Book review: ‘Digging For Richard III: The Search for the Lost King,’ by Mike Pitts
December 5, 2016
"A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" Those iconic lines from William Shakespeare's thrillingly devastating play "Richard III" helped foment the dark mythology that has long surrounded the life of the last British king to die in battle.
Shakespeare's captivating portrayal of the dark soul of King Richard has only added fodder to the fire of the narrative that the victors, the Tudors, carried forth into posterity, that he was a violent, unhinged hunchback, who was despised by all and revered by none.
Nothing is more thrilling than when legends can be revisited by fortuitous discovery and the trappings of modern science. The world was blessed with just such a real-world forensics treat in 2013 with the discovery of the long-lost remains of Richard III, whose death marked the end of the War of the Roses and signaled the dimming of the Middle Ages. The astounding details of the events surrounding the revelation are described by author Mike Pitts in his mesmerizing book "Digging For Richard III: The Search for the Lost King."
Born into an era of violent rule and perpetual upheaval, Pitts says some historians might point out that Richard III was no better or worse than the rest of the Yorks or the Lancasters. But King Richard fascinates partly because, though his time on the throne was remarkably short — less than two years — Richard III's impact on the course of history was immense, first and foremost upon the throne, which he seized violently, an act which famously involved the terrible treatment of his two young nephews, who both had a legitimate claim to the crown.
The book becomes spellbinding, for it becomes clear that there was an immense amount of luck that accompanied the dig team on the day that King Richard’s bones were discovered.
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Shifting the Balance
The throne was a precarious spot, with plotters on all sides ready and eager to exploit any weakness, and there were countless rumors that the young king was deformed and deranged, easy pickings for those eager to shift the balance of the monarchy.
There is plenty of recorded history detailing the 1485 Battle of Bosworth, near Leicester, where King Richard met his fate, but the tales got more murky, Pitt says, when trying to trace the fate of Richard's corpse — until, that is, an extremely motivated and passionate historian and screenwriter, Philippa Langley, approached the University of Leicester's Archaeological Department with the outlandish request to help her find the remains of the lost and, as she believed, much maligned king.
Because of this woman's determination, and because an authentic potentially rich archaeological site — a medieval friary — was within the area she was pushing to have searched, the university considered her notion, which for the most part, they believed unfounded — and a little unbelievable.
A little daft?
Langley went to Leicester, poked around, including at a privately owned car park that was on the site, and it is at this point in which the story becomes truly captivating. Langley, Pitt says, remembers feeling chills when she walked among the parked cars, which was enough to convince her the grave was there. "A year later, she went back. Perhaps, you know, perhaps she had been a little daft. She stood on exactly the same spot and had exactly the same experience. But something was different. A few feet to her left, on the ground, someone had painted a white letter R."
With this as her basis, the university chose to focus on the benefits of an excavation with regards to expanding the knowledge of the history of the friars who had once dwelled in the area. Much of the book is focused on the struggle to secure funding and the determination of where to focus their brief excavation window. Adding pressure — and potential for embarrassment if failure was met — part of the funding was tied to allowing a film crew to document the events.
Tracing the fate of the friary was key in pinpointing the possible location of Richard's grave, if there indeed was one. Some believed that the king had been so despised that his corpse had been thrown into the river by an angry mob, or at the least, there was ample evidence that his burial had happened without any ceremony. It truly would be a needle-in-a-haystack hunt.
When Pitts describes the actual details of the dig and the subsequent discoveries and revelations, the book becomes spellbinding, for it becomes clear that there was an immense amount of luck that accompanied the dig team on the day that King Richard's bones were discovered. So many variables were in play, and any shift might have had them missing the monarch's remains by inches, consigning the question of the king's final moments back to the realm of eternal doubt.
But find him they did, and the author compares the discovery of Richard III's body to the unearthing of Tutankhamun's final resting place in Egypt. It took six hours and 34 minutes to find the king, but much longer to prove it was indeed King Richard, and Pitts makes the details of the subsequent scientific analysis as fascinating as the moments of reveal. Throughout the book, Pitt allows for the intangible presence of the spirit of the long lost king, and it is this sacred connection with the thread that connects us all to the past that pulls the reader most emphatically into the thrill of the story.