Meet Philippa Langley: the woman who discovered Richard III in a car park

"I know how mad this sounds, but I had the strongest sensation that I was walking on Richard’s grave"

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Meet Philippa Langley: the woman who discovered Richard III in a car park
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E. Jane Dickson

Five centuries after the death of Richard III, speculation over the final resting place of one of England’s most enigmatic monarchs has come to an end. Today the University of Leicester have confirmed that the skeleton found beneath a local parking facility belongs to the Plantagenet king.

Tonight's Channel 4 documentary, The King in the Car Park, follows the historical, archaeological and scientific bid to authenticate the human remains, exhumed last summer in a Leicester parking facility, as the skeleton of the 15th century monarch.

The project has been driven by Philippa Langley, an Edinburgh based screenwriter and secretary of the Scottish branch of the Richard III Society, “ who, four years ago, was researching a screenplay about ‘the real Richard’ (“not at all” she points out, “the brutal, ruthless tyrant that is given to us by most historians”).

Historical record points to the removal of Richard III’s body after his fatal wounding at the Battle of Bosworth (1485) to Leicester’s Grey Friars (the friary was subsequently razed in Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries). As part of her research Langley visited the car park which had been pointed out as the most likely site of the royal interment.

“I walked that car park and I just knew there was nothing there.  It was ‘dead’.

"As I walked away, I saw another, private car park over to the right. I know how mad this sounds, but I snuck under the barrier and, on a very particular spot, I had the strongest sensation that I was walking on Richard’s grave.  On a subsequent visit, I found a little white ‘R’ painted on the exact same spot. Of course it was ‘R’ for ‘reserved’, not ‘R’ for Richard but from that moment on, I was on a mission.”

Powering through red tape and initial scepticism, Langley obtained permission from Leicester City Council, commissioned a dig by University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS)  and, when funding fell through at the last minute, raised £13,000 in two weeks from an appeal to ‘Ricardians’ around the world. 

In August 2012 excavations revealed an intact skeleton which bore marks of a fatal, slicing blow to the head (the only known account of Richard’s death is a poem which states he was “pole-axed to the head”) and had a arrow lodged in its back – both injuries consistent with death in battle. The skeleton also appeared to show scoliosis of the spine, a condition often imputed to Richard and cruelly commemorated in Shakespeare’s famous image of his villain as “a foul, bunch-back’d toad”.

Intuition and circumstantial evidence are, however, no substitute for academic due process. Richard Buckley, co-director of ULAS and head archaeologist on the project, allows that Langley’s feeling about the site was ‘broadly’ correct, but points out that ground was broken on the Grey Friars site only after an exhaustive process of ‘map regression’ (where historical maps are used to chart ‘change of use’) had been completed. 

“Having identified the site, the important thing, in archaeological terms, was to go through a series of analyses to build up a case as to whether these were indeed the remains of Richard III or if it was potentially someone else,” says Buckley.

“The first of these tests was radio-carbon dating – these days you usually get within 80 years of the death of the individual. Then there is the examination of the bones themselves – amongst other tests, a CT scan was carried out at Leicester Infirmary. The other key evidence is DNA analysis [a match is being sought with the DNA of Michael Ibsen, a Canadian furniture maker living in London, who is a direct descendant, though the female line, of Richard III’s eldest sister, Anne of York].  

For Langley, the wait to find out if it was indeed Richard III was agonising.  “I’m not a person who paces, but I’m pacing now,” she says. “ There has been so much myth and mystery surrounding Richard. Hopefully it’s a mystery we can now start to unravel.” Following today's announcement that the remains do belong to the fallen king, it looks like her long-awaited investigation can finally begin... 

Richard III: the King in the Car Park is on tonight at 9:00pm on Channel 4

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