Book review: Digging For Richard III by Mike Pitts

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Revisionists put their loving arms around Richard III a long time ago. He became a poster boy for misunderstood royals everywhere as historians sought to reclaim his reputation from the gutter, where it had allegedly been tossed by Shakespeare’s Tudor propaganda.

Quite why a monarch who ruled briefly, probably murderously and ultimately unsuccessfully should inspire such desperate attempts at rehabilitation is something of a mystery. Mike Pitts’s account of the search for Richard III’s grave, while not answering that conundrum, nicely highlights how emotional some “Ricardians” can become about their hero.

Pitts is an archaeologist turned archaeology journalist. There are moments when one wonders whether there is a bit of the would-be novelist in him too. Describing a visit to a statue of the king in Leicester, he writes: “When I stood at his feet ... the sun shone briefly through the cloud and humid air, and fresh scent lifted from the beds of white roses.”

Yet in spite of occasional flowery moments, Pitts has created an utterly compelling read. His starting point is the Shakespearean Richard and the subsequent battle for his reputation. We get a whistle-stop history of his reign and a  comprehensive rundown of the various legends regarding his likely final resting place after defeat at Bosworth in 1485.

The major players in this tale, however, are those whose passion and expertise led to the remarkable discovery of the king’s bones: on the one hand is Philippa Langley and other “Ricardians”; on the other are the archaeologists from Leicester University, who are more concerned with unearthing information about a lost friary than a 500-year-old skeleton. The marriage of the two parties was evidently not always straightforward. Langley comes across as slightly obsessive. The archaeologists are presented as more pragmatic; professionals doing a job, with little thought that the remains of a king would really be found.  

Pitts successfully conveys the excitement of the discovery, which came just days into the dig in a Leicester car park. His description of the subsequent scientific analysis, which included DNA matching the skeleton with a direct descendant of Richard, is at once knowledgeable and readable.

That the project got off the ground owed much to Langley’s determination to find the man she feels history has treated so badly. Her reaction to learning that the skeleton had a seriously curved spine is one of horror, because it suggested that the hated hunchback myth was in fact close to reality.  

Almost in passing, Pitts notes that Langley has set down her memories of the excavations in a book co-authored with historian Michael Jones. The archaeologists, notes Pitts, “remembered … things differently”. One feels that a great deal more could be said about the diverging accounts.

This is a book which tells us as much about modern archaeology and the personalities of those who found Richard, as it does about a long dead king. By the end you may well be dusting down your trowel and setting out for the nearest dig.