In Search of The Lost King
How Philippa Langley dug up the truth about Richard III
By Richard Whittaker,
7:00AM, Fri. Mar. 24, 2023
When King Richard III of England was killed at the battle of Bosworth Field, he was charging at full speed on horseback towards the banner of the rebellious Henry Tudor. Reports from the time say that he was within a sword's length of the usurper. Now, does that sound like a cowardly wretch barely capable of unaided movement?
The death of Richard III was a turning point in British history, and determined attempts by Henry VII and later Tudor propagandists (cough cough Shakespeare) did everything possible to defame the last Plantagenet king. But, successful as their calumnies were, it never really made sense. In his lifetime, Richard was popular, had a legitimate claim to the throne, and was broadly seen as a reformer, as well as being a loving husband and father.
In Britain, he still has his supporters. Known as Ricardians, they've spent centuries dedicated to overturning the myth and re-establishing the truth, and that effort came to fruition when, on 4 February 2013, it was announced that bones found under a council car park in the city of Leicester were indeed the mortal remains of Richard III. And the reason they were found was Ricardian and amateur researcher, Philippa Langley.
This wasn't some madcap adventure. Instead, it was eight years of researching, cajoling, fundraising, and rabble-rousing the relevant parties and popular support to mount an excavation. She even went to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, she said, "and explained that I was looking for a soldier, a former head of state, and a fallen king."
"Can you imagine going into a pitch meeting?" Langley laughed. "'The film's great. It's about archeology, it's about a dead man from 530 years ago, and it's set in a car park.'"
However, that's just what happens in the story, and the setting, For Langley, what the film is really about is "the stories that we tell each other, and wanting to do something for the historical Richard," she said, "When you see the contemporary source materials from his lifetime, you see a man who is loyal, noble, brave, and just - and we have overwhelming evidence for that, as Duke (of Gloucester) and as king. [But] they're always rolling out Shakespeare's Richard the Third on the small screen and on the big screen."
That's not to single Shakespeare out as a villain, nor is he the genius removed from daily affairs that his fans see him as: in plays like Richard the Third and Macbeth, he was writing propaganda for his Tudor bosses. But his dramatic version of history has warped and continues to warp the public vision of Richard III.
Langley pointed to the 2016 production of his play at the Almeida Theatre in London: attending this critically-acclaimed version, starring Ralph Fiennes, "I read the program and it was talking about the historical Richard - and they were talking about Shakespeare's Richard. The things they got wrong, clearly nobody with any knowledge of medieval history had a look at that program. They even had Richard raping Elizabeth Woodville (his sister-in-law) on the stage, so they even ramped up what Shakespeare had put in his play."
But when Richard was finally uncovered, one piece of Shakespearean fiction seemed to be proven fact. In the grave, Richard appeared to have suffered severe curvature of the spine, a fact that shocked Langley for breaking with contemporary records and even paintings. "Nobody described anything abnormal or unusual. ... There was nothing about him walking with a limp or having a withered arm." More particularly, no one had described him as having kyphosis - the condition that lead to the later nickname Richard Crookback. "So when the specialist, because he was hunched in the grave with a spinal condition, said 'This looks like a hunchback,' ... I'm standing there saying, 'This isn't making any sense.' He was very physically active and physically able, and we have no descriptions of him with this.
"Anyway, they get him to the lab and go, 'Ah, it's not kyphosis, it's scoliosis, it wouldn't have been noticeable in his clothing. But it kinds of explains why Henry VII threw him over a horse naked, so everyone could see. So suddenly, history and all of the things that were done start falling in to place."
But this isn't a biopic of Richard III. It's about Langley and the rest of the team, and most especially her struggles to be taken seriously - as an amateur, and as a middle-aged woman. Even after she had been completely vindicated by the unearthing of Richard's bones, she still struggled to be taken seriously, such as in her first interview with The Times. She recalled, "It was a guy, and his first question was, 'So why are you in love with Richard the Third?' and I just looked at him, and I was so shocked, and I think he could tell I was shocked. I just said, 'I admire the man, because of what I know about him, but I'm not in love with a dead man.'"
And now, with the film finished in cinemas, Langley understands better than ever what it is to have a fictionalized version of herself out in the world. "Strangely, I wouldn't call it fictional," she said. While Sally Hawkins didn't put on blue contact lenses or a blond wig to play the on-screen Langley because "she didn't want to caricature me, the story that they bring to life, and especially the emotional story Sally brings to life, is definitely everything that happened to me."
It's also the story of her family through this time. The first time Langley saw the film, she watched it with her real-life ex-husband, John (played in the film by Steve Coogan), and her sons, Raife (Benjamin Scanlan) and Max (Adam Robb). "This eight-year journey is down to a hundred and whatever minutes it is, so it's a total rollercoaster ride for me and I'm reliving every single thing. But then I need to know about John, Max, and Raife, because they were reliving a lot as well. And they were great. They said they really nailed it. Alright, it's not eight years, it's not a documentary, and they've taken the key moments and sliced them together, but they said, 'Mum, that's how we remember it.'"
The Lost King is in cinemas now. Find our review and showtimes here.
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June 9, 2023
June 9, 2023
The Lost King, Richard III, Philippa Langley, IFC Films