THE KING'S GRAVE
by Philippa Langley & Michael Jones
St. Martin's Press
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
On August 25, 2012, the 527th anniversary of King Richard III’s burial, an archaeological dig began in the precinct of the Greyfriars in the city of Leicester. The official purpose of the dig was to determine the location of the Medieval church, but the impetus for the dig was provided by Philippa Langley, who believed that King Richard’s corpse was still in the area and could be recovered, despite a long-standing tradition that his body had been unceremoniously dumped in the River Soar following the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. The King’s Grave is Langley’s account, written in conjunction with Michael Jones, of the dig and Richard’s biography.
It appears that the two authors wrote alternating chapters, with Langley writing the chapters they deal with the actual dig and Jones writing the chapters which present the biography of Richard III. Langley’s chapters are written in the first person and take on the excitement of an individual on a crusade who ultimately sees her goal vindicated. The chapters detailing Richard’s life are reported with an historians reserve, offering up the primary sources and discussing the changes in the way Richard was perceived over the course of the first century following his death, when his reputation was essentially determined by the works of Thomas More and William Shakespeare.
Langley portion of the book is the more interesting half. The life Jones presents has been offered in numerous other books, although Jones presents it with the most up-to-date (at the time of writing) research and opinions. His writing’s lack of emotional ties to the events being narrated, while important for historical perspective, also mean those sections are somewhat generic, although Jones’s writing is clear and easy to read, making his prose easy to read and enjoyable. Jones had previously tackled Richard with his study Bosworth 1485: Psychology of a Battle, which argues that the Battle of Bosworth Field centered about 8 miles west of the traditional location.
The real passion, though, comes through in Langley’s writing. She is very unapologetic about the “feeling” that led her to believe that Richard’s body was buried underneath the car park near a space which had the letter “R” coincidentally painted on it. She described her attempts to find historians and archaeologists who would be interested and available for the search for the bones, or, as she learned, the more general search for the precincts of the Greyfriars chapel. While Jones provided a dispassionate look at Richard’s life, Langley is able to provide a neophytes wonder at watching an archaeological dig progress, made more interesting by the fact that her own interest in the dig doesn’t quite mesh with the primary focus of the archaeologists.
One of the oddities of the book is that Langley presents the dig in a mostly chronological order, meaning that the reader is aware of the importance of the bones discovered on August 25 from the very first moments, although Langley pretends to a coyness about their identity throughout the book, providing the answers to the reader in the order and on the timeline they were presented to her in 2012. While this technique might work for a novel with an unknown ending, given the media around the actual discovery (as well as the title of the book), ignoring the known identity of the bones is sort of like ignoring the elephant in the room for much of the book.
The King’s Grave offers both an introduction to Richard III’s life and short reign as well as a more detailed and personal exploration of the quest to find his body, thought by many to have been lost for centuries. If the results of the search are telegraphed by the books title, the path to their discovery, remains interesting, although a little more focus on the non-Ricardian discoveries at the site would have helped to provide additional context as well as a better understanding of the goals of archaeology.
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