Book Review – ‘The Search for Richard III: the King’s Grave’ by Philippa Langley

The Search for Richard III: the King's Grave by Philippa Langley and Michael Jones
The Search for Richard III: the King’s Grave by Philippa Langley and Michael Jones

Philippa Langley & Michael Jones, ‘The Search for Richard III: the King’s Grave’ (London: John Murray, 2013) Hardback, ISBN 978-1-84854-890-9

Title: The book was released in Britain as ‘The Search for Richard III: the King’s Grave’ and in America as ‘The King’s Grave: the Discovery of Richard III’s Lost Burial Place and the Clues It Holds’. The difference between the two (aside from America’s being more long-winded) is that, possibly, the Americans required more explanation, not being as familiar with the period and particularly English geography, as the English are.

Preface: I think the Preface to this book was particularly good compared to others that I’ve read. Possibly this is because the writers aren’t just writing from a historical point of view, but also in hindsight of the amazing discovery that was made, and their own personal bias about Richard III. It’s not really a historical work, but more a work to explain to the general public the importance of this find. The summary of the book is neat, in the final sentence of the Preface: “this is the story of one of history’s most infamous kings – now restored to us – and the man behind the Tudor myth”. It’s clear, concise, and immediately sets out their arguments.

Citations: There aren’t citations as such in this book, but the notes at the back do give a valuable insight into the thoughts and sources that those involved in the dig and the DNA profiling made use of. It also offers sources that could reveal more about Richard III for those who, perhaps, became more interested in the history of the period as a result of the finding of the bones.

Contents: I loved the idea of alternating between the history of Richard III and his reputation, and the dig and the DNA profiling. It meant that you weren’t getting too bogged down in one thing. The chapter titles were clear and it was easy to tell whether the chapter was about the history or the dig. I also liked the appendices listed in the contents, as they allowed the debates about the fate of the Princes in the Tower to come to life. The psychological profiling, however, was particularly interesting as I know how freakishly accurate it can be. Listing the location of the maps was also useful as it was handy to refer to them during reading.

Genre/Audience: As I have already alluded to, this doesn’t always read as a typical historical book, because it’s not always about the history. At least half of the book is about the dig. I think rather than seeing it as a history book, it’s more of a journey, and even a biography of the last warrior king. It wasn’t designed to tell Richard’s history, but rather try to understand what the discovery of his bones means for history and the future writing on Richard. The audience is mainly an interested one – historians, archaeologists and scientists, who might be interested in future exploits similar to this.

Richard III Head Modelled from Skeleton Found in Leicester
Richard III Head Modelled from Skeleton Found in Leicester

Concepts: The main aim of the book is to rehabilitate Richard III’s reputation. We go on a journey with Langley, who originated the idea for the dig, and whose own beliefs pushed the work. We see her disappointment and shock at the fact that Richard’s skeleton was deformed, and what the skull in particular revealed about Richard’s final moments. The book aims to rehabilitate Richard’s reputation based on what the bones and the psychological profiling revealed. I think it achieved this aim in that, even if Richard’s reputation is still (and always will be under debate) more interest has at least been generated in him and the general history of the period (no doubt helped by The White Queen!).

Sources: Not many sources are really used in this book, compared to other historical works. At least half of the book was written from personal experiences at the dig (all of Langley’s sections). Jones has already written extensively on Richard III, particularly in his book on the Battle of Bosworth Field. However, the notes at the end of the book do throw some light on the sources available to historians looking to research more into the history of the Wars of the Roses. Some of the sources listed in the Bibligraphy are by people directly involved in the dig. For example, John Ashdown-Hill’s The Last Days of Richard III, Michael Hicks’s Richard III and Annette Carson’s Richard III: the Maligned King.

Illustrations: I think that the illustrations in this book are particularly good in places because it helps to put the dig in a modern context, seeing the area where Richard III was buried, not to mention the positioning of the bones, and the remodelling of his head. Even the images which demonstrate Richard III’s life are in some cases unusual, like him writing his own date of birth in his book of hours and showing the places where he lived and reigned.

Other works: This is Langley’s first book, as she wanted to write about her experiences in her search for Richard III and to bring his story and reputation into the limelight. Michael Jones has written several other works, including The King’s Mother, Bosworth 1485: Psychology of a Battle and Agincourt 1415: a Battlefield Guide.

My Rating: 18 / 20

“When we finally lay Richard to rest we do not seek to make him ‘bad’ or ‘good’. Rather, we put a stop to the stigmatising and vilification and allow for complexity. We also grant him the dignity of resting in peace, a dignity that 500 years of history have denied him.” (p. 235)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s