough to take the time to chat with me in spite of the insanity that surrounded her this week. We chatted about Richard’s reputation, the importance of his discovery and what it means going forward, and lastly, what’s next for Langley once the dust has settled on this chapter in her life.
What are your emotions going into these final few days before Richard’s burial?
I think that’s a really difficult question to answer because there’s been so much excitement, you know, since Sunday and so much of it has been overwhelming that tomorrow is the end of it all, really, it’s the climax, it’s the final reburial. I really don’t know how I’m going to feel until I get in there and I think we’re all going to be the same because at the moment it’s such a buzz in Leicester, and everything is so exciting, that I’m sure you can’t be feeling that tomorrow.
What do you think have been the most important things we have learned about Richard III since he was discovered in September 2012?
I think looking at some of the mythology that we’ve been able to discredit. Let’s look at some of the things we now know: We now know that he wasn’t dug up at the time of the Dissolution, we know his remains weren’t carried through the streets of Leicester by the jeering, angry mob, we know that he wasn’t thrown into the River Soar at some time later, we know that he wasn’t hunched backed. That’s the most inappropriate word but we don’t have another because he didn’t have Kyphosis. We now know that the grave was cut too short for him, so he was hunched in the grave. What the scientists do know is that he had a Scoliosis, and we know from the account of Richard when Richard hadn’t been dead for very long, John Rous described him as having one shoulder slightly higher than the other, and we now know that that was correct because he had this Scoliosis. Scoliosis is a condition, it’s not a disability, and I think the only way that I can think about that in terms of the modern day is our Queen, Elizabeth II, has once shoulder higher than the other. Now, do we discuss that? Is it a big topic of discussion? Do we all make a big thing about it? Do we call her the deformed Queen? Do we think that because she’s got one shoulder higher than the other that she’s evil? No, we don’t, so that’s been able to blow a huge amount of those myths. The other thing is we know that he didn’t have a withered arm, we know he didn’t have a limping gait, we know that his head didn’t bang against Bow Bridge when he was slung over the horse and brought back into Leicester because there’s no marks on his skull to suggest that it cracked against stone. So this is just some of the mythology that surrounded Richard III that we can now say, ‘Sorry guys, you all thought that was true, but it’s not’. Even down to the fact that he’s always portrayed as having very dark hair and dark eyes; he had quite light hair and blue eyes, so it’s a whole raft of things. And they all said that he was incredibly small. He must’ve been small in stature because people said so but actually, in the grave with his femur bone he was 5’8″. That is not too small; and we know from people who have Scoliosis, that you lose about a couple of inches, like Dominic Smee, he’s lost a couple of inches. Richard was about 5’6″, so compared to Edward, his brother, he would’ve looked small, but he wouldn’t have been that small in medieval times.
Do you think finding Richard and this recent exposure has changed public perception of him as a monarch?
I think there’s been a seismic shift, because we’ve brought his story into the daylight now. I think people are reading widely about him. I think the general public perception now has shifted from the Shakespearean caricature to the medieval king, to the warrior king, the last Plantagenet; that’s a huge change.
This has also been quite a journey for you over these last couple of years — what are you going to remember most about this project?
Right now I think it’s about closing the circle in one sense because the ethos of the Looking for Richard was if we found him, it was to give him what he didn’t get when he died on the field of battle in 1485. I think we’re going to achieve that now. To do that, we do something incredibly important, because we make peace with the past. Whatever your view of Richard III, we are laying him to rest, and that’s incredibly important. I think that’s what I’ll take away because we’ve achieved our aims, we’ve achieved our goals, and we fought long and hard behind the scenes to make sure that Richard was laid out anatomically that he wasn’t just put in a box. We also wanted to make sure that he did get a tomb, because at first they weren’t going to give him a tomb, they were just going to give him a slab. When Henry Tudor first buried him in 1485, he didn’t get a tomb for 10 years. We didn’t want to see that happen again. You’ll see a big, beautiful plinth on the tomb design, and it has Richard’s coat of arms on it. We fought for the boar, we fought for the white roses in the floor and we wanted his name on it, and his dates on it, all the things that make it his tomb, it’s about the man. Up until then it was just going to be a featureless block of stone with nothing on it, and we thought that’s just not right. We also wanted him to be coffined in a holy place, not as a scientific specimen, and not in a laboratory, and we managed to get that in the end. It was all about honouring him as a named individual, and I think we’ve ticked that box.
Once everything has died down, what’s your next project? What does the Richard III Society want to do going forward?
I think there’s two things to that. I think for the society and for research going forward, we are now searching archives because we think there’s documentation out there. Nobody has really looked for this period because everybody thought, we know this story, but now we’re going to say, ok we don’t know this story and this project has shown us that. So we’ve got people in Spain, in Portugal, in Germany, in Austria who are specialists who are going to be looking in archives. We’re going to be looking in this country, we’re going to be asking for people who have private archives, the big families, to open them up, so we can go and search them.
Does this all end for you on Thursday?
No, no way. The Princes in the Tower, what happened to the sons of Edward IV? This is what we want to find out. Is there documentation out there that can help explain what happened to them? Can we solve this mystery? Now we’re looking. The second thing is I’m just about to launch a project in Reading, and it’s called the Hidden Abbey Project. This about looking for the beautiful Clunaic abbey that Henry I built in Reading, and of course, Henry I is buried there. It’s a step by step project. The first thing we’re going to do is ground penetrating radar. We want to then see what we can find in the abbey. We’re then going to do some trial trenching to make sure that the GPR is telling us what we think it’s telling us, and then we’ll go from there. This isn’t my search, Reading asked me to do this search for them so I’ve given this to the people of Reading.
When are you starting this new project?
We’ve had permission from English Heritage, that’s in, and we’re now getting permission from the landowners. We’ve had two permissions in, we’re just waiting on the third permission, and then we’re doing the GPR survey and we hope we’re doing that this year.